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Disaster ‘pro’ offers lessons learned

Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger | 10/16/2017 11:26:37 AM

Samuel Sanders, Executive Director of Mid City Redevelopment Alliance (MCRA) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is among the NeighborWorks network’s “veteran” disaster responders. In fact, NeighborWorks Western Region partnered with the Houston LISC office to host a convening so others could learn from his hard-earned wisdom. Below is a Q-and-A with Sanders.
Tell us about your organization’s past experience with natural disasters. How much damage did they cause to the areas you serve?

  • Hurricane Katrina (2005) – Baton Rouge did not experience this major weather event directly; instead, the impact was felt as residents evacuating from New Orleans fled to Baton Rouge as the first community of emergency response. The influx of people strained local resources and caused our population to double. It impacted everyday life: gas stations, hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores and traffic…traffic…traffic! 
  • Hurricane Gustav (2008) – In contrast, this was a major weather event for Baton Rouge, causing widespread power outages for multiple days (up to a week in some parts of the area). Most gas stations and grocery stores did not have generators, so there was a critical collapse of life in the city as gas lines formed and most businesses remained closed for multiple days
  • “August Flood” (2016) – This flood impacted parts of north and south Louisiana simultaneously, with the hardest-hit concentration of homes (more than 60,000) in the East Baton Rouge Parish. Most of them had two feet of water or more inside, and they did not have flood insurance, since it wasn’t required.

Describe your response to the last disaster in your area (the flood).  How prepared were you, in retrospect?

After Katrina, MCRA transitioned to web-based operations because we saw others not being able to work from their offices, where files were readily available. We learned from that lesson we had to ensure we could continue to operate in the face of a more direct hit on Baton Rouge. What the recent flood taught us was that we were not plugged into a broader action plan outside of our office. Such a plan simply did not exist locally. Instead, we had to determine what to do ourselves.

We immediately deployed into the hardest-hit areas, providing “muck-and-gut” assistance to low-income households. MCRA and four other nonprofits secured a grant to engage unemployed workers to do this work. MCRA managed 25 workers from September to December 2016, which included intake, site visits and construction management. Later, the gut crews were joined by volunteers from all over the country.
Today, the work on the ground is continuing and we have a long way to go. With grant funds from the United Way and the local Office of Community Development, we are helping 40 families return to their homes. To date, 12 of these projects have been completed, with another 18 in different stages of progress. However, the state program funded by federal disaster-recovery funds is moving slowly and painfully. We do not anticipate getting any large injections of funds to ensure we can reach everyone, so this will be a long-term recovery of possibly three to five more years. We will have to integrate flood-recovery work into our normal activities. 
Looking back, the overall local response fell short in the initial weeks. We took for granted that the local network of nonprofits that served as the disaster-response group post-Katrina would activate for this event. That did not happen. It was as if we had not learned anything from Katrina. We recommend every community come together and talk about the questions, “What if a disaster struck here? How would we react?” That is a healthy exercise and it is easy to revisit it annually and then work the plan when disaster strikes. Without a plan in place and everyone knowing their role, you’re overwhelmed like we were in August 2016.
Now we’ve learned our lesson; the network of local nonprofits in the area is codifying a disaster plan that will be activated for future events.
You mentioned that after Katrina, a lot of New Orleans residents flooded your area, taxing your resources. This will be a challenge for Florida (which is struggling with storm damage of its own), New York and other states that are receiving thousands of Puerto Ricans leaving the island in the wake of the hurricanes. Do you have any “lessons learned” to share for this challenge? What were the greatest needs for both the new arrivals and the recipients? How did you help?
Organizations coming into contact with these recent transplants need to remember they have just experienced trauma that for the most part has gone untreated. There is an extra level of care and concern needed when working with them. Take it slow. Repeat yourself. Confirm they understand what you are saying. Remember to smile. People want to be heard. They want to know that you understand what just happened to them. They want to see care, concern and compassion. They want their dignity back. I refer to doing things with them versus for them.
But one word of caution: Resist delving too deeply into solving all of their problems. All of their stories will be sad and compelling and we have to remember to not overextend ourselves because there is someone next in line.
What are you noticing/hearing about these most recent hurricanes as you travel about? What is the same? What is different?
Partnership is not always evident to everyone. People say they want to partner, but when the opportunity arises, you start to see people backing away from commitments. Eventually it’s apparent that not everyone is willing to do what it takes to make a partnership work. Some people just think they can do it on their own. To counter this, you have to forge real partnerships before a disaster so you have a quality place from which to start. Everyone wants to help, but even those with resources are at a loss about what to do, when, where and with whom. Could this be addressed by planning now for the next event? Yes!
What is usually missing from the to-do list for nonprofits is getting to the table where the decisions are made. That’s where the mistakes really begin—such as when programs are designed without common-sense considerations. Why are they left out? Politics, gamesmanship, competition and poor communications are all reasons.
What benefit does being in the NeighborWorks network offer?
The greatest benefit of being in the NeighborWorks network is the peer-exchange opportunities that provide all the case studies and test concepts we could ever desire. Even in the face of disaster, we can share lessons learned and expand our perspectives using the experiences of others.
There is a natural disaster common to every region of the country, so the importance of thinking about what if? and how would I? are relevant to every organization and should be a focus for NeighborWorks America. There should also be some consideration given to the promotion of collaborative engagements in areas where natural disasters are common. This will promote joint responses during critical times of need.
Note: NeighborWorks is responding to this need by updating its disaster-response manual, has drafted recommendations for nonprofit communicators dealing with such crises and has created an infographic to share with affected residents with tips for avoiding contractor scams. Watch our disaster-relief pageMeanwhile, to date, NeighborWorks America has distributed $800,000 in flexible grants to 20 local nonprofits and is working with them to develop short- and long-term responses. These include regional disaster-recovery trainings and peer exchanges with organizations elsewhere in our network that have recovered from similar disasters, including the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance.
What other lessons did you learn from past disasters that could help others? That will change the way your organization handles disasters in the future?
  • Focus on what you are good at and refrain from trying to be all things to everyone
  • Look for opportunities to strengthen the programs and services that you already provide. This will allow you to help more people in the long term.
  • Self-care is important. Plan for downtime to reboot and ensure your team can be there for those who will need you for extended periods of time.
  • Have warehouse space available to be activated in a disaster. After the flood, we immediately opened a 5,500-square-foot section of our office, and a local warehouse was established as a nonprofit disaster recovery center. Emergency goods were directed to this space and, in partnership with United Way and five other nonprofits, MCRA received and distributed goods donated from all over the country. We still operate this space today.
  • Partnership is king! As hard as it is to collaborate and as unlikely as it can sometimes be, working together is critical in disasters. Everyone is strained and the need is great; leverage is the best way to move the collective needle to alleviate the most pain and suffering.

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