Mike Gullett

Within 30 minutes after Joplin High School graduates walked across the stage to receive diplomas on May 22, 2011, a Category 5 tornado descended from the sky.

Joplin is a city of 47,000 people that’s an educational and medical hub in the southwestern corner of Missouri, but on that day it also became the site of the second-deadliest tornado in U.S. history.

The tornado ravaged Joplin’s infrastructure; upward of 7,600 homes were damaged, including 4,000 with catastrophic losses. Seventy-three apartment buildings were rendered uninhabitable, and at least 530 places of employment were destroyed or heavily damaged. Historic buildings and churches were leveled. The regional technology center, two middle schools, and an elementary school were all razed. In the end, so was Joplin High and the very hallways that had been home to its latest progeny.

Now, one year later, insurance payments are climbing toward $2 billion and the big box stores are back. The Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce reports 85 percent of all businesses affected by the tornado are up and running again. Yet, even if the city is open for business, empty lots still outnumber new construction projects in residential areas. Is this simply what recovery looks like for southwest Missouri, or is Joplin losing ground?

Mark Rohr, Joplin’s city manager, says that Joplin is on track. Taking care of all of the debris in Joplin had put building efforts on hold, but the massive cleanup of over 3 million cubic yards of residential matter was completed in 68 days in order to meet funding deadlines. The next priority was to open the schools on time on Aug. 17. Only after those tasks were completed could residential rebuilding begin, Rohr says. By February, nine months after the tornado, 55 percent of the homes damaged were under permit for repair or rebuilding.

That represents significant progress. But for Bob Berkebile, FAIA, founder of BNIM in Kansas City, Mo., the finish line is not in sight just yet. Berkebile has assisted with various disaster recoveries since 1993 and works closely with the New Orleans–based Make it Right Foundation, which helps struggling communities rebuild with design and LEED standards in mind.

“Devastation at the level of the Joplin tornado provides a window of opportunity, and this is when AIA’s regional and national structure shines,” Berkebile says.

With so much structural damage, Joplin was a natural candidate for AIA’s Disaster Recovery Assistance Task Force, which—led by state and local AIA chapters—trains and encourages architects in disaster recovery. In the earliest days after a disaster, much of the task force’s efforts center on building assessments. As the weeks roll on, architects often engage in long-term comprehensive planning.

“I am proud of what AIA as an organization contributed to Joplin,” says Michelle Swatek, executive director of AIA St. Louis. “But the real heroes are the Joplin and Springfield architects, especially Brandon Dake, AIA, and Jeffrey Smith, AIA, the president and president-elect of AIA Springfield in Missouri, who selflessly donated countless hours to Joplin.” Executive director Dawn Taylor of AIA Kansas City and Missouri AIA president Ryan Warman, AIA, echoed similar sentiments.“Brandon Dake has done yeoman’s work connecting AIA to Joplin,” Taylor says.

The AIA assisted Joplin in many ways; it offered Dake resources and oversight to keep the region unified and to support Joplin’s Citizens Advisory Recovery Team (CART). Erica Rioux Gees, AIA, of AIA Legacy, coordinated relationships between architects and later gathered professionals for the Joplin Charrette. Mike Vieux, AIA, a key player in the recovery for Greensburg, Kan., offered invaluable guidance to Dake and Smith.

Swatek applied for and received a $5,000 grant for Joplin from the Hanley Wood (which publishes architect) and AIA Component Opportunity Fund, which helped fund the charrette, held Oct. 13–14, 2011. Jane Cage, chairman of the Joplin CART, stated that the charrette was of critical importance. “The 60 professionals who donated two 12- to 14-hour days transformed our written goals into a visual form that we could then present to the city council.” The city council accepted the CART plan on Jan. 19.

The AIA still has much to offer Joplin. In their book Walk Out, Walk On, Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze promote the idea that revisioning with a community helps people “walk out” of limiting beliefs and “walk on” to create healthy and resilient communities. The AIA could help facilitate this process in Joplin, Berkebile thinks. “We have an extraordinary team, and some good can come of this if we help Joplin in walking out of the rubble and walking on to create an extraordinary future.”

Learn more about the AIA’s disaster response efforts, visit aia.org/disasterresponse.