Joplin's Natural Disaster Takes Toll on Lives and Livelihoods

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Joplin The devastation heaped upon Joplin, Mo., 10 days ago by a massive killer tornado will take years if not decades from which to recover.

In addition to at least 139 lives lost, scores more residents have had their lives and livelihoods upended, leaving many to wonder what's next.

The immediate impact, is that many people have lost their jobs, says Michael Brandl, who lectures on economics and finance at the University of Texas at Austin.

"If you survive the natural disaster, that's great, but now all of a sudden you have no job to go to," he says.

Some displacement may be offset by jobs created through recovery, salvage and rebuilding efforts. But unlike years past, when government spending and a ballooning federal deficit weren't in the forefront of political debate, state and local governments are facing tighter budgets due to the recent recession and reduced federal funding.

The lack of financial resources could further crimp job creation and recovery in Joplin, making it questionable just how much of a ramp-up there will be afterward, Brandl says.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor said it granted $5.8 million to Missouri's workforce development agency to create temporary jobs to assist recovery efforts.

In making the announcement, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said the grant would "assist affected Missouri communities with cleanup efforts that will help lead to a sustained recovery for the region."

In addition, Gov. Jay Nixon has set aside $25 million from the state budget to pay for some of the costs related to tornado recovery efforts.

Despite the vast devastation, not everyone has been left without work. Joe Wermuth, who worked at a plant in Joplin that was destroyed by the storm, was transferred to neighboring Neosho, where the welding-supply company that employs him has another location.

Wermuth considers himself fortunate, he told MSNBC. "I'm very blessed not to have lost my home (or) anyone in my family," he said.

Other employers in Joplin, including Home Depot and Wal-Mart Stores, are looking at ways to keep area employees working, which may involve have them work at stores in nearby communities.

At least 4,000 workers have been affected by the F5 tornado (the most severe kind), although that count could rise, Rob O'Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, told the Associated Press last week. St. John's Regional Medical Center, which was all but destroyed by the tornado that demolished about a third of the city, alone employed 2,000 people.

Those who choose to stay in Joplin and have lost their jobs have a few resources at their disposal to help money coming in, including traditional unemployment.

Many workers also become eligible for Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA), which provides payments to employees directly affected by severe storms and lasts up to 26 weeks, after a federal disaster declaration has been made. Unlike traditional unemployment insurance, DUA is also available to self-employed individuals.

Officials estimate that 300 businesses have been lost, ranging from big-box retailers and fast-food franchises to mom-and-pop stores.

It is those mom-and-pop businesses, on which so many smaller towns and cities rely, whose future remains most uncertain. Peggy Baker, along with her husband and three children, plan to rebuild the towing business they first opened in 1975.

"We are going to try to rebuild all five of our bays," Baker told the News-Leader newspaper. "The insurance person has been by already and got it figured for us -- we're going to try for the same location."

But it remains unclear how many like Baker will stay in Joplin and rebuild. Unlike past decades, when a region's workforce was more rooted, today's workers have more options for relocating and starting fresh elsewhere, says Brandl. "In the world of the 1960s and '70s and even '80s ... people took the insurance money and they scraped away what was damaged and rebuilt."

Today, though, society is much more mobile and workers may be less inclined to stay put and pick up the pieces of their lives. With homes, mortgages and jobs having been wiped away, some may simply take their insurance checks and opt for greener pastures. Says Brandl, "We're in a much more fluid situation right now."


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