Monday, August 29, 2016

Impact of Joplin Tornado Info Facebook page still felt five years later

Writing Intern
Greene County Extension

Joplin recently marked the five-year anniversary of an EF5 tornado that left a wake of unimaginable destruction and devastation in the community. This five-year benchmark was a time for many to reflect on the losses that resulted from the disaster on May 22, 2011, but it also serves as a testament to the resiliency and persistence of the citizens of Joplin. Their fortitude and collaboration with countless volunteers and organizations has led to a massive rebuilding effort. While this unforeseen act of nature has indeed changed the Joplin and surrounding areas forever, it has also offered new insights into how resources and recovery efforts can be mobilized in the aftermath of a sudden catastrophe.

The monstrous tornado that struck Joplin rampaged its way through one of the most developed areas in the city, and at the worst part of its 38-minute duration was a mile wide with wind speeds of approximately 300 miles per hour. The consequences of this fierce act of weather were the loss of 161 lives, over 1,000 injured survivors and nearly 18,000 residents were displaced from their damaged or destroyed homes. In an instant, the people of Joplin went from bracing for a tornado to living in the aftermath of one of the worst tornados in U.S. history. But the best of human nature had a resounding answer to the worst of Mother Nature, as a swell of sympathy and compassion, gave way to a flood of first responders, volunteers and organizations that rapidly moved into the city to help those who were left to rebuild their lives.

University of Missouri Extension was proud to be a part the recovery effort from the very beginning. Many of the first responders that aided in rescue and recovery efforts in the critical hours following the tornado were trained through the MU Extension Fire and Rescue Training Institute (MU FRTI). Their extensive training and special skillset were vital in searching for survivors in the estimated three million cubic yards of residential debris generated by the disaster. As survivors were pulled from the rubble and tended to, a new kind of chaos ensued as families and friends separated in the storm struggled to navigate in their altered surroundings.

The birth of the Joplin Tornado Info Facebook Page (JTI), about two hours after the tornado hit, played a pivotal role in helping many survivors wade through the confusion. This social media page became a hub of valuable information for those seeking basic resources, like food, shelter and medical attention. David Burton, civic communication specialist with MU Extension, joined the project within the first 24 hours and worked in conjunction with the page's founders, mother-daughter team-Rebecca and Genevieve Williams.

Power outages made the Joplin Tornado Info page even more of a prized resource since those seeking help and information could access the site with their mobile devices. Shortly after the site was launched, it gained upwards of 56, 300 followers and had over 26 million viewed posts. This unique platform became an electronic bulletin board for the community where both individuals and organizations could interact by posting queries and answers. The page was also a great resource to those providing aid by offering a quick and efficient way to mobilize volunteers. Keeping the site updated with the most current and relevant information was a 24-hour job for the site's administrators. The project grew to include the City of Joplin, Joplin Schools, the Red Cross, all of the area's utility companies, Zimmer Radio group, KODE-TV, journalism students from area colleges, and the University of Missouri Extension.

This Facebook site was instrumental in uniting the community in its goal to survive, and as weeks and months unfolded it proved to be extremely important as the focus shifted from survival to recovery. For example, under the direction of Burton, MU Extension produced a video showing how to avoid injuries when performing recovery work, and soon after it was posted on the JTI page it was viewed over 23,800 times. In addition to videos like these, local MU Extension specialists also helped by identifying educational resources that could help disaster victims begin to put their lives back together. Information on how those affected could financially recover from the disaster was put together and distributed through a variety of media outlets. In a similar way, Jasper County's Community Organizations Active in Disasters (COAD) and their Long-Term Recovery Committee used several websites including the JTI Facebook page to disperse information to the public.

The effects of the tornado are still being felt today, but so are effects of the Joplin Tornado Info page. The social media page is still active and continues to shepherd the community by posting information about disaster recovery and other topics of local interest. The creation of this page is a remarkable touchstone that highlights the profound and potentially lifesaving applications of social media. The speed at which the page developed along with the massive user response set a precedent for how social media can be used in the wake of a disastrous event. Rebecca and Genevieve Williams along with David Burton penned a book to share what they learned about the process of setting up a social page for disaster response. The book, Using Social Media in Disaster Recovery, acts as a guide for anyone interested in learning how to use social media platforms for their community in both pre and post disaster scenarios.

The successes and benefits of the JTI page would not have been possible if not for caring individuals that donated their time. The same can be said for the larger effort to rebuild the city. One 2013 FEMA report estimated that more than 176,869 citizen volunteers from across the country provided more than 1.1 million hours of service by helping to clean up, repair and perform construction work. Labor of this monumental scale was badly needed and very much appreciated by the citizens of Joplin.

The tornado's destructive path tore through an area of the city that was heavily populated with homes and businesses, and the results were dramatic changes in the physical and economic landscape. With 18,000 residents initially displaced, 9,000 long-term, a good portion of Joplin's workforce was preoccupied with acquiring the most basic provisions. The city took a financial blow, as well, with an estimated $5 million dollars in lost revenue. As multiple agencies collaborated to organize the recovery effort, it became clear that a multifaceted approach was needed for the city to rebuild fully.
With the ever-present threat of tornados to the Midwest during the warmer months, the state of Missouri and Jasper County both had disaster protocols and recovery plans in place before the Joplin tornado. However, no one could have fathomed the likelihood or scope of destruction that an EF5 tornado would bring. Now, many agencies were cooperating on federal, state and local levels to identify and meet the needs of those in the recovery process.

MU Extension partnered with several key organizations. The Governor's Disaster Recovery Program was formed in 1993 in response to the Great Flood, and the MU Extension became a member the year it was founded. This enabled MU Extension to represent the state on a local level, while still using their programs, such as the Community Emergency Management Program (CEMP) and the Missouri Small Business and Technology Development Centers, to help victims. The Japer County Community Organizations Active in Disasters (COAD) was founded in 2003 with help from MU Extension and has remained an active member since. It was during COAD's Long-Term Recovery Committee meetings that many of these organizations came together to form a plan of action.

Janet LaFon and Ed Browning, both MU Extension specialists in Jasper County, collaborated closely with this committee and were present for daily meetings. LaFon worked with a subcommittee that focused on how to address needs that were not being met. LaFon turned to the national Extension system and their Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN) for resources. This made it possible for Family Financial Toolkits from the Minnesota and North Dakota Extension Services to be distributed to the Red Cross, Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri and Salvation Army case management centers. A community response meeting hosted by Governor Jay Nixon facilitated the setup of a Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC), where financial toolkits and other information could be distributed on a larger scale to those who needed it most.

The idea behind the MARC was to have as many aid organizations (governmental or civilian) as possible gathered in one central location. For two weeks a collection of agencies set up booths on the south side of Joplin. Tornado survivors were transported to the MARC via shuttle from their temporary housing units provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The idea behind having the MARC was that individuals, families and business owners could take a one-stop shop approach to gathering aid and resources. Some of the agencies that participated included the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), Missouri Southern State University Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC. The Joplin Chamber of Commerce partnered with MU Extension to open a Business Recovery Center (BRC) designed to deliver essential financial services to businesses impacted by the tornado. MU Extension faculty and staff from Missouri came to support the booth.

The type of assistance offed by the MARC, although badly needed, was only one part of the recovery equation. MU Extension specialists recognized that it could also help support the emotional recovery of survivors. Citizens were encouraged to voice their thoughts and opinions about how Joplin should rebuild during input sessions hosted by the Joplin Citizens Advisory Recovery Team (CART), and partially organized by an MU Extension regional community development specialist. Important data on safe rooms was gathered as it related to the rebuilding process and future protection from severe weather. This information was then shared with survivors, the media, and the Home Builders Association.

In November of 2011, an MU Extension human development specialist worked with a planning committee to create an awesome opportunity for the community to heal by presenting the Connect Protect 2 Conference. This two-day workshop offered educational classes on trauma and recovery for parents, professionals, educators, childcare workers, and caregivers. Nearly 300 Joplin families participated in this workshop and were given additional support from 4-H members and other volunteers by providing families with babysitting services, gift cards, and other supplies. In 2012 and 2013, MU Extension, along with some other organizations, continued to encourage the community's healing process by offering workshops that discussed financial responsibility, planning for the future, disaster preparedness, and home ownership.

The efforts made by MU Extension and other aid organizations are evident it the progress the Joplin community has made in the last five years. While the restoration process still continues, many homes, schools and businesses have been rebuilt. Perhaps one of the greatest symbols of revitalization is the completion of the new Mercy Hospital to replace the Hospital that was destroyed. With each repair made and building completed a touchstone is fashioned that represents Joplin's past, present, and future. MU Extension is not only proud to have played a role in Joplin's ability to thrive in the face of adversity, but also to be an everyday member of the community.

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