The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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March 19, 2013

Rebuild Joplin celebrates opening of 59th house

Tornado organization committed to effort as long as need exists

JOPLIN, Mo. — They still want a grassy front lawn and a privacy fence, but Wesley and Susie Lamarr are otherwise back home.

“I thank everybody at Rebuild Joplin, and I thank all the volunteers,” Susie Lamarr said Tuesday at her rebuilt house in the 1900 block of Illinois Avenue. “I love this new home. It’s great.”

Rebuild Joplin was the host for a housewarming and ribbon-cutting Tuesday for the Lamarrs, who are among the dozens of clients that its staff and volunteers have helped move home in the 22 months since the May 2011 tornado. The organization itself has undergone a transformation since it was created nearly two years ago and has now rebuilt or repaired 59 houses for clients.

The Lamarrs were at home at the time of the tornado on May 22, 2011. Susie Lamarr, who sought shelter in the bathtub, said the bathroom was untouched, but the tornado ripped the roof off the house, uprooted parts of the concrete flooring in places such as the laundry room and shattered the windows. It also dropped an RV on their back porch, but the couple walked away largely unhurt, she said.

The Lamarrs camped in a tent in their front yard for a few weeks after the tornado before moving temporarily into an RV. They also moved among several rental homes in the nearly two years since the tornado, and on Tuesday they were happy to be back in a permanent house.

Officials said 95 volunteers from eight states donated 1,500 hours of work to the house’s construction, saving an estimated $33,000 in labor costs.

Rebuild Joplin has its house-building steps down to a science, but it hasn’t always been that way. The organization was created immediately after the tornado by Jerrod Hogan, who is now its executive director. It initially was a website that served as a central source of information about tornado relief efforts. The site also was a sort of middleman, connecting survivors and volunteers with the organizations that could assist them, said Doreen Finnie, development director.

The website eventually evolved into a fully fledged organization with the specific mission of rebuilding or repairing homes for tornado victims, Finnie said.

“Once they got out of that immediate crisis mode, they looked at what was the biggest need, and the biggest need was housing,” she said.

Rebuild Joplin now operates with a paid staff of eight to 10, and a volunteer staff from AmeriCorps of about 35 to 40, Finnie said. It is funded and sponsored by several companies, including Toyota, which also has worked with the organization on fine-tuning its methods to oversee the houses’ construction from start to finish, she said.

“They’re not telling us how to do the physical work better; they’re telling us how to do the processes better,” she said.

Toyota’s influence is apparent on the walls of the Rebuild Joplin office at Seventh Street and Illinois Avenue, which are filled with large flow charts and tables, coded by color and containing at-a-glance information on each client.

One dry-erase board in the construction room charts day-by-day goals, actual completed work and numbers of volunteers at each work site. A flow chart on the opposite wall gives a timeline of the entire home-building effort from “application processing” to “housewarming,” and labels all major milestones, such as “estimates,” “site prep” and “framing.” A notecard with each client’s name and address is affixed to the appropriate slot along the timeline, allowing anyone with Rebuild Joplin to quickly track where each client is on the steps.

Another giant wall chart tracks volunteer numbers over the next six months, which are expected to be busy. According to the chart, 165 volunteers per day are in Joplin this week, largely because of spring break for schools, while close to 500 volunteers per day are expected during one week in July.

Finnie said Rebuild Joplin is still accepting clients. Some, including the Lamarrs, have gotten the keys to brand-new homes that were built from the ground up. Others, especially more recent clients, have started reporting and seeking assistance with substandard repair work that was completed on their homes in the wake of the tornado, she said.

Finnie said anyone with a housing need is encouraged to contact Rebuild Joplin, even if assistance has been denied by another agency.

“So many people don’t realize that we can help them,” she said, “so we’re trying desperately to get the message out to just come talk to us.”

The organization also is launching a new program that seeks to turn renters into homeowners, said Thomas Corley, client services manager.

Through the program, Rebuild Joplin will build a new house with its volunteers and resources that then will be sold to a family or individual who was renting at the time of the tornado, he said. Three houses are under construction, and Rebuild Joplin is looking for qualified buyers, he said.

“So long as there is a need, we want to offer this option,” Corley said.

Finnie said Rebuild Joplin has a “shelf life” in that its reason for existing is getting tornado-affected residents back into their homes.

“When we feel that we’ve completed our mission, we will close,” she said.

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