Joplin family scammed, then helped by volunteers

By LAURA BAUER

The Kansas City Star

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — Beneath the coats of off-white paint and under the drywall inside Larry and Amy Jump’s new home in Joplin, Mo., are the scrawled names of people who before the storm were strangers.

Youth group members from Missouri, Texas and Washington. Mission workers from Indiana and Canada. Volunteers from a Lee’s Summit Methodist church.

They’re all a crucial part of why the Jumps are where they are today, in a home of their own, in a town that’s still working to reclaim what it had before an EF5 tornado struck on May 22, 2011.

“Just being here, it feels so great,” Amy Jump said of moving into their completed home this summer. “The best thing about it is it’s ours.”

Her family saw how nasty nature could be when the tornado ripped their home apart as she and her husband and their three sons huddled under a blanket in a corner. And before the volunteers and faith-based groups chipped in, the Jumps were among many families in Joplin who also saw how ugly human nature can get.

Dozens of families trying to rebuild their homes have encountered contractors accused of doing shoddy work or worse — skipping town with their money and without doing the work.

In the months after the tornado, which wiped out one-third of Joplin and killed 161 people, complaints have poured into the Missouri attorney general’s office about companies and individuals who reportedly ripped off victims as they tried to rebuild.

Some tornado victims had shells of homes constructed or parts of their roofs on, then the contractors were gone.

“Unfortunately, we knew to expect some unscrupulous ‘storm chasers’ following the tornado,” Attorney General Chris Koster said by email. “So we had people on the ground . ready to investigate complaints.”

But he also points out that most contractors are trying to provide good service.

Many residents who lost their homes didn’t have insurance, but the Jumps did. They thought they would have enough to rebuild, maybe not as big a house as their growing family needed, but a house.

Then a relief agency that had worked in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina offered to connect them with an architect/contractor out of California and help them get a bigger, energy-efficient home — with solar panels and heated floors — that volunteers would help build. The Jumps embraced the plan. They say they were told they would be in their house by Thanksgiving 2011.

They never imagined they would be left dry and desperate just to get their own home again.

In all, Joplin residents have filed 132 home repair complaints with the Missouri attorney general’s office in the past 14 months.

About 100 have already been resolved, said spokeswoman Nanci Gonder. The rest are ongoing or still being investigated, including the architect/contractor whom the Jumps paid.

Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri has seen the problem.

Since the storm, the agency has helped build four homes and has four or five more in the works and a few on the drawing board. It has also helped repair about 100 homes. And of all of those, about 20 percent of the homeowners had been ripped off by contractors, roofers or other construction crews, said Gabe Tischler, disaster coordinator for Catholic Charities in Joplin.

“So many agencies that came in were fly-by-night organizations; same for contractors,” he said. “To take advantage of these people when they were down, that’s just wrong.”

In the Jumps’ case, the couple said they gave the California architect/contractor $54,000. He told them he would get materials they needed and they would work with volunteers to construct the home.

Crews started building the last weekend in October and soon had the walls up. But then things stalled.

The man from California wouldn’t answer their calls. The relief agency said there wasn’t much it could do, Jump said.

“It was a whole new disaster for us,” she said. “We had to try to figure out what we would do.”

Catholic Charities was among the first to step in to help the Jump family. Other faith-based groups, including the United Methodists, pitched in, along with other volunteers.

“You hear stories all the time,” said Missy Nance, who first volunteered in Joplin through her church, Woods Chapel United Methodist in Lee’s Summit.

Now she’s there during the week as the volunteer coordinator for the Missouri United Methodist Conference.

“I don’t understand how someone can go to someone already hurting and take advantage of them again,” Nance said. “We have the means to go in and help them.”

Other families needing help haven’t been victims, but they discovered in the rebuilding process they didn’t have the resources to finish.

“We’re helping one family at a time,” said Maura Taylor, executive director with Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri. “If we can get one family home and safe and on the road to recovery, we feel like we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”

When Tischler and others came to help the Jumps, he noticed Larry didn’t say much and Amy wouldn’t look him in the eye. He knew they were hesitant.

“They were depressed and shocked,” Tischler said. “But when they started to see progress, the jokes were flying and they were laughing.”

Amy Jump admits there are times when she and her husband are still a little leery. It’s been a rough 14 months.

After the storm, they had moved into a rental and stored what little they salvaged into a storage shed. Someone broke in and took most of what they had left — a lawn mower, weed eater, shovels and tools, one son’s bike.

But seeing the organizations and hundreds of volunteers come to their aid, signing their names on a fence board and on materials that would disappear inside walls, has eased their pain.

“The way they’ve all helped us out has definitely restored our faith in people,” Amy said.

A little more than a week ago, Catholic Charities and other groups officially presented the house to them, though they have been in it since June.

“After everything that’s happened, I don’t think I would change anything,” Amy said. “We’ve met so many great people. There have been a lot of cool people that really helped us.”

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Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com

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