Tornadoes don’t get any stronger than the one that struck Joplin May 22.
A rare EF-5 storm, with winds exceeding 200 miles per hour, it churned for six miles through Joplin’s heart; killing 159 people, injuring 1,000 more, and destroying as much as a third of the city.
It was the deadliest tornado since modern record keeping began in 1950, according to the National Weather Service.
Seven weeks after the disaster, the devastation is still clear. But so is the progress of recovery. More than two-thirds of the estimated 1.87 million cubic yards of debris have been cleared – an amount larger than New York’s Central Park – and rebuilding has begun.
Under the National Response Framework, the guidelines that govern the federal government’s response to a disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency assigns different missions to the federal agencies best equipped to carry them out. After the Joplin tornado, FEMA assigned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers three missions: remove tornado debris from streets and home lots, build temporary replacements for critical public facilities like fire stations and schools, and build the sites for temporary housing communities to shelter more than 600 families whose homes were destroyed. Corps’ urban search and rescue staff also helped in the first days after the storm.
It came at a time when the Corps was also responding to a deadly spate of tornadoes in Alabama and flood fighting on America’s two largest river systems – with hurricane season still to come. Yet more than 300 Corps staff from around the country have traveled to Joplin to help with the recovery mission.
The Corps’ Kansas City District quickly set up a field office in Joplin, led by the district’s commander, Col. Anthony Hofmann. An Army Reserve officer and Texas businessman, Col. Daniel Patton, then volunteered to command the ongoing recovery operation.
In its first eight weeks, the Corps awarded more than $160 million in contracts – more than $150 million of it to local small businesses – for debris removal and construction work, built two temporary fire stations and started construction on two temporary housing sites and facilities for all eight public schools the tornado destroyed. All temporary school facilities are on schedule to open before school starts in Aug. 17. Families are expected to begin moving into the temporary communities by the end of July.
Heather Wright, a park ranger at the Corps’ Stanislaus River Parks in California, said she came to Joplin with only helping in mind.
“It’s so hard to do anything really impactful as an individual. But to join forces with others in the Corps, it helps me see that something really significant is being accomplished for people who are so desperately in need,” she said. “I wanted to serve the core need of the people here – to get help get them back on their feet.”
Debris removal is ongoing. As of July 19, more than 1.2 million of the estimated 1.87 million cubic yards of debris from homes and vegetation has been cleared. The Corps also continues to oversee the construction of temporary schools and mobile home sites. The mission is expected to continue into the fall.
“The Army Corps of Engineers is our hero,” said Dr. Debra Fort, principal, Irving Elementary School, which was destroyed by the tornado.
The Corps began its temporary public facilities mission to replace Irving and other schools, by using existing school campuses throughout the area – some in use and others that were vacant, such as the Washington campus that Irving schoolchildren will begin to attend classes at this fall.
These facilities consist of modular units, tent structures and storm shelters. Inside the modular facilities are classrooms, kitchens, labs and restrooms. This also includes all electrical and cables needed for today’s educational environment. Concrete is in place for gymnasium floors for those schools that don’t currently have such facilities.
“Irving Elementary is a family and one of our greatest concerns was that we would be split in different directions. We were relieved to learn we could remain as a family at Washington Education Center by bringing in modulars,” Fort said, who lives a few miles north of Joplin in Webb City, Mo., and has been the principal at Irving for 13 years.
“We are amazed at how quickly the modulars have been put in place. My teachers love them,” Fort said. “There is an excitement among the Irving families as we look toward the future. The Corps has given us hope and provided a reassurance to us that we can continue to educate our students at a high level.”
Fort has even quelled concerns of other principals whose schools were affected by letting them tour her campus and see for themselves the quality and workmanship that have gone into the facilities. Irving is 65 percent complete, and progress is made every day on all eight schools.
“The long-term mission of FEMA, the city of Joplin and the Corps is to leave the city in a condition that they can build upon after the Corps is gone,” Patton said. “We want to help create a vision for the citizens of Joplin that their community is going to be better and stronger in the end.”
Story by Chris Gray
(U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public affairs specialists Sara Goodeyon and Andrew Stamer also contributed to this report.)