A version of this article appeared April 14, 2012, on page A13 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Tornado Recovery: How Joplin Is Beating Tuscaloosa.
By DAVID T. BEITO AND DANIEL J. SMITH
Last April 27, one of the worst tornadoes in American history tore through Tuscaloosa, Ala., killing 52 people and damaging or destroying 2,000 buildings. In six minutes, it put nearly one-tenth of the city’s population into the unemployment line. A month later, Joplin, Mo., suffered an even more devastating blow. In a city with half the population of Tuscaloosa, a tornado killed 161 and damaged or destroyed more than 6,000 buildings.
More than 100,000 volunteers mobilized to help the stricken cities recover. A “can-do” spirit took hold, with churches, college fraternities and talk-radio stations leading the way. But a year after the tragedies, that spirit lives on far more in Joplin than in Tuscaloosa. Joplin is enjoying a renaissance while Tuscaloosa’s recovery has stalled.
In Joplin, eight of 10 affected businesses have reopened, according to the city’s Chamber of Commerce, while less than half in Tuscaloosa have even applied for building permits, according to city data we reviewed. Walgreens revived its Joplin store in what it calls a “record-setting” three months. In Tuscaloosa, a destroyed CVS still festers, undemolished. Large swaths of Tuscaloosa’s main commercial thoroughfares remain vacant lots, and several destroyed businesses have decided to reopen elsewhere, in neighboring Northport.
The reason for Joplin’s successes and Tuscaloosa’s shortcomings? In Tuscaloosa, officials sought to remake the urban landscape top-down, imposing a redevelopment plan on businesses. Joplin took a bottom-up approach, allowing businesses to take the lead in recovery.
“Out of the heartbreak of disaster,” declared Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox several days after his city’s tornado, “rises an extraordinary opportunity to comprehensively plan and rebuild our great city better than ever before.” In this transformative spirit, Tuscaloosa’s city council imposed a 90-day construction moratorium in the disaster area, restricting commercial and residential redevelopment until officials could craft and adopt a long-term master plan. Many of the restrictions remained long after the moratorium officially expired. Joplin, by contrast, passed a 60-day moratorium that applied only to single-family residential structures and was lifted on a rolling basis, as each section of the city saw its debris cleared, within 60 days.
The Alabama city’s recovery plan, “Tuscaloosa Forward,” is indeed state-of-the-art urban planning—and that’s the crux of the problem. It sets out to “courageously create a showpiece” of “unique neighborhoods that are healthy, safe, accessible, connected, and sustainable,” all anchored by “village centers” for shopping (in a local economy that struggles to sustain current shopping centers). Another goal is to “preserve neighborhood character” from a “disproportionate ratio of renters to owners.” The plan never mentions protecting property rights.
In Joplin, the official plan not only makes property rights a priority but clocks in at only 21 pages, compared with Tuscaloosa’s 128. Joplin’s plan also relied heavily on input from businesses (including through a Citizen’s Advisory Recovery Team) instead of Tuscaloosa’s reliance on outside consulting firms. “We need to say to our businesses, community, and to our citizens, ‘If you guys want to rebuild your houses, we’ll do everything we can to make it happen,’” said Joplin City Council member William Scearce in an interview.
Instead of encouraging businesses to rebuild as quickly as possible, Tuscaloosa enforced restrictive zoning rules and building codes that raised costs—prohibitively, in some cases. John Carney, owner of Express Oil Change, which was annihilated by the storm, estimates that the city’s delays and regulation will cost him nearly $100,000. And trying to follow the rules often yielded mountains of red tape, as the city rejected businesses’ proposals one after another.
“It’s just been a hodgepodge,” says Mr. Carney. “We’ve gotten so many mixed signals from the get go. The plans have been ever-changing.” Boulevard Salon owner Tommy Metrock, one of the few business owners to rebuild on Tuscaloosa’s main thoroughfare, McFarland Boulevard, says the restrictions created “chaos” as people put their livelihoods on hold while the city planned.
Joplin took a dramatically different approach. According to interviews with local business owners, right after disaster struck the city council formally and informally rolled back existing regulations, liberally waving licensing and zoning mandates. It even resisted the temptation to make “safe rooms” a condition of rebuilding.
The owner of one Joplin construction company told us that when it came to regulations, the “city just sort of backed out. . . . We had projects that we completed before we got building permits.” Said another Joplin resident: “When you have the magnitude of that disaster, really the old ways of doing things are suspended for a while until you create whatever normal is. . . . The government was realistic to know that there is a period of time when common sense, codes and laws that are in place to protect people are suspended for the sake of the greater good.”
Despite it all, Tuscaloosa officials are determined to stick to their plan. The final version of Tuscaloosa Forward is on track for approval by the City Council. The city is banking on defraying its costs through as-yet-unreceived funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other federal bodies. As Tuscaloosa Forward bluntly acknowledges, full implementation of the plan is impossible without “public subsidies to leverage private capital.”
Last year’s decentralized volunteer response seems to be entirely forgotten by city officialdom. As Mayor Maddox recently said: If Tuscaloosa “had a trained FEMA corps on the ground” when the tornado struck, “they could have taken over organizing the volunteers immediately.”
In an age of mounting deficits and limited federal attention spans, hoping for more subsidies from Washington, D.C. is a risky bet at best. Joplin’s safer wager is in the good sense and independently generated resources of those individuals and businesses most directly affected by nature’s fury.
Mr. Beito is a professor of history at the University of Alabama. Mr. Smith is a professor of economics at Troy University and the co-author, with Daniel Sutter, of “Private and Public Sector Responses to the 2011 Tornadoes,” a study forthcoming from the Mercatus Center.