Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Rebuilding Joplin: Nonprofit Attacks the Hurdles of Long-Term Recovery

The nonprofit organization Rebuild Joplin hopes its lessons help the next ‘Joplin’ make a smoother transition to recovery.

It was a typically hectic weekend for Kate Massey with her son’s third birthday on Sunday, May 22, and the impending family party. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary that day as the family left for the party site, a bounce-house facility in Joplin, Mo.

At about 4:00 p.m., facility personnel told the family of an approaching storm, but said they could stay if they wanted. By 5:00 most of the partygoers were gone, so Kate’s husband took a look at the local weather before the ride home.

Radar suggested a rough ride home, so the family decided to dine at a nearby restaurant and wait out the storm. But 20 minutes into dinner, it was apparent that this was no routine storm. With a 3-year-old and a new baby, Kate Massey felt terror like never before as restaurant staff ushered the family away from windows. “For the first time in my life, I was afraid I was about to lose something amazing,” she said.

Massey remembers the screams of the news anchor from the television. The restaurant went black, and everyone huddled in the kitchen until the storm passed. On the way home, the Masseys passed the sites of disaster: a dead person in a tree and residents standing in the street gazing in shock at the devastation. “It looked like a bomb had exploded,” Massey said of the 20th Street route the family took home that evening. “I felt sick.”

Days passed with no local communications. Residents watched the national news as the death toll climbed (eventually to 161) and saw an outpouring of compassion, which included offers of goods and services. Unfortunately some of the contributions were going to waste.

“We started hearing stories about resources being turned away,” said Jerrod Hogan, who cited a bus full of volunteers being told to go back home because there were no means of coordinating the efforts.

Rather than “getting out of the way,” as he’d been doing, Hogan decided he needed to help. He’d recently helped create Bright Futures, a program that matches community resources with underprivileged children, and some of the Bright Futures volunteers were calling him asking how they could help. Through connections from the program, Hogan met Garen McMillian who had taken to the streets delivering bottled water to those who needed it.

“Like a lot of other people, I thought there would be people coming in with a plan for Joplin,” McMillian said. “There was no plan.”

McMillian, who has an IT background, met with Hogan the Friday night after the Sunday storm and the two worked around the clock until they had launched RebuildJoplin.org on Sunday evening.

“We started simple,” Hogan said. “On the website, we had two blue buttons: ‘I was affected, click here’ and ‘I want to help, click here.”’

In those first days, the nonprofit Rebuild Joplin had three missions: connect needs and resources, make sure money going into Joplin stayed with organizations there, and document lessons learned.

Mostly the organization tried to match resources with those in need. “We didn’t take goods or services directly,” Hogan said. “We acted as a conduit to pass people through.”

The day after the website launched, the United Way from Columbia, Mo., pledged to help support the effort financially.

Hogan, a land surveyor by trade, was lending his time to the cause. McMillian had just completed nearly two years of training to be a financial adviser and was a week into his full-time job at Wells Fargo, when his boss had a suggestion. He could continue his training for which he’d get a stipend, but he would spend his time with Rebuild Joplin. Wells Fargo brass complied with the request, essentially loaning McMillian to the effort for three months.

Jim McKay  |  Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.

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