Shortly after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Gulf Coast, I was dispatched to New Orleans by the corporate foundation that I worked for to figure out how to deploy our philanthropic disaster recovery commitment. It was a heartbreaking experience, compounded and complicated by the entrenched challenges New Orleans had struggled with for many years.
As with all natural disasters, the poorest suffered most in the immediate aftermath. What I, in my ignorance, learned for the first time was how the vulnerable continue to suffer long after the initial damage: tucked away for too long FEMA trailers; separated from family, friends, and vital supports and unable to access medical care; or shuttled from one temporary shelter situation to the next. Over the weeks, months, and years following the storm there were dramatic and terrible increases in elder mortality, child poverty, murder, and mental illness.
Compared to the process of recovery in the Gulf Coast, and in spite of the many frustrations we feel with its pace in our region, New York City, New Jersey, and Long Island have done remarkably well. For most of us, life is essentially back to normal: the kids are in school, we’re back at work, our homes have power, heat, and hot water, and holiday shopping is underway.
But there remains a grave and nearly inevitable danger, as in all natural disasters, that we will “move on” without fully resolving the impacts on those most vulnerable, and inflict the mistakes of the past on our neighbors and fellow citizens tomorrow.
Over the past few weeks in my conversations with friends who are harried public servants, frenetic nonprofit executives, overwhelmed community organizers, and concerned philanthropists, I heard the same two key issues consistently:
As a friend from Biloxi who was involved with disaster recovery said to me: “Government is good at roads, taxes, and the military. It’s just not good with people.” While institutional partners like FEMA and even the Red Cross received criticism for their initial performance in reaching victims, hundreds of local community groups, churches, organized citizens, and entities like Occupy Sandy did a fantastic job as first responders. A major problem was no clear way for folks with on-the-ground knowledge to work effectively with these institutional partners. As a result, there was tremendous inefficiency as small groups struggled to mobilize resources with limited infrastructure, and institutional partners mis-deployed theirs. As another friend lamented to me: “I’m trying to get a truck full of coats donated from a local church to a community distribution center in the Rockaways, but I can’t access a truck from FEMA even though it’s going to the same location.” Not only should institutional disaster relief providers have a working knowledge of local partners, but there should also exist agreements that structure these partnerships and insure stronger collaboration.
I was frankly surprised by the number of high-capacity nonprofits, particularly in Brooklyn, that had not been called upon to play a direct role in the initial disaster response, or in the recovery efforts now. It’s wonderful that many community-based partners leapt into action, but we have really substantial social service organizations with highly trained staff members that could have offered intake and triage assistance, performed on-the-ground interventions, and made complex support referrals. Not only should there be formal programmatic agreements and training provided for groups who already work in these most vulnerable communities, but there should be emergency contracting procedures to insure financial and operational supports can be put in place quickly. Instead, we have trucked in federal employees, VISTA volunteers, and a whole host of others from halfway across the country to do work that could be done both more effectively and appropriately by existing local nonprofit leaders.
[For those who are curious, in my previous blog post on disaster recovery I talked about some of the ways we can think more expansively about accessing the capacity of our corporate citizens to fill critical gaps in disaster recovery efforts, such as:
Tapping logistics specialists to coordinate equipment and personnel donations from other state and federal agencies, corporations, foundations and private citizens, speeding their arrival and deployment; and
Accessing emergency managers, planners, and mental health professionals to embed within disaster recovery operations centers.]
As we slowly turn our attention toward those ongoing pockets of misery and how to address them we should keep an eye on those best practices that have emerged, and work to build them into our emergency support infrastructure. Given the predictions for future weather related disasters, I’d say we’re going to need to stay flexible, creative and committed.
I want to conclude this entry with a true success story: the Park Slope Armory. Located in Council Member Brad Lander’s district, the Armory initially took in over 300 elderly evacuees. Brad put out the call to the more fortunate in his own district (which was largely unaffected), and community members quickly stepped in to organize a huge array of supports. Special mention must surely be made of the efforts of Caron Atlas, who has blogged a bit about her experiences here. Caron stepped in to provide an enormous amount of leadership, and clearly catalyzed resources through her many connections to create a temporary shelter situation that prioritized not just safety, but human dignity.
What began as a call to organize some entertainment for evacuees became a pop up Wellness Center complete with a full schedule of live musical performances, exercise, massage and body work, knitting, religious services, kosher food, a Veterans Day commemoration, therapy dogs, and stress relief activities. It also became a hub for supports proffered by other community groups and concerned citizens. According to Caron:
Park Slope Parents and Park Slope Jewish Center provided key supplies for the shelter including garbage bags, disinfectant, tables and chairs. Beth Elohim and Saint Savior helped us set up religious services. Rooftop Films and the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective made it possible to view nightly movies and the election returns. The Good Dog Foundation organized community members to bring in their therapy dogs, who became quickly beloved.
Brad also blogged about how impressed and grateful he was for the organizing at the Park Slope Armory, particularly the work of a volunteer who made a heroic effort to insure evacuees had an opportunity to vote:
Livia Beasley, the Armory volunteer who went cot to cot through the Armory on Monday, signing evacuees up for absentee ballots. She delivered their applications, brought them their ballots, and ensured their vote made it to the ballot box.
The success of the Park Slope Armory earned it a visit from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. By the way, Brad also deserves a lot of credit for the organizing he and his staff did outside their work with the Armory, which delivered a huge amount of support to storm-affected areas throughout Brooklyn.
A critical takeaway from the success of the Wellness Center is the need to think beyond shelter and food to the inclusion of arts as a tool for stabilizing the evacuee population. I’ve been following the work of the Wellness Center closely, and I’ve heard dozens of stories from volunteer artists regarding the effect of their work on maintaining calm, health, and hope. Such supports in a place like New York City are easily accessible and readily organized.
There are lessons to be learned from every hard time, and lots of smart people have already articulated those lessons. It’s our job now to make sure we’re even better prepared for the next big blow.
(Photo of HHS secretary's Park Slope Armory visit via @BradLander.)