Jane Cage, who became Joplin, Missouri’s community disaster recovery leader after the colossal disaster of the May 22, 2011 tornado there, told county and state officials on Thursday that there was an opportunity within that disaster, and lessons that Faulkner County could learn from Joplin.

It was "an opportunity that we didn’t ask for, but [one that] we can’t afford to waste," Cage said, speaking at a Faulkner County summit on tornado recovery that brought together officials from the county, FEMA, Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, Metroplan and the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District.

"We owe it to the people who died in Joplin, and the people who lost their homes, to rebuild better than we were," she said. "If we become only what we were before the tornado, it would be a shame."

The Joplin tornado killed 158 people and caused more than $2 billion in damage to the city of 50,000. As with the April 27 tornado in Vilonia and Mayflower, the Joplin tornado extensively damaged both residential and downtown business districts. Joplin has had three years to learn lessons about rebuilding from what is, in many places, a blank slate.

Some of the lessons from Joplin are practical. Cage said that people working to guide the efforts to rebuild using more modern city planning practices found out that visual representations of better-planned commercial and residential developments worked to convince people that wanted the city to be rebuilt more-or-less exactly as it was. However, when conceptual drawings showed a business or a baseball field that looked like it was where someone’s house or business still stood, these visual aids backfired badly, she said.

There was "a really strong sense of the common good," after the tornado, Cage said, but "it fades over time." The debate between rebuild-as-it-was and build-it-better camps caused a "highly divided city council," she said, and bad blood went so far as one city council member bringing up what she called "an ancient gambling charge" to attack another.

Distrust of outsiders and "federal money wrapped in a spider’s web of strings" didn’t help either, she said.

Kirstie Smith, communications director for the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, said that some business owners were wary of U.S. Small Business Administration loans, and so the chamber set up its own low-interest loan system.

Mayflower Mayor Randy Holland said this seemed to him like an especially good idea for the Mayflower Chamber of Commerce to look into.

Another lesson, Smith said, can be learned from some businesses in Joplin that re-opened only months after their buildings were destroyed, Some failed soon thereafter. In hindsight, she said, "Maybe they shouldn’t have re-opened so quickly." 

A key economic development lesson Joplin learned, she said, was to communicate with the public as openly and plainly as possible what the government and economic development agencies are doing to restore and attract business. Part of that communication, she said, is to get across the message that, for Joplin, recovery is a 10-year prospect, however fast some businesses may re-open.

"Don’t take a wrong action in the name of taking a quick action," Faulkner County Judge Allen Dodson said, summing up what he said was a broad lesson from Joplin.