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Thad Allen, the Joplin Tornado & a New Resilience

Earlier this month, I was at Rutgers University and fortunate to hear retired U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen speak at the 2nd annual Maritime Risk Symposium, hosted by Rutgers’ Command, Control, and Interoperability Center for Advanced Data Analysis and the U.S. Coast Guard. It was a fascinating three days that broadened the dialogue on dealing with risk in the maritime domain.

In his keynote address, Adm. Allen developed a theme in discussing resilience that I believe bears greater and deeper discussion. He related his research into the Joplin, Missouri, tornado devastation this past spring and his observations of the resilience that Joplin had demonstrated in recovering from the havoc wreaked by the twister. At the center of this lesson is a school teacher – it is the story of Dr. C.J. Huff, the young teacher-turned-school superintendent who demonstrated resilience in practice.

On May 22, the day of the tornado, Joplin High School was celebrating its graduation in a separate facility across town. The high school was devastated and nearly a quarter of the town was destroyed. But unlike many communities that have nearly collapsed after a major disaster, Joplin literally emerged from the rubble and should be seen as a model for those who study resilience.

Three years before the tornado, Dr. Huff had taken over a school system that witnessed nearly half of the high school students dropping out before graduation – on the day of the tornado, only one student had dropped out of the graduating class. Various factors have contributed to this turnaround, but they all revolve around this young school superintendent rebuilding and reframing education in the Joplin community. He built bonds between parents and students, between businesses and schools, and between teachers and students. Huff built community. He built what Admiral Allen called “pre-need” relationships.

After the tornado struck, the devastated high school became the center of activity and encouragement. The schools targeted re-opening dates for the schools and regularly communicated that goal to public. The formal and informal networks built by the new school superintendent served as the foundation for grief counseling, supply distribution, shelter for the homeless, rest for the relief workers, etc.

A prophetic graffiti was painted onto the high school sign after the tornado – all the letters were blown off the sign with the exception of the “OP” – so unnamed residents added their own “H” and “E.” The Joplin had become “HOPE” High School – the rebuilt school system provided the bonds that the community needed to rebuild upon.

The Joplin tornado was devastating, the losses very real, and the scars will be felt for many years – but the power of the “pre-need” relationships undoubtedly softened the blow of the incident and likely expedited the recovery.