Joplin, Poorer Than the U.S. Before Twister, Vows to Rebuild

Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Shandie Spencer, right, hugs a volunteer while recovering items from the basement of her destroyed Joplin, Missouri, home, where she was trapped after riding out a massive tornado that passed through the town, killing at least 125 people. Close

Shandie Spencer, right, hugs a volunteer while recovering items from the basement of... Read More

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Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Shandie Spencer, right, hugs a volunteer while recovering items from the basement of her destroyed Joplin, Missouri, home, where she was trapped after riding out a massive tornado that passed through the town, killing at least 125 people.

Amanda Marshall says she’s a lot like her hometown of Joplin, Missouri: She’s suffered a blow and she won’t let it keep her down.

Marshall, 29, lost a sister-in-law and niece in the tornado that tore through the city May 22, among at least 132 killed. Another niece is missing and a third is hospitalized. She still spent the week volunteering to help other victims.

“These people are my family, too,” Marshall said in an interview at an American Red Cross shelter set up at Missouri Southern State University. “I have to step up and be family for them to help them get through this.”

City political and business leaders say that spirit is common in this city of about 50,000, which has higher poverty and lower incomes than the rest of Missouri and the nation, U.S. Census data show. It may take years to heal from one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history.

“We will recover, and we will recover strongly,” Mark Rohr, the city manager, told reporters May 24 while standing near twisted vehicles, smashed buildings and scattered debris in the heart of the storm’s six-mile-long path. Rohr said it damaged a quarter of the city.

The Missouri Department of Public Safety released a list today of 156 people who are still reported missing. Besides the 132 fatalities confirmed by the city, almost 1,120 patients have been treated at Joplin’s Freeman Health System, Bob Denton, director of emergency trauma services, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Poorer Than Average

In 2009, 18.3 percent of Joplin residents lived in poverty, compared with 13.7 percent of Missourians and 13.5 percent of Americans, according to Census data. Joplin’s median household income increased 16.4 percent from 2000 to 2009 to $35,566, while income statewide in Missouri increased 21.3 percent to $46,005 and U.S. income was up 22.5 percent to $51,425.

Rohr said about 8,000 building units, including apartments, were damaged or destroyed, and the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce estimates that 300 businesses with about 4,000 employees were affected. Many small-business owners, especially those near retirement, may decide it’s not worth rebuilding, said J. Chris Moos, an instructor in management and international business at Missouri Southern State.

His wife, Liliya, owns an embroidery and custom sewing shop that employed five and was severely damaged, Moos said. She doesn’t know whether she will rebuild, he said.

“A lot of people are in that position,” Moos said in a telephone interview.

Clearing Rubble

It will take months just to clean up the debris and restore utilities, said John Bartosh, presiding commissioner of Jasper County. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will be assisting Joplin for years, Administrator W. Craig Fugate said.

“This will not be a, ‘We’re in and out in 60 days,’” Fugate said in an interview May 25 inside a FEMA mobile home parked outside a Joplin fire station.

Insurers’ losses may reach $3 billion, according to an estimate from catastrophe risk-modeler Eqecat Inc.

Still, the cost of living in the Joplin area is 91.4 percent of the national average for metropolitan areas, according to data published by the Council for Community and Economic Research in Arlington, Virginia, and that attracts retirees and residents, Moos said.

Money to Help

Joplin’s population grew 10.2 percent during the past decade, while the average growth of all Missouri cities of between 40,000 and 60,000 residents was 5.9 percent and the average U.S. growth rate was 9.7 percent, according to Census data.

The region will gain construction and clean-up jobs, and it’s difficult to say how much they will offset employment lost from the tornado, Moos said.

The Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Small Business Administration opened a business recovery center yesterday to provide loans of up to $2 million for businesses and $200,000 for residents affected by the tornado.

It could take two years before properties are rebuilt and three years or longer for companies to recapture their customer bases, said Rob O’Brian, the chamber president.

The twister missed the city’s industrial parks, and some major employers have said they are coming back, O’Brian said.

Sisters of Mercy Health System, which is the city’s third- largest employer with 2,480 workers and had its St. John’s Regional Medical Center destroyed in the twister, announced May 25 it plans to rebuild.

“I hate to sound like a raving optimist, but in point of fact, I think we’ll come back stronger,” O’Brian said in an interview. “That’s due in large part to the people here; they just don’t give up.”

Marshall, the Red Cross volunteer, is confident.

“It’ll take years to rebuild, but we will be back,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Niquette in Columbus at mniquette@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net

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