In a year of extraordinary disasters, the sheer scope of recovery and rebuilding can seem mind boggling. We’re tempted to turn away in horror at buildings with roofs ripped off in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, the pancaked structures in Mexico City, the piles of debris in Houston front yards.
Government and private aid groups are well versed in the delivery of food, blankets, and other donated items, but whether recovery restores neighborhoods to health or leaves them with boarded-up houses and empty lots depends on how quickly people can access resources to rebuild their homes and lives. This is especially true in Puerto Rico, where the infrastructure of civil government and civic institutions had already been seriously weakened by the downward spiral of its economy and its government sinking into bankruptcy. Congress has utterly ignored Puerto Rico’s collapse, and it is Puerto Ricans who will bear the burden of a prolonged and difficult recovery.
Spontaneous groups speed recovery
In 2012, I was surprise to see brand new tents with 9/11 logos in a park in a Staten Island neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Sandy. They were manned by volunteers with the Carl V. Bini Memorial Fund and the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, both charities created to honor firefighters who had died in the World Trade Center terror attacks. The volunteers had learned the hard way what to do after a disaster and had quickly mobilized to offer aid after Sandy.
Recovery groups like these spontaneously sprang up all over the Sandy-affected areas because they filled essential recovery needs.
First people need information: Is my house safe? When will power be restored? How do I apply for emergency aid? How do I work with my insurance company when all my documents are destroyed? How do I replace my car before I lose my job? How do I avoid dishonest contractors?
Recovery groups come together to get answers when people find themselves waiting in endless call-center queues and flummoxed by paperwork. Such groups sprang up after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast; indeed they form after any large-scale disaster, and are no doubt forming in Texas and Florida, and Puerto Rico, though their critical role in recovery is often little acknowledged and their enormous potential given short shrift.
Neighborhood associations, community development corporations, and local advocacy organizations (like the Rockaway Surf Club after Sandy) redirect themselves to aid recovery. They focus on immediate needs, thinking they’ll be able to return to normalcy after a few months. Their services are often needed for years, hence the disaster-wonk title, Long Term Recovery Groups (LTRG). They deserve official sanction, and aid organizations should look to boost neighborhood groups and help them be effective.
Established aid groups and government agencies can be ambivalent about the effectiveness of recovery groups—hastily organized while its members are under duress and obsessed with returning to normalcy as soon as possible. But with training and organizational assistance—too rarely organized before disasters—local groups can draw neighbors together to support each other and advocate for their needs.
FEMA sanctioned LTRGs after Sandy, but these were located in centralized government offices and handled only individual cases. Many people didn’t know they existed.
Local groups can do much. Members of these groups can be trained to help neighbors with such predictable hassles as making insurance claims. They can form charitable organizations which allows them to accept donations and apply for government grants, as does the Coastal Bend Disaster Recovery Group which grew out of the long-established Coastal Bend Community Foundation that serves several counties in and around Corpus Christi, Tex.
Since the experience of individual neighborhoods in disaster-affected area varies widely—which in Texas ranges from deep flooding in Houston to wind-ripped homes on the coast—neighborhood groups quickly grasp local needs and can proactively advocate to get them addressed.
Managing rebuilding case by case
Volunteers arrive in disaster areas in large numbers, many having no idea how to help. I was impressed by a coordination center set up in a church that had survived 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in hard-hit East Biloxi, Miss. There, Architecture for Humanity (now regrettably defunct) mapped the neighborhood, assessed what residents needed, and created a case-management system to track each property.
The coordinating center sent groups of college friends from out of town to help elderly residents clean out their houses. Electricians and plumbers were directed to determine when homes were safe to reconnect to utilities. Help desks can be set up to aid people in prioritizing repairs and alert neighbors to the swarm of scam artists who will appear.
“Figuring out how to enable and support neighborhood-scale efforts seems so obvious,” David Perkes told me, especially in low- and middle-income neighborhoods where people do not have the resources to wait months or years to restore their homes. He ran the Biloxi Center for a time and a successor rebuilding organization, the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, based at Mississippi State University.
The fate of neighborhoods that failed to thrive after Katrina may have been sealed in those first few weeks and months. “You can’t wait around. How all those initial needs are met makes a huge difference about whether people stay in a community or relocate,” said Perkes.
Most recovery groups forming now won’t have the disaster-recovery skills of the Carl Bini or Tunnel to Towers groups on Staten Island. They shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Local officials and aid charities should support these groups and offer them tools to be effective. You can donate to or volunteer with them. They embody invaluable social capital no disaster area can afford to squander.