7 Years After the Joplin Tornado: Lessons Learned for Fine Chemical Custom Manufacturing

The town of Joplin which was destroyed by the Tornado in 2011. Image Credit:Shutterstock/MichaelJ.Munster

Introduction

On May 22nd, 2011, Joplin, Missouri was devastated by a massive multiple vortex category EF-5 tornado, which produced winds of over 200 miles per hour. The twister, which was nearly one mile wide, gathered more and more energy as it ripped a hole through the city. The tornado touched down on the western edge of Joplin and then continued with a trail of devastation for over 13 miles.

It ripped eastward across Joplin and into Duquesne and rural Jasper and Newton Counties. The tornado took just 20 minutes to travel six miles and tear apart several blocks along Main Street. Around one-third of Joplin was destroyed in terms of square footage. The City of Joplin Public Information Office reported 7,500 residential dwellings damaged with 4,000 completely destroyed, and 9,200 people made homeless.

Mercy Hospital Joplin was demolished, along with Joplin High School, several elementary schools, and two fire stations. The loss of business and property was terrible; 1,000 were injured and sadly, 161 people lost their lives.

Business and commerce devastation

Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce stated in April 2014 that 553 businesses were destroyed or severely damaged by the tornado and this affected some 5,000 employees. Around 10% of the impacted businesses chose not to rebuild and closed forever.

On the positive side, 90% of businesses were reopened within four years. In addition, 250 new businesses have started up in Joplin. The Missouri Department of Insurance reported that the total cost of the Joplin tornado was just over $2 billion. The recovery is still ongoing but the city has remained resolute.

Rebuilding from scratch

How does a city recover after being hit by one of the deadliest tornados in US history? The truth is with a lot of faith and hard work. Financial support came from more than a dozen Federal agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program.

Just days after the disaster volunteers in the city formed an organization called ‘Rebuild Joplin’ to help rebuild houses. The combination of Rebuild Joplin, the Red Cross and FEMA made sure that the recovery phase was underway by the end of Summer 2011. The focus then shifted to rebuilding.

Rebuild Joplin coordinated with Louisiana-based rebuilding experts St. Bernard Project to rebuild the city. By 2014 their efforts had rebuilt 181 homes. The construction costs for the recovery totaled more than $1.6 billion. However, thanks to good planning and 1.5 million hours of volunteer service, Joplin is nearly recovered.

Tornado Alley

To bring the Joplin event into perspective: On average there are 1,000 tornadoes a year in the US causing around $1.1 billion in property damage, 1,500 injuries and 80 deaths. This is prevalent in Tornado Alley, loosely defined as the region extending from central Texas to the Canadian prairies and from eastern Colorado to western Pennsylvania.

Tornadoes can be the most violent of storms, and although the vast majority are weak and short in duration, they may cause substantial damage. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that only 2 percent of tornadoes are in the EF-5 classification, meaning they achieve wind speeds of more than 205 miles per hour.  

Jayhawk effect  

Jayhawk's facility, located in Cherokee County in southeastern Kansas, serves as a fine chemical custom manufacturer for agrochemical, pharmaceutical and specialty markets. Legacy operations began in the 1940s, and the current business thrives as a partner for customers seeking to outsource complex chemical synthesis projects.

Cherokee County records list 39 tornado events since 1953. The closest were on June 30th, 2005, a mild Category F0 with no injuries; and April 7th, 1986, a Category F1, also with no injuries. Although in proximity to Joplin, 15 miles to the northwest, the Jayhawk site experienced inconsequential damage from the 2011 EF-5 tornado.

However, 20% of their employees were affected in some way. Jayhawk leadership quickly committed support by providing financial assistance and paid leave to those dealing with the disaster. As the consequences of the tornado touched all areas of the community, Jayhawk employees helped accommodate people who lost their homes and belongings.  The company also donated to the American Red Cross for wider disaster relief.

Lessons learned

While there are many comprehensive publications devoted to planning, preparation and responding to natural disasters, specific topics were prioritized by the Jayhawk team after this historical event, the only EF-5 recorded in a region with chemical manufacturing operations:

  1. People – Commitment to the protection and welfare of all personnel was placed first.  New state-of-the-art sheltering facilities were constructed to exceed EF-5 building codes and safeguard employees, contractors and site visitors.
  2. Infrastructure and utilities - Vulnerable areas were identified and upgraded to minimize potential damage. A renewed focus was placed on utility redundancy and restoration, particularly for maintaining operation of critical assets during and after events.
  3. Contingency and business continuity - All critical products were subjected to intensive contingency planning, including the review of safety stocks, off-site warehousing of key raw materials and intermediates, redundant manufacturing at affiliates, and updated plans for partial or complete replacement of assets.

Conclusions

Customers rely upon the products and services of Jayhawk’s fine chemical custom manufacturing business. Critical projects are often outsourced to Jayhawk as an extension of the customer’s own operations.  Interruptions to supply can be costly, but the loss of life due to natural disasters is of paramount importance.

The Joplin region suffered greatly but also rebounded with determination. Jayhawk was also able to adapt and improve its operations while ensuring the welfare of its employees, local citizenry and loyal customer base.

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