Response and recovery after the Joplin tornado: lessons applied and lessons learned.

Author:Smith, Daniel J.

A hardy stalk, you might say, that doesn't want to wait for the government to come help; they can solve problems today, and we appreciate whatever you're going to do, but while we're waiting for you to do that, we're cleaning up.

--Joplin resident and business owner

You're going to see something different here [from New Orleans after Katrina] because there's this resilience and this resolve where the people in this community--that we're not waiting for somebody to come do it for us. We're going to get it done, and other people are attracted to that and come alongside to help and make it happen faster.

--Joplin resident who lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina

On May 22, 2011, a supercell thunderstorm spawned a tornado just east of the Missouri-Kansas state line that rapidly intensified to produce EF-5 (1) damage as it tore a half-mile to three-quarter-mile-wide path of near total destruction across Joplin, Missouri. The death toll in Joplin stands at 161, making this tornado the deadliest in the United States since 1947; no tornado had claimed 100 lives since 1953. The tornado damaged or destroyed an estimated 7,500 homes and more than 500 businesses, with property damage estimated to be $3 billion, the highest ever for a U.S. tornado.

The inept response by federal, state, and local governments to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 shocked the nation. The public-sector responses stood in stark contrast to the private-sector responses. Charities, community organizations, businesses, and the voluntary sector provided significant assistance in the wake of the hurricane. Katrina sparked a debate about the proper roles of the public and private sector in disaster response and recovery, and the Joplin tornado provides an additional case study to inform this debate. (2)

Although each disaster is unique, both Katrina and Joplin resulted in destruction and death unprecedented in recent U.S. history for each respective type of disaster. The geography of the two disasters differs substantially. The damage path of the Joplin tornado was less than twenty square miles total, featuring almost total devastation in a very compact area yet leaving surrounding neighborhoods and local government intact. Katrina brought devastation and flooding across 90,000 square miles of the Gulf Coast and forced the evacuation of New Orleans for more than a month.

Joplin provides an opportunity to observe the role of the private and public sectors in a very different environment, allowing evaluation of which findings from Katrina generalize to other disasters. In addition, Joplin was devastated less than one month after a record tornado outbreak in the Southeast, including an EF-4 tornado in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and represents a test of the voluntary sector's ability to respond to several extreme events in quick succession.

We offer a case study of the recovery efforts following the Joplin tornado with two primary objectives. First, we catalog and analyze recovery-and-response efforts from the private sector. Second, we explore how the institutional environment in Joplin contributed to the pace of recovery in contrast to how institutional factors exacerbated the impact of Katrina in New Orleans (Boettke and Smith 2010). We build on this prior research by focusing on elements of central planning and regime uncertainty in the public-sector response in Joplin as well as the mechanisms employed to coordinate private-sector responses. Response-and-recovery efforts were far more successful after Joplin than after Katrina due to the accommodating approach taken by local, state, and federal officials in the former. Rather than attempting to plan and micromanage every aspect of the recovery, Joplin officials allowed the private sector to lead the response and recovery.

This research project was based on interviews with local officials, community leaders, residents, and business owners affected by the tornado. Selection of participants was based on purposive sampling in which initial participants were relied upon to identify others in the community who played a role in the response-and-recovery efforts and were willing to participate in interviews. (3)

Recovery from Natural Disasters and Lessons Learned from Katrina

Natural disasters can take a heavy toll on a community. The survivors must then pick up the pieces and rebuild their homes, businesses, churches, schools, communities, and lives. Rebuilding requires both material and emotional resources. Even full insurance coverage will not pay for all of the material losses and certainly doesn't indemnify against emotional damages. A natural disaster can exhaust savings, produce stress, and significantly impact a person's life for years.

Disaster recovery is more than just a personal challenge because many people in the community will have to rebuild. The community-level effects introduce a coordination problem for residents. One family might muster the resources to rebuild only to find that their employer relocates or goes out of business or that neighbors do not rebuild, and their street or block is a very different place after the disaster. A business might reopen only to have the slow return of residents threaten its financial viability. Whether residents or businesses will want to rebuild or reopen will depend on other residents' decisions and will thus require coordination. Economist Thomas Schelling contends that the market process cannot satisfactorily resolve the coordination problem inherent in rebuilding (quoted in Gosselin 2005). Coordination problems will be worse when an entire city must be rebuilt, as was the case after Katrina, but they can also arise at the neighborhood or block level. For example, rebuilding owner-occupied homes as rental homes can change the character of a block considerably.

Preparation, response, and recovery lessons from past disasters can reduce the toll from future disasters. Assessing how private- and public-sector efforts encourage or inhibit recovery, however, requires a definition of recovery. Many natural-hazard researchers argue that reducing vulnerability to future disasters should be a primary goal of recovery. Quickly repairing homes along a river is not a fully successful recovery if the community will flood again in just a few years. Disasters offer a window of opportunity to strengthen construction and change land uses to prevent a recurrence of a disaster (Platt 1998). Some scholars even argue that natural disasters represent an opportunity to improve a community through comprehensive planning. Public projects, affordable housing, and sustainable development should be made components of rebuilding the community (Mileti 1999, 30-31). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on climate extremes specifically warns against the dangers of too rapid recovery (2012, 10).

For the purposes of this paper, we define recovery as the restoration of the status quo. Almost all parties affected by a tornado would agree on this common goal. Alternative goals such as sustainable development, the restriction of urban sprawl, and income redistribution may not be commonly shared in disaster-stricken communities. It would be inappropriate to claim that recovery failed because a community did not implement policies that residents perhaps did not support. In addition, as compared to hurricane-prone coastal areas, in the areas where tornadoes hit, they represent a diffuse threat and thus raise no issues involving relocating buildings out of a high-risk area. Thus, restoring the status quo seems an appropriate measure of recovery. In addition, lengthening the recovery process through planning is costly. Businesses and households would incur extra costs and may choose to relocate permanently the longer it takes to rebuild (Chamlee-Wright 2008; Sutter 2008, 2011).

Many lessons have been learned from Hurricane Katrina regarding disaster response and recovery (Boettke et al. 2007). Numerous instances illustrate that government failure can compound nature's fury (Boettke and Smith 2010). Over regulation and micromanagement can delay rebuilding and worsen coordination of recovery expectations (Chamlee-Wright and Storr 2009). Government disaster assistance has been found to entail numerous problems. First, political considerations and expediency trump recipient needs in the allocation of relief efforts (Garrett and Sobel 2003; Congleton 2006; Shughart 2006). Second, government assistance fuels political corruption, both across the United States (Leeson and Sobe1 2008) and throughout the world (Escaleras and Register 2012). Peter Leeson and Russell Sobel (2007b) suggest that this corruption will always be present because protocols, refined management practices, and accountability measures will always be secondary in a disaster situation. And third, assistance can fuel moral-hazard problems, thus increasing vulnerability to losses in future disasters (Shughart 2011).

The voluntary sector, both for profit and nonprofit, contributed substantially to response and recovery after Katrina. Community organizations and churches helped overcome the coordination problems by encouraging their members to return and rebuild (Chamlee-Wright 2010). Community leaders credibly conveyed to dispersed residents the plan to return to the damaged area, and churches provided a range of club goods--excludable but nonrivalrous goods--to assist residents in returning (Chamlee-Wright and Storr 2009). Residents in New Orleans's poorer communities possessed unexpected resources, and social capital helped deploy and coordinate these resources (Chamlee-Wright 2010). For-profit businesses such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot provided needed relief and rebuilding supplies more effectively than the public sector did (Horwitz 2009). Decentralized decision making allowed store managers to use local and rapidly changing knowledge to outperform the highly bureaucratized Federal Emergency...

To continue reading