Tom Eblen: How does a town rebuild after a tornado? Recovering cities offer advice

Herald-Leader ColumnistMarch 10, 2012 

The century-old Morgan County Courthouse, left, in West Liberty was heavily damaged by the tornado Friday, as was the unfinished new justice center being built behind it.


WEST LIBERTY — Joleen Frederick Phipps, the Morgan County attorney, stood on the sidewalk clutching one of her few possessions that wasn't smashed or blown away when the tornado ripped through her hometown.

The figurine had been a gift from her late sister-in-law, and she had just found it unharmed in the rubble of her office, across Main Street from the shattered courthouse and not far from her demolished home.

"We're all still in shock," Phipps said. "Our town was struggling before this. These little businesses along Main Street were barely making it. But this is a close county; everybody here cares. We will come back."

As Phipps spoke Tuesday, four days after the tornado, she was surrounded by workers installing new power lines and shoveling debris off roofs and sidewalks. She and other leaders of storm-ravaged Kentucky communities were grappling with citizens' immediate needs and only beginning to think about the long and difficult process of rebuilding.

How do you recover? How does a town rebuild? For some advice, I called people who have been focused on that since tornadoes devastated Joplin, Mo., on May 22; Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27; and Greensburg, Kan., on May 4, 2007.

(PANORAMIC PHOTOS OF WEST LIBERTY STORM DAMAGE: Click and drag on the images for a 360-degree view.) Trouble viewing on a computer? Make sure Flash is up to date. Download Flash

While many disaster-relief issues are obvious, don't forget to pay special attention to the care of elderly people, said Robin Edgeworth, a leader of Tuscaloosa city government's response and recovery effort. Some elderly people there died weeks and even months after the storm because they didn't recover from the stress.

Edgeworth said it is vital to have good and constant communication with citizens, including social media, so they are informed and have a voice in decisions. (Tuscaloosa's recovery public relations effort is led by a Lexington native, Meredith Lynch, daughter of Fayette Circuit Court Clerk Wilma Lynch.)

Expect to fight with insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "If something doesn't sound right, challenge them," Edgeworth said.

Officials in all three places said that once immediate needs for food, shelter and essential services are met, everyone should pause and think things through carefully before starting significant reconstruction.

The natural impulse for individuals and families is to try to return things to "normal" quickly, but that can lead to hasty decisions they will later regret.

"The thing is to get a trusted friend or relative who wasn't there when it happened to help make some of those choices," said John Janssen, who was Greensburg's City Council president when the tornado killed 11 people and demolished the town. He then served a term as mayor.

Choose contractors carefully, and don't pay in advance. "Don't give your insurance check to anybody," he cautioned. "The bottom- feeders all show up in situations like this. They will say they'll put you back in a house right away, and then they take your check and run."

Edgeworth said anyone who experienced loss in the tornado should register with FEMA, whether or not they were insured or think they might qualify for benefits.

"If there's ever a federal allocation of money, that's what they base it on," she said. "If you haven't registered, you're not going to get your share of the money. It's that simple."

Thinking things through before making major reconstruction decisions is even more important for communities, officials said. That is why, nearly a year after their tornadoes, Tuscaloosa and Joplin are still working on their long-term plans.

"Our community leadership has been very intentional about planning for a long-term rebuilding effort," said Kate Massey, an official with Rebuild Joplin, which is coordinating public and private recovery efforts in the southwest Missouri city, where the tornado killed 162 people and destroyed 8,000 homes and 450 businesses.

Joplin created a citizens advisory recovery team and has held many public meetings about reconstruction. "If there's a process like that, it's a tremendous way for everyone to feel that they are part of the effort and their opinions are being heard," Massey said.

Edgeworth said Tuscaloosa realized it needed tougher building and zoning codes in parts of town where the tornado killed 43 people. That process has been difficult — and still isn't done. "We've had a lot of pushback, that's for sure," she said.

Outdated building codes were only one of Greensburg's problems. Much like West Liberty, Greensburg is a small county seat far from a major city. The town has struggled economically, and the population of about 1,200 is only three-quarters what it was a decade ago.

"There was a lot of pressure in our community to just slap it back together like it was before the storm," Janssen said. "I was pretty vocal about if that's what they really wanted, we would order plywood for Main Street while we were at it because we were going to be boarding up more buildings."

A citizens group called Greensburg Green Town started working to convince residents that new buildings needed not to be stronger and safer, but much more energy-efficient. Since then, Greensburg has attracted national attention for embracing some of the most modern, environmentally friendly building practices. That was no small feat in conservative, rural Kansas.

"We said this is not a liberal/conservative kind of deal; it's purely economic," Janssen said. "It costs more upfront, but all that investment comes back to you after a very short period of time and makes your house much more affordable."

Most rebuilt structures now have heavy insulation and high-efficiency windows. And many new homes, such as Janssen's, have insulated concrete form walls and geothermal heating and cooling that are saving residents a fortune.

Now that the economy is improving, Greensburg's reputation is attracting attention from economic development prospects. Janssen said a "green-type" manufacturing company recently expressed interest in building a facility in the town's industrial park. It also was attracted by the work ethic of people with enough grit and determination to rebuild their town from scratch.

"I think the key is to take a deep breath and look at where you want your town to be 30, 40, 50 years down the road," Janssen said. "If you were already boarding up Main Street before the tornado, don't count on not boarding it up after the tornado unless you do something right."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog:

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