Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Joplin Used Devastating Tornado to Rebuild with New-Age Schools

Losing 600,000 square feet of educational space devastated Joplin, Mo., schools, but rebuilding provided an opportunity to innovate.

Rendering of a Joplin, Mo., school
Rendering provided by Joplin Schools

The EF5 tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., on May 22, 2011, spent 32 minutes on the ground. In that brief period, the twister managed to inflict immense damage.

The storm, which featured winds exceeding 200 mph, killed 161 people and destroyed more than 25 percent of the city, including 7,000 homes and nearly 2,000 buildings. It was the deadliest single U.S. tornado since 1953.

And the twister didn’t spare Joplin schools. Twenty of the school district’s buildings were damaged or destroyed, causing more than $100 million in damage and leaving more than 4,000 students without a school to attend.

“The tornado seemed to take a direct hit on the schools,” said Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr. “But we were fortunate it happened on a Sunday afternoon and not on a school day.”

As the city battled shock and confusion in the wake of the disaster, Rohr, Joplin Schools Superintendent C.J. Huff and other city leaders concluded that moving ahead with plans to repair the city would be key to the healing process.

“I can’t even begin to describe the sights, sounds and smells of what I experienced,” said Huff. “It was an abysmal feeling. We were in a very bad place as a community. But you can’t just stay in that place. So we started talking about what the future would look like and making plans right away.”

Read about the three priorities that helped rebuild Joplin's schools.

A few days later, Huff announced his intention to the school board: Joplin schools would open again in time for the fall semester, which was just 84 days away. 

“Making that declaration was important for a number of reasons,” he said. “It created a vision and helped us to stop focusing on the despair. Instead, everyone started thinking about how we were going to pull together to get our schools back online in time for the next school year.”

The Search for Space

In all, Joplin lost more than 600,000 square feet of educational space. The process of finding temporary classrooms for 4,000 kids and repairing the damaged schools was at first overwhelming.

“Obviously you don’t have a game plan for something of this magnitude,” Huff said. “But we started by working with the local Chamber of Commerce, real estate agents and the Army Corps of Engineers to find large, open spaces that could be modified to meet our school needs.”

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Among the first priorities was creating an interim high school. The devastated Joplin High, which had served 2,200 students just before the disaster, had been the city’s only high school.

“Not only was the high school important because of the number of students that attended, but also because, as high school students, these would be the last memories of their K-12 education,” Huff said. “We wanted to treat our kids right and make sure the facilities were high-quality, even though they were temporary.”

The city secured 100,000 square feet of vacant retail space at the north end of Joplin’s largest mall, once occupied by a Shopko department store. Corner Greer & Associates of Joplin was selected to retrofit the space and transform it into an educational area. Designers and contractors had just 55 business days to complete the job. They not only had to be fast, they also had to be creative in working with limitations. For example, the kitchen and science labs had to be housed in modular trailers outside the building.

Because of limited space at the mall facility, the Joplin School District chose to use the space only for juniors and seniors (approximately 1,100 students). Freshmen and sophomores were sent to Memorial Middle School, which wasn’t hit by the tornado. Other temporary facilities were constructed or retrofitted in various locations to accommodate the rest of Joplin’s students. Huff said the biggest challenge was retrofitting an 80,000-square-foot industrial warehouse that had nothing but a gravel floor — it didn’t even have windows, air conditioning or power.

Justine Brown  |  Contributing Writer

Justine Brown is a veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at justinebrown@comcast.net.

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