Zac Rantz: Crisis plans need to be flexible and account for decisions made on the fly.
Zac Rantz: Crisis plans need to be flexible and account for decisions made on the fly.
May 22, 2011, changed the lives of many forever. On that day, an EF5 tornado tore through the city of Joplin, and two-and-a-half years later, the storm’s effects are still rippling out across southwest Missouri and beyond.

“It was the best professional development I wish I never had to go through,” said Zac Rantz, director of communications for Nixa Public Schools.

Rantz was among a handful of regional public relations professionals to assist Joplin Public Schools in the aftermath of the twister. He found the unfortunate experience so valuable that he wrote a book, “Hindsight: Lessons learned from the Joplin tornado and other crisis events.” Self-published through CreateSpace, the book is designed to help school districts and organizations of all sizes prepare for disasters.

The book release coincides with the conclusion of a two-year investigation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology into the impacts of the Joplin tornado.

On Nov. 21, NIST issued a draft report with 16 recommendations for action in areas of improved measurement and characterization of tornado hazards, new methods for tornado-resistant design of buildings, enhanced guidance for community tornado sheltering, and improved and standardized emergency communications.

The NIST investigation found the majority of buildings in Joplin did not adequately protect occupants, regardless of construction type. Also, Joplin residents had limited access to underground or tornado-resistant shelters, and nearly 85 percent of deaths were caused by impacts associated with building failure.

Additionally, the study found multiple factors contributed to a delayed or incomplete response by residents, including a lack of awareness of the tornado’s approach, confusion about or distrust of the emergency messages prior to the tornado’s arrival, and an inability to perceive risk due to the conflicting information.

On Dec. 5, Springfield architecture firm Sapp Design Associates Architects PC held a news conference in Joplin celebrating the opening of Irving Elementary – the first of three Joplin schools to be rebuilt since the disaster. The school features two integrated safe rooms that can house the entire school population as well as anyone within a 5-minute walk of the school. The main safe room can hold more than 5,000 people in the event of a tornado, but on a daily basis, it functions as a gymnasium.

Sapp Design President Michael Sapp said many school districts in southwest Missouri have seen the value of building safe rooms in recent years. Though the impact of the tornado has been a factor in changing attitudes, he says federal grant money is the driving factor.

“Right now, we have 24 safe rooms underway in the state of Missouri with different school districts, and probably many more to come next year,” Sapp said.

He declined to disclose revenue, but said safe room design work now accounts for roughly 40 percent of the company’s business.

“They’ve kept our workload at normal levels or above and helped fill in some of those recessionary gaps. Our clients who have built at least one safe room, once they see the value in that, they are quick to pursue another one if at all possible,” Sapp said.  

Through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s competitive grant processes, schools can receive up to 75 percent of the costs to build a shelter from the government.

Sapp said school district costs increase when the shelters have multiple purposes.

“With most of our clients, it ends up being a 60-40 split. But if you’re getting 60 percent federal funding on a gymnasium or something you’d use anyway, why wouldn’t you do that?” he said.

Sapp said his company didn’t directly contribute to the NIST report, but he knew its structural engineering consultant – Brian Orr, a professional engineer with Toth & Associates Inc. – has been at the forefront of developing national building standards in recent years.

Orr has served as a consultant to regulators developing three sets of building codes that will affect schools, municipalities and homeowners across the country for years to come. For FEMA, he’s worked closely with officials to update code 320, which applies to residential storm shelters, and code 361, which applies to public buildings such as schools and fire stations. He also has served as a consultant to International Council of Codes commission members who are developing the 2015 standards. The ICC codes, which municipalities across the country lean on to guide them in adopting building standards, is recommending in its 2015 code updates that any newly built public facilities provide safe areas such as storm shelters.

With Toth & Associates serving as an engineer for FEMA shelters across the state and beyond – designing more than 100 in the past four years – Orr has become something of a national expert. During that time, he’s helped secure some $160 million in available grant funds for school districts building safe rooms. Local projects he’s worked on include Republic and Hillcrest high schools, Jeffries Elementary and Westport K-8.

While he said many districts were building before the Joplin twister, the tornado changed local attitudes.

“Before Joplin, they’d call and say, ‘I need to build a gym. Can you put your eyes on this and see if there are some grants available for building a gym?’ After Joplin, they’d call and say, ‘I need to build a safe room. Can you help us get funding for a safe room?’” Orr said.

Orr said after the tornado in Moore, Okla. – an area full of residential safe rooms – he discovered 397 FEMA-rated safe rooms were hit and only one was considered a failure. He said it wasn’t built to FEMA standards, which calls on structures to withstand winds up to 250 miles per hour.

Since the Joplin storm, Rantz said Nixa has undergone a major overhaul in how the district would respond to a disaster. Armed with knowledge Rantz picked up in Joplin, he said many rules have been modified with the guidance of first responders, so that everyone dealing with a crisis can be on the same page.

“You’ve got to talk about who can make decisions because in Joplin there was no cellphone signal. No one could get ahold of anybody,” said Rantz, whose duties with the Joplin schools in the days following the tornado included coordinating media interviews, finding students and staff members, and getting accurate information out to the public.

“It’s not about planning for a specific event. You don’t necessarily plan for a tornado, but you plan for what to do if the Internet goes down. There are a lot of things that translate across multiple crises.”