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Response teamwork

Repairing hurricane damaged homes in Philadelphia.

When a disaster visits a community, every neighborhood can benefit from an engaged, capable local organization to help guide the recovery. For low-income communities, the need can be even greater.

In a poor neighborhood, deferred maintenance often leaves homes more vulnerable to damage.

Lack of insurance and limited private resources for residents in the community can make it more difficult to repair and rebuild.

Gaps in government assistance coverage can leave households without help for the necessary repairs. Many families stretched to the limit simply don’t have the tremendous patience and capacity required to negotiate the paperwork.

As cities in the Northeast struggle to recover from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, we looked to communities impacted by past disasters for lessons in how to help. We found some advice about key roles in recovery and rebuilding that community developers and other community-based organizations are uniquely qualified to carry out.

Get a place at the table

When disaster recovery plans are developed and when decisions about distributing recovery funds are being made, too often the specific needs and circumstances of low-income communities are not addressed.

Planning on recovery in Houston at a July 2012 workshop

“It takes so much effort to get assistance, and many families don’t have the resources needed to make it through that time. So they end up doubling up with relatives. People lose jobs. Some end up homeless.” said Amanda Timm, the executive director of Houston, LISC, which has worked extensively with several neighborhoods in the city that were devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

And so community developers and others advocating for low-income communities need a place at the table when decisions are being made.

"It's important that all of the parties are at the table. Those with the resources--public and private--and those with connections to the community: LISC and other community nonprofits," Timm said. "That 'all-in' approach is necessary for a better coordinated response to communities of highest need"

Be a line of communications for struggling residents

Government and other relief agencies are critical partners in disaster recovery, but it is the folks on the ground, working and living in a community every day, who know the lay of the land and can mobilize the community to connect those in need to available resources.

“Elected officials were already swamped with calls, and they didn’t have the staff to knock on doors and do outreach."

In 2008, a massive storm caused the north branch of the Chicago River to overflow, flooding hundreds of homes and businesses in Chicago’s Albany Park community. Melissa McDaniel, program officer for the North River Commission (NRC), a local CDC, remembered walking into the office the next morning and asking, “How does NRC respond to a disaster like this?”

The group decided to drop everything and focus on finding out who was affected and what resources were available to help. NRC staff immediately called local alderman to find out what they were doing and how NRC could be involved.

“Elected officials were already swamped with calls, and they didn’t have the staff to knock on doors and do outreach. Residents would have been on their own, trying to find out where the resources were, and they were overwhelmed,” McDaniel said.

“An organized community is critical,” Timm concurred. “Civic clubs and nonprofits understand who is at the table and who can do what. The neighborhoods [in Houston] where there was no network really suffered. 

Collaborate and connect to multiple resources

No community-based organization will have all the expertise and resources needed to respond effectively to a major disaster, so collaboration is essential. In Albany Park, the first job after speaking with the alderman was convening local partners who were already helping or looking for ways to help.

“We decided at that meeting we needed a one-stop center for people to get information so they weren’t calling all around. We agreed the Red Cross should play that role,” McDaniel explained.

Visioning exercise in Albany Park after the flooding of 2008.

The local community center offered to coordinate day care and mental health services for flood victims, and the local university provided 30 student volunteers who were deployed across the community to meet with homeowners and provide information about available resources.

Meanwhile, NRC reached out to more than 200 local businesses and identified those with flood damage. Then they brought in a local bank that offered low-interest loans to help businesses and homeowners make repairs.

The network of partners and relationships NRC had developed over the years was critical to making this work. “We each had a role to play and not one of us could have taken on all those roles,” McDaniel said. “It would have been overwhelming if it was just NRC; same goes for other partners.”

Collaboration also is critical to NRC’s long-term plans for neighborhood revitalization, as they continue to convene partners and resources as they develop a new five-year plan.

Fill the gaps

Government support after disaster relief is no panacea, especially in low-income communities. For some homeowners, the damage is not enough to receive support. Others are unable to convince FEMA inspectors that the damage was the result of the recent storm, rather than solely caused by deferred maintenance. Still others are caught in tangled titles that make if difficult to prove legal ownership of their homes.

Green Block Build in Philadelphia has helped bring the community together.

In West Philadelphia, where residents along North Holly Street who did not qualify for FEMA assistance were still waiting to repair their homes from damage from Hurricane Irene in 2011, a coalition of partners has made a huge difference.

Rebuilding Together Philadelphia and The Partnership CDC brought the Green Block Build program to North Holly Street to fix roofs and rebuild walls, in addition to making a wide range of other emergency home repairs and energy efficiency upgrades to revitalize the block.

Residents were also connected to financial coaching and counseling services, information about maintaining a healthy home, and ways to save energy and drive down utility bills.

“We are not a disaster recovery organization,” explains Carrie Rathmann, the executive director of Rebuilding Together Philadelphia.But the partnership was able to use its longer term rebuilding strategies to make repairs that FEMA did not cover.

A second gap in funding exists as well: Payment schedules for government support for the nonprofit agencies that help communities rebuild. Long delays between commitment and actual distribution of funds can cause severe cash flow problems for many small local agencies.

Knowing what she knows now, Timm says it would have been helpful to set up working capital lines for the nonprofits that struggled to meet immediate demand while they waited for reimbursements. “For us this was a missed opportunity,” she said. “We could have enabled our CDCs to help more people more quickly.”

Utilize a community-driven, holistic approach to rebuild smarter

Evidence indicates that rapidly rebuilding homes and infrastructure often results in recreating or even increasing vulnerability to future disasters. But when communities are given the time and resources needed to develop comprehensive revitalization plans, they strengthen their own capacity and build back smarter.

New Orleans’s Broadmoor community has successfully used a highly structured, community-driven process to do just that.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the levy failure sent more than six feet of water into each and every property in Broadmoor. Instead of focusing solely on immediate repairs, the Broadmoor Improvement Association, one of the oldest neighborhood associations in New Orleans, led an extensive neighborhood planning process to encourage residents to envision what they want their neighborhood to look like in the future, and developed strategies to achieve that vision.

For example, a local library/community center was operating in a 1993 annex adjacent to a historic structure that was in disrepair and could not be utilized. Rather than simply restore the 1993 facility, the community sought funding to repair and restore both the historic structure and the newer annex.

Rebecca Hummel and Douglas Ahlers from the Belfer Center at Harvard University worked with the Broadmoor community and produced a step-by-step guide, How a Community Can Spearhead Successful Disaster Recovery, which outlines the process and lessons learned, including a conviction that “when the residents invest the thousands of hours into determining their own vision for their community, they emerge with a plan that is uniquely theirs—a plan in which they are heavily invested.”

In Houston, residents have decided they want to be better prepared for any future disasters, so they are working with their local CDC to create a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), which is training residents to offer immediate help to victims until professional services arrive. They have also created a database of seniors and other vulnerable residents who may need extra help.

“Part of what we need to do,” Timm said, “is include conversations about disaster preparedness in [all our] planning.”

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Read other stories in our special section about community development and responding to Hurricane Sandy.

Fighting climate change at the community level - Thanks to a program that provides a comprehensive perspective on green development, urban neighborhoods are giving a new look at saving the environment.

Life after Sandy - More than half a dozen key LISC staff on the East Coast participated in a roundtable to discuss the effects of Hurricane Sandy and what it means for their cities and communities moving forward.

Posted in Planning, Implementing

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