Smoke over California hills.

Community Development Field

Not If But When: A Disaster Preparedness Conversation

Against the back drop of 2017's California wildfires, a quickly organized session took place to discuss disaster response and recovery from the perspective of being a housing organization.

Wildfire in Redwood Valley, California. Photo by Bob Dass via flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Smoke over California hills.

Wildfire in Redwood Valley, California. Photo by Bob Dass via flickr, CC BY 2.0.

“Natural” disasters are on everyone’s minds a lot lately. The Grounded Solutions Network conference Intersections last week in Oakland, was no exception. There was a visible haze of smoke on the horizon from the nearby Northern California wildfires, and by the final day, a strong smell of it as well. Announcements were peppered with information about fundraising for the Community Land Trust located on Puerto Rico.

Against this back drop, a quickly organized additional breakout session took place to discuss disaster response and recovery from the perspective of being a housing organization. In the room were people with experience with hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Irma, as well as many others interested to share and learn. After the conversation, which I facilitated (loosely), many of the participants said they hoped the notes (generously taken by Erin Coyle of Northern California Land Trust) would be shared, and I decided the people in that room weren’t the only ones who should have them. My apologies if the attribution for a particular point has gone missing.

The discussion was scatter-shot, but provocative. Any one of these items is worth more follow up.


Unsurprisingly, much of the conversation revolved around preparedness—thinking through likely disasters in your location and preparation in terms of both building design, organizational policy, and familiarity with disaster recovery techniques.

  • In a videotaped message from Puerto Rico, Maria E. Hernandez from the community land trust Caño Martín Peña emphasized that being able to take care of people in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is directly tied to your level of organization, connection, and engagement beforehand. Adrian Alberto Madriz
    project lead from Struggle for Miami’s Affordable and Sustainable Housing (SMASH) in Miami echoed this sentiment—don’t count on FEMA, or the Red Cross to be present, or to know what makes sense in your neighborhood. (In his area he spoke of water distribution sites bearing no logical relation to where people needing it lived.) Meaningful first response will likely be bottom up. Do neighbors know each other? Are they used to working together in a coordinated fashion? Do you know how to reach people if communications systems go down?

  • Cindee LaCourse-Blum from Community Land Trust of Palm Beach County in Florida noted that in her area, the power goes out very easily. As several people observed that there is a disparity in food access for people of low-income because those with more means often clear out the grocery stores well before a storm, and may have generators of their own to keep food from spoiling. Her organization has installed a generator in their development’s common room, which allowed residents during Irma to bring refrigerated food there for safe keeping and cook on hot plates, as well as being together.
  • Peter Elkowitz from the Long Island Housing Partnership, which was very involved in Hurricane Sandy recovery, gave as one example of proactive internal policy that it’s a good idea to have in place an “emergency procurement” policy that you follow, so you don’t end up on the wrong side of federal law from having tried to contract out relief or recovery work more quickly than your usual procurement policies allow. It’s still federal money, and they will still enforce the rules, he noted. Similarly, you might need to create a separate organization to work through for disaster relief so you can help people outside your usual income ranges without jeopardizing your nonprofit status.
Things You Might Not Think Of
  • Disasters are devastating and it might seem like they would destroy housing markets long term, but in many places they actually end up creating serious increases in affordability problems as existing inequities are exacerbated throughout the recovery process. New Orleans, for example, experienced huge losses of affordable housing and overall increases in housing cost.
  • Getting people back home ASAP is not always best. Although being displaced is traumatic, Andreaneica Morris of the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance cautioned against making quick decisions without community input or a vision can lead to or accepting terms and conditions and uses of money that you will later regret. Also, context matters. Bringing families back to an area without a functioning school system, for example, is not helpful.
  • Disasters are not always regionwide. Rebecca Solomon from NeighborWorks America noted that a building fire can be devastating to an organization, but there will be no FEMA help arriving. Does your organization have a plan if it loses access to its own offices?
  • How mortgage lenders respond to a disaster will depend on the market and the extent of the damage. Morris suggested that lenders in a place that is not completely devastated and where values are likely to recover may actually be less forgiving of late payments because foreclosing will bring them valuable property, while in a place with more widespread destruction it may be in their interest to give mortgage holders more leniency. However, in New Orleans they did often demand the entirety of insurance checks. Mortgage and foreclosure counseling is a huge post-disaster need, should be ramped up as quickly as possible, and the effects continue for many years afterward. (New York is still dealing with the ripple effects of Sandy on homeowners.) Understanding flood insurance is another big thing that people will need help with.
  • People from Palm Beach and Cleveland spoke of trying to figure out how to accommodate waves of Puerto Rican refugees coming to their neighborhoods. This is one way in which disasters may affect neighborhood organizations far from where they hit.
Big Picture
  • What Kevin Borden from MHAction called the “financialization” of housing is contributing to making communities more vulnerable, as distant corporate landlords tend to see recovery funds as ways to make themselves whole on a failed investment rather than a way to help a community get back on its feet. Fighting for community control of land can in many ways be considered a piece of disaster preparedness.

What else would you add to this list?

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