By Josh Letner
As thousands of people streamed down 26th Street as part of Joplin’s Walk of Unity, the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce marked the recovery steps taken by the town’s business community with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday near the reconstructed Kraft Insurance Services/Wilson-Turner-Gavin.
Though the office, located east of the destroyed St. John’s Regional Medical Center, was severely damaged by the EF-5 tornado that ripped through the community a year ago, the staff of Kraft Insurance was focused on helping clients.
Randy and Shelly Kraft remember the hectic days after the storm as they battled the weather and limited communications to handle thousands of claims.
“We had to jump right in,” Randy Kraft said. “The first day, it was game on. When it was all said and done, we had about 2,000 claims. We worked over 600 in the first three days using three cellphones.”
Randy Kraft said the business’s computer server room was spared from severe damage, and the staff was able to salvage client information. The Krafts rented a room at the Holiday Inn and moved their entire operation into the small space.
He said the couple quickly made the decision to rebuild their business, which has been a chamber member since 1956, but this time with a few additions. He said the refurbished building includes some reinforced rooms, including a safe room protected by layers of plywood, concrete board and steel reinforcing bar. He said a generator also is being installed.
In his remarks at the ribbon-cutting, chamber President Rob O’Brian recalled the days after May 22, 2011, when the chamber staff worked to make contact with affected business owners.
“It was difficult to get into contact with them because phone lines were down and the cell services were overwhelmed,” he said. “We had people out here in the path of the storm contacting business people, putting information in their hands and encouraging them to get to the resources as quickly as possible.”
O’Brian said the chamber worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration, the city of Joplin, and the Small Business and Technology Development Center at Missouri Southern State University to assist business owners in the recovery.
“I’m not sure anyone was prepared for a disaster of this magnitude, but what we did know was that it was critically important to get information into the hands of businesses and let them know the resources that were available to them,” he said
O’Brian said the real credit, however, belongs to the individual business owners who made the decision to rebuild.
“They have gone above and beyond, not just to reopen their doors, but to keep their employees on the payroll and take care of them,” he said.
O’Brian said that of the 553 businesses destroyed or severely damaged in the storm, 446 — almost 81 percent — have reopened. Of the 5,000 jobs that were affected, the chamber estimates that 3,000 people are back to work.
Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean said the return of so many businesses has been key to the success of Joplin’s recovery.
“Without the businesses coming back, we wouldn’t be the same,” she said after the ceremony. “We’re really thankful that the businesses are coming back, because they were hit so hard, but they are vital to the community.”
COCA-COLA donated a new warehouse in the Crossroads Center Business and Distribution Park to the Joplin School District. It was opened last fall as the temporary site of East Middle School.
SNC SQUARED TECHNOLOGY was up and running just five hours after the tornado leveled its building. The company, which specializes in electronic medical records, says it recovered 100 percent of client data — 350,000 patient records — within three days.