Creating the Foundation for a Stronger Joplin

Joe Duggan, Communications

November 21, 2019

It’s one thing for a consultant to complete a project on time and on budget.

In helping Joplin, Missouri, recover from the devastating tornado of May 22, 2011, Olsson set out to exceed that standard. Not only did we lead the Joplin Joint Engineering Team (JET) in completing more than 20 infrastructure projects by last September’s deadline, we did so with about $4 million to spare.

As a result, the City of Joplin asked us to complete three additional recovery projects. That means improved streets, sidewalks, curbs, and gutters for more neighborhoods affected by the disaster.

“Olsson has done an excellent job of managing these projects for the City of Joplin,” said Troy Bolander, the city’s director of Planning, Development and Neighborhood Services.

New streets and sidewalks provide the foundation for Joplin's long-term recovery. 

This excellence flows from more than 100 professionals across the firm who had a hand in the recovery work. But the credit starts with our staff who oversaw the majority of projects funded by $158 million in grants under the federal Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery program (CDBG-DR). 

Because those staff members live and work in Joplin, this disaster recovery was personal.

“Frankly, it’s part of the reason why I wanted to be a civil engineer, to be able to make an impact on communities,” said Jack Schaller, senior engineer and business development specialist. “Never have I made a bigger impact than I have with these projects.”

The nearly $3 billion in damage from the 2011 Joplin tornado ranks as the most costly in the last 70 years.  Courtesty City of Joplin

Some of the numbers behind the Joplin disaster are staggering.

An EF5 tornado with winds exceeding 200 mph took 161 lives, injured 1,000 people, and destroyed 4,000 homes and 550 businesses. It inflicted $2.8 billion in damage across nearly one-third of the city’s land area. In terms of lives and property damage, the tornado ranks as the costliest since the National Weather Service began keeping official records in 1950.

The numbers behind the eight-year recovery effort show determination, relentless work, and the power of community.

More than $1.5 billion in private and public funds have been invested in residential and commercial construction. The federal government authorized close to $200 million in affordable housing and economic assistance funding for the city. More than 2,000 homes and 300 businesses have been built or rebuilt.

And one important statistic for those who questioned whether Joplin would survive the catastrophe: The Census Bureau-estimated population of 52,300 in 2017 exceeds the pre-tornado population of 50,000.

Mercy Park near the site of the former St. John's Medical Center, which was destroyed by the tornado. 

None of it happens without public infrastructure.

“It creates the foundation,” Troy said. “One of the key components of growth is to make sure you have infrastructure in place.”

The JET, which includes TranSystems and CJW Transportation Consultants, was tasked with nine surface projects, six stormwater projects, and the construction of Mercy Park, Mohaska Trail, and the commercial arterials of Main and 20th streets.  

The projects we oversaw produced 40 miles of streets, 20 miles of sidewalks, significant flood mitigation, and recreational opportunities. Services delivered: civil engineering, transportation planning, construction management, environmental, geotechnical, material testing, special inspections, and more.

The Joplin City Council awarded us the CDBG-DR work in August 2014. We had five years to scope, design, bid, move utilities, acquire right-of-way, construct, and close out $55 million in projects in the hardest hit areas of the city.

Street and sidewalk infrastructure support the recovery and renewal of tornado-devastated areas in Joplin. 

Our goal was to take as much of the load off the heavily burdened city staff as possible. We tried not to come to them with problems unless we could also offer solutions. We conducted regular meetings and provided frequent project developments using Smartsheet work management software.

Because the federal funds could not cover every need in the city, we worked with Guidehouse, the city’s compliance consultant, to develop a matrix for prioritizing projects. The system provided a transparent, objective means to select projects for funding and it was recognized as a best practice by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Olsson also helped the city complete projects funded under the Economic Development Administration. They included the public library and the roundabout in a mostly undeveloped area in western Joplin. Both projects are now helping to spur new economic growth in the city.

The new Joplin Public Library serves as an achor for commerical growtth in the former tornado zone.

We also provided emergency services, site selection, and roadway improvements for the new Mercy Hospital, which in 2015 replaced the destroyed St. John’s Regional Medical Center.

Managing so many projects over a five-year period wasn’t always easy. But the significance of the work made the challenges worthwhile.

“All of the people who worked on these projects realized what we were doing was much bigger than just a series of projects – it was rebuilding a community after a terrible disaster,” Jack said.

The new Mohaska Trail in Joplin provides the city a key amenity. 

Clayton Cristy, a general civil team leader for Olsson who works in our Joplin office, recalled stopping by to check out one of our residential surface projects after it was done. As he and Jack checked out curbs and gutters, they gradually noticed parents pushing their children in strollers, kids pedaling bikes or gliding on scooters, adults out for a walk.

Clayton remembered the time the neighborhood was strewn with shattered glass, ripped plywood, and the personal belongings of so many residents. And he remembered before the tornado, when you rarely saw anyone walking in this area of the city.

“It’s a new Joplin,” Clayton said. “Stronger and better.”


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