Disaster! What I Learned

Preparedness and resolute effort helped the Ozark Gateway Association of REALTORS® and the city of Joplin, Mo., recover from massive destruction.

By: Kim Cox, GRI, CEO of Ozark Gateway Association of REALTORS® in Joplin, Mo.

On Sunday, May 22, 2011, at 5:41 p.m., a powerful tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo. (population 50,000), killing 161 people and destroying more than 8,000 homes and buildings. Kim Cox, GRI, CEO of the Ozark Gateway Association of REALTORS®, recalls how REALTORS® managed through the chaos. Her experience provides an object lesson in how associations can help their members and their communities in the aftermath of disaster.

When you’re an association executive who’s concerned about the lives and livelihoods of your members, there’s no time to waste after a disaster. Immediately after the EF-5 tornado hit Joplin, we had no phone service, power, or water. My husband and I raced around the city in the pouring rain, searching for family members. After confirming that my family was safe but that our daughter had lost her roof, it was time to reach out to our work families.

Two of my staff members’ homes were destroyed, and it would be a day and a half before I found out they survived. Our MLS director and I met at the association office and pulled a list of all our REALTOR® and affiliate members from the board safe. We found a landline that worked and started calling the designated REALTORS® of every office. We knew the DRs would have already been checking on their agents’ whereabouts and safety, and this could significantly accelerate our own effort.

After 24 hours, we had our first statistics: More than 30 of our 491 members were missing, more than 20 had lost their homes, two offices had been totaled, and several dozen members had lost their vehicles. We also had a list of immediate needs: tourniquets, bandages, and transportation to loved ones’ homes, hospitals, and damaged sites to retrieve any personal belongings that could be saved.

In the early days, the hazards multiplied. Many utilities were still on, and the smell of natural gas was everywhere. Downed power lines posed extreme danger, and we had to be cautious about where we parked our cars to ensure emergency vehicles could get around. We were in a state of hyper awareness. After almost two weeks, we had an accurate picture: 43 members had lost their homes, more than 80 had lost their vehicles, five had lost their offices, one had lost his life, four had lost immediate family, and 14 were still missing. It would take several weeks to determine that all 14 were alive, though some were injured.

We started to track who needed what and who was available to help. Then, we began to help members with everything from meal delivery to laundry to running folks to and from doctor’s appointments. We checked with members every week for the next four months. Our office became ground zero, where members could use phones, computers, printers—whatever they needed.

RRF Hope Rising 20 years of disaster relief

Paying It Forward, and Backward

The National Association of REALTORS® is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the REALTORS® Relief Foundation this year with the Hope Rising fundraising campaign. Thanks to generous state and local associations, companies, and individual supporters, as of mid-September, RRF was at 84% of its $8.5 million goal.

RRF is dedicated to meeting residents’ short-term housing needs after a disaster. The foundation awarded $175,000 to Missouri REALTORS® to help victims of the 2011 tornado. After distributing $93,000 of the grant money to affected residents, Missouri REALTORS® recognized that the state had more resources than it needed and voted to return the entire $175,000 in September 2011 so that the money could be used in areas of greater need.

One hundred percent of the money donated to RRF goes to disaster victims. Contribute and read the disclaimer.

Our members were not only dealing with their own losses; they also had to help their clients recoup as well. With so many citizens displaced, housing represented the most dire need. The MLS showed 1,200 residential listings available, but we needed to quickly assess whether listed properties were destroyed, damaged, or still available to sell. More than 3,000 real estate transactions closed in just over two months—unheard of for our area.

We reached out immediately to our lockbox vendor, Sentrilock, and let them know that the first count indicated that we’d lost more than 200 lockboxes in the tornado. They suspended our monthly fees and shipped 200 replacement lockboxes without hesitation. Our MLS vendor at the time, CoreLogic, helped us set up programming in the MLS to include the tornado zone itself so we could easily identify properties that were affected in any way. We were absolutely overwhelmed with gratitude.

Our REALTOR® family across the state and nation pitched in to help with recovery, and we became a distribution center for donated goods. We received more than 9,000 pairs of new socks from a member of the Kansas City Association of REALTORS® and 5,000 pairs of shoes from the Columbia Board of REALTORS®. We also received totes members could use to salvage their belongings, tarps for damaged roofs, tools, buckets, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, cleaning supplies, clothes, bedding, towels, and more.

Help came from the Greater Springfield Board of REALTORS®, the Bagnell Dam Association of REALTORS®, the Jefferson City Area Board of REALTORS®, the St. Louis REALTORS®, the St. Charles County (Mo.) Association of REALTORS®, and other associations. In the end, we received more than seven semitrailer loads of donated items. Every time a load came in, we’d alert our members; once their needs were met, we’d open to the public. Even though the contributions were generated by a disaster, I felt I was seeing the essence of humanity.

The City of Joplin reached out to business leaders about serving on a newly formed committee, the Citizens Advisory Recovery Team (CART). There were two co-chairs for each sector: economic development, infrastructure and environment, schools and community facilities, and housing and neighborhoods. I served as the co-chair of the housing and neighborhoods sector for several years.

Getting neighborhoods rebuilt takes a long time. We met each week with representatives from various organizations, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Missouri Housing Development Commission, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the state insurance commission, Habitat for Humanity, and the home builders association, as well as individual developers, builders, and real estate brokers. We housed displaced residents, got people’s insurance and legal questions answered, and eventually presented the city council with a recommendation on feasible projects and available resources.

Joplin was smart to create CART. I hope you never find yourself in the situation we were in 2011, but if you do, a recovery group like CART is essential. Today—10 years after the tornado—our REALTOR® association is stronger than ever, with more than 700 members in the MLS. Federal, state, and local entities provided Joplin with more than $321 million for cleanup and rebuilding efforts, and its population has grown slightly. As for the housing stock here, Joplin has seen an average of five new homes built per week since the tornado, with more than 2,500 new, single-family home permits to date—a major accomplishment.

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7 Steps to Plan Ahead

Want to take an active role in ensuring your association and community are prepared for disaster? Kim Cox offers these tips for local AEs:

  • Keep a hard copy of members’ complete contact information in a physical safe for quick reference. In a disaster, there is often no power to access computers, the internet, or even phones.
  • Create a document that provides guidance to members and their clients in times of crisis. For example, encourage local residents to check their insurance coverage annually to ensure that the contents of their home, not just the structure, are covered. Renters should obtain insurance, too, even if it’s not required by their housing provider. Ask an insurance agent what will protect them best against catastrophic damage and potential legal liabilities.
  • Develop a relationship with your state association attorneys. Missouri REALTORS® attorneys helped us revamp our forms quickly to include specific language about the tornado and the properties themselves.
  • Consider working with an attorney to set up your own relief foundation. Donations come in quickly, and many contributors will want to take a tax deduction.
  • Be aware of the relief funds available through your state association and other sources.
  • Help your community preselect a recovery group (like Joplin’s CART) that includes local leaders in business, government, schools, and utilities.
  • Identify a radio station or website that can serve as an authoritative source of information on people’s well-being, insurance, charging stations, pharmacies, hospitals, sleeping facilities, sources of donated clothing, and other resources.

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