NEW ORLEANS — One is a low-lying river city built on a swamp basin, a multicultural melting pot known the world over for legendary excesses, from lung-searing food to French Quarter flashers.
The other lies square in the buckle of the Bible Belt, an old Tornado Alley railroad hub best known as a Route 66 stopover for anyone from RV campers to the outlaws Bonnie and Clyde.
With vastly different cultures and landscapes, it might seem on the surface that New Orleans and Joplin, Mo., have little in common. But as cities devastated by recent natural disasters — Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and a historic Midwestern tornado 10 months ago — the two are forging an unlikely partnership that could change the way other American cities prepare for and recover from the next unexpected blow by nature.
"We both had natural disasters we didn't ask for," said Jerrod Hogan, a Joplin landscape surveyor. "And we both have folks in our communities who need help to get back to where things were."
Hogan is among the founders of Rebuild Joplin, a nonprofit group formed after the May 22, 2011, twister that killed 161 people and destroyed 4,000 homes, many in the southwest Missouri city's low-income neighborhoods. The Joplin group recently returned from a 28-hour, 1,400-mile roundtrip bus ride to New Orleans, which endured a death toll nine times as large.
The visitors swung hammers and power saws, working side-by-side with a homeowner still trying to return to his Mid-City neighborhood more than six years after Katrina. Besides dealing with insurance payments that don't fully cover repair costs, the man has been battling injuries from military service and a teenage son's bone-marrow transplant.
They surveyed a 515-unit affordable housing complex near City Park, once the gang-ridden St. Bernard public housing development before it was flooded by 10 feet of water. Now it features tree-lined sidewalks, a fitness center and swimming pool.
They toured business incubators and startup office clusters where tattooed workers in shorts and sleeveless T-shirts work as graphic artists, social media entrepreneurs or freelance lawyers.
But no matter who they asked across New Orleans, the Joplin contingent kept hearing the same underlying message: Don't just rebuild, but reinvent.
"The day after Katrina, everybody became an entrepreneur," said Tim Williamson, chief executive officer of The Idea Village, a New Orleans nonprofit created several years before the August 2005 hurricane to promote innovation in local business.
The advice offered to leaders of the Joplin recovery effort wasn't just a short-term pat on the back.
Late last year, Rebuild Joplin was brought into the organizational fold of the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit based in the neighboring parish that has rebuilt more than 400 homes throughout New Orleans, relying largely on an enthusiastic army of AmeriCorps volunteers who not only work as laborers but also hold key management positions within the organization.
"There's six years' worth of lessons here," Hogan said.
But while New Orleans has plenty of distractions to occupy young do-gooders once the work day is done, Joplin isn't exactly known for its nightlife. Hogan and his colleagues acknowledge that challenge but don't think it will be a deal-breaker. The city of Joplin reports an influx of nearly 120,000 volunteers through early February, including AmeriCorps, church and civic groups.
Joplin also lacks the history of political corruption, cronyism and internecine squabbling that has long characterized New Orleans.
"A cohesive, well-run community is going to recover a lot quicker than one with significant social, political and economic problems," said David McEntire, a professor of emergency administration and planning at the University of North Texas who studies global responses to natural disasters. "New Orleans has a history of ineffective government. It's going to be harder for them to get things on track, compared to Joplin."
Zach Rosenburg, a former Washington, D.C., lawyer who started the St. Bernard Project with his girlfriend in 2006, said the task of rebuilding shouldn't be nearly as daunting for Joplin. While flood waters raged for miles in New Orleans, the damage in Joplin was in a more defined — yet still sizable — area, and he is confident the city is up to the task.
"I have never seen a more engaged and caring civic community," Rosenberg said.
Joplin bank executives, church workers and health care leaders are all pitching in. The Louisiana model Rebuild Joplin hopes to replicate includes a neighborhood mental health clinic.
"One of the things we noticed was how intricately woven the fabric of our lives was," New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu told the Joplin visitors. "It's not just about houses. It's about your school. It's about your doctor. It's about the street that you lived on, the car you drove. All of a sudden, you realize you took a lot for granted."
That vulnerability and sense of displacement is still raw for much of Joplin. Hours before the Rebuild Joplin charter bus departed, another round of tornadoes swept through the region, from Pittsburg, Kan., just across the state line to the resort town of Branson.
Marilyn Welling, a nursing supervisor at St. John's Regional Medical Center, said she received three phone calls the previous night from friends "whose kids were freaked out" over the high winds, a traumatic reminder of the devastating storm from less than one year ago.
On the bus ride home to Joplin, the renewed commitment — and the sense of urgency — was palpable. So was the bond between two cities with plenty of their own problems to worry about, but now with a partner in resiliency.
"We saw Joplin, that spirit of our community, in this community," said Kate Massey, Rebuild Joplin's executive director. "We really are a family, kindred spirits."
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