Disaster Preparedness • Economic Recovery • Resilience

Learn about Joplin’s Recovery Experience in IEDC Article

Setting Economic Development Priorities Before and After a Disaster: Joplin’s Experience

By Jonathan Wellemeyer, IEDC

Though tornado season is just getting under way, devastation already struck Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee over the past week.

The reported damage doesn’t approach the level of destruction that ravaged Joplin, Mo., last May, but there is much to learn from the preparedness and quick response of Joplin’s citizens and businesses to work towards recovery. IEDC recently spoke with Rob O’Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, about his experience with economic development priorities before and after the disaster.

Late Sunday afternoon on May 22, 2011, an EF-5 tornado tore a path roughly one mile wide through the southern part of Joplin. One of the most devastating tornados in U.S. history, the twister killed 161 people, demolished 7,000 buildings (25 percent of the town), and leveled 530 places of employment, including WalMart, Home Depot and St. John’s Hospital.

Despite the devastation, 420 of those 530 businesses have reopened. O’Brian cited three key factors in this success.

1. Have a disaster preparedness plan for your organization and business community.

While cities and counties devise emergency response plans designed to save lives and property, the business community needs it own economic recovery plan. “First, you have to be functional yourself,” O’Brian said. “While there are many good templates out there, every community needs tailor their own plan according to their own needs and their own potential disaster threats.” Because of its proactive disaster preparation, the chamber was ready to assist businesses days after the tornado.

  • Know how to effectively communicate with internal staff and external members: When phone and Internet connections go down, a backup communication method is needed. The chamber’s plan designated emergency meeting locations and used SMS text messaging to communicate with its employees. It also had on file the cell phone numbers of key local business owners in case of an emergency.
  • Ensure that data is securely backed up in an offsite location: As part of its preparation plan, the chamber backed up its data in real time at a secure server over 80 miles away. This backup location will depend on the type of disaster to which your community is vulnerable – for example, communities that get hurricane may need to establish a backup server in a different state or part of the country. This enables an organization to focus on more important recovery initiatives than retrieving basic business data.
  • Have a 501c3 vehicle in place (able to accept donations and grants) before an event: Financial donations are only useful if your organization is prepared to accept them. Established over 20 years ago as a 501c3 nonprofit, the chamber’s Joplin Chamber Foundation was able to receive $800,000 in private donations to redistribute as short-term, low-interest working capital loans, which businesses needed after the disaster.

2. Conduct immediate outreach to the business community, with direct services.

With businesses in crisis, the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce (JACC) needed to reach out to its members in those critical first few weeks after the disaster. The tornado had disrupted most technology-based communications, pushing the chamber to reach out face-to-face. O’Brian believes that the grassroots efforts to reach out to business owners played a key role in the success of bringing back businesses. “The personal touch was very important,” he noted.

  • Move quickly in a direct, personal way to understand business needs: Within a week of the tornado, the chamber staff walked the streets to reach business owners and discuss their plans to rebuild and recover. They were able to do this because other chambers in the region sent their staff to man the offices of the JACC. By circling the destroyed area day in and day out, staff made contact with all 530 employers within three weeks. While many business owners were too shell-shocked to share their plans to stay and rebuild, they appreciated the personal outreach and most stayed in close contact with the chamber. Knowing that they were not alone, that someone cared, and that someone was in charge with a recovery plan made employers more willing to rebuild.
  • Quickly establish a one-stop shop for business recovery needs: The chamber immediately set up a business recovery center at its offices, where the Small Business Technology Development Center office and a business incubator already were located. They invited representatives from relevant groups – such as the SBA and IRS, which have disaster assistance programs for businesses – to set up there as well. The center was able to offer technical business advice, as well as assistance in applying for low-interest loans.
  • Set up and appropriately staff an information hotline: Rumors and misinformation can sabotage recovery efforts, particularly when a community can’t rely on usual media channels to dispel false information. The chamber dedicated several staff members to answering calls from businesses about utility restoration, cleanup, business services, rebuilding efforts and other practical matters. Disseminating consistent and accurate information in the weeks after a disaster can make a difference in whether businesses choose to return and rebuild.

3. Quickly establish a strategic planning process for economic recovery and engage all business stakeholders.

Every community needs an economic recovery plan that addresses the new realities of the disaster’s aftermath. While it’s important to plan quickly, no plan is effective without buy-in from its constituents. The Joplin Business Recovery and Expansion Initiative (JBREI) Advisory Board was established two months after the tornado to lead business recovery efforts, serving as the economic development leadership of the broader Joplin Area Citizens Advisory Recovery Team (CART), a citizens group charged with overall community recovery efforts.

The JBREI Advisory Board partnered with consulting firm Market Street Services to establish the building blocks for short-term business recovery. Thanks to the chamber’s personal business outreach, they effectively engaged many of the business owners in focus groups as part of the planning process, gaining a better understanding of business owners’ needs and expectations. For example, with the elimination of a supply chain or the exit of a major buyer, the direction and character of a post-disaster economy can change quickly. Knowing where businesses stand and being prepared with the right information allows them to adapt to new market realities.

Based on this feedback, an action plan for economic development was created to guide JBREI and JACC efforts. It included the following key actions:

  • Conduct a business survey using trained volunteers to capture information in a central database. Information then can be dispersed to appropriate internal and external audiences.
  • Develop a formal, sustainable business assistance program to provide long-term help beyond the typical 12- to 18-month mark. This included assistance in business and marketing planning, mentoring, loan/grant eligibility and other chamber services.
  • Boost entrepreneurship and small business support efforts to assist those who need information on local and regional market opportunities, including how to meet retail and other rebuilding needs.
  • Increase access to capital/funding for businesses by strengthening the Joplin Business Recovery Fund, which channels donated dollars to low-interest loans. This effort also included monitoring where state and federal financial programs were falling short, in order to fill in the gaps.
  • Develop a marketing effort to attract new businesses to the region as a way of telling customers “We’re here, and we’re open!” This includes leveraging Joplin’s name recognition with national media, developing targeted inbound marketing trips and communicating more with Joplin’s existing employers to help develop positive messages about Joplin’s business environment.
  • Focus on continued policy and advocacy efforts to ensure that Joplin continues to receive state and federal resources to facilitate the community’s economic recovery.

Joplin has already implemented a number of these efforts and is in process with others. The community also is beginning another planning process focused on long-term economic recovery for the larger economic region (seven counties across three states).

What can other communities learn from Joplin’s experience? The Joplin chamber was set up for quicker recovery because it had prepared for an economic disruption to the community, and immediate after the tornado, it quickly distributed vital information and services to the business community. Even now, Joplin leaders continue to take proactive steps to mitigate the impact of an even larger disaster and facilitate a more rapid road to recovery.