The primary focus during a disaster is on life-saving measures like search and rescue and sheltering, for obvious reasons. The flashing lights of response and rescue teams are all-consuming. The laser focus on saving lives and the heroic tales of escaping through skylights and daring rescues via boats and helicopters flood the wall-to-wall news coverage. This is what we imagine when we think of disaster.
In reality, being rescued is only a fraction of what a survivor or community experiences. Disasters last much longer than the days and weeks it takes to address the immediate needs of moving survivors to safety. The recovery process, which some disaster survivors refer to as “the second disaster,” can be a stressful, time consuming, confusing, and difficult experience that may last for many years. Unfortunately, this is likely the future for many Harvey and Irma survivors.
Why is recovery like this, and what can regular people do to help?
Needs in Recovery
Rebuilding homes is probably what comes to mind first when we think of disaster recovery. Over 100,000 homes in Texas were damaged by Hurricane Harvey. The cost of rebuilding can add up quickly when you consider tearing down and removing debris, hiring contractors, buying supplies, paying for labor, and additional costs for modifications like raising the home. For survivors who rent, there are, at minimum, expenses related to finding a new place and moving there.
Some survivors are able to live in their damaged homes as they rebuild, but those who cannot have to find other shelter. Some live in mobile homes, stay with friends or family, or rent apartments. Others stay in their damaged, mold-filled homes.
Rebuilding a home, however, is far from the only cost associated with recovery. Survivors have to replace destroyed vehicles, hundreds of thousands of which were destroyed in Texas, and navigate a limited public transportation system. Many have to temporarily stay outside of their communities, which in turn impacts the costs associated with commuting to and from home, work, or school. In addition, there is the cost of food and the cost of replacing clothing, furniture, electronics, and anything else that was damaged. Even the costs associated with navigating the recovery process like increased phone bills, permits, and paying to photocopy documents can add up.
Paying for Recovery
Survivors can find help from a variety of sources. Survivors tend to exhaust their personal resources first. They drain saving accounts, use insurance money, even get second jobs. They also depend on their social networks for assistance. They stay with relatives while they wait to move home, borrow money from friends, and share resources with neighbors. Where there are still unmet needs, survivors can turn to various nonprofit organizations that are in their community providing various assistance.
After major disasters like Harvey and Irma, Congress allocates billions of dollars to recovery so it can seem like the government is paying for individuals to recover. In reality, however, the vast majority of federal dollars go toward public assistance, not individual assistance. In the United States we approach recovery from a limited government standpoint, meaning that the government is only minimally involved in rebuilding peoples’ lives. Assuming a survivor meets eligibility requirements, they can apply for direct assistance from FEMA, but the funds also support other social safety net programs like food stamps.
What’s the Problem?
Although it sounds like there are a lot of sources for assistance available, once you start breaking them down, you can see why they may inadequately address the many needs of disaster survivors. A 2015 report found that 46 percent of Americans could not afford a $400 emergency. Using one community affected by Irma as example (though the extent of the damage in the Florida Keys is not yet fully known), as of 2014, 45 percent of Florida Keys residents have been living at or close to the poverty level. Compounding this lack of personal resources, many survivors miss work while they are evacuated, cannot find housing close by, cannot find public transportation to get there, or their place of employment is impacted by the storm.
Most people don’t have flood insurance. Only a fraction of homes in Texas that were damaged are expected to have at least some costs covered by insurance (totals are not yet in for areas impacted by Irma). Even if a survivor does have flood insurance, actually receiving a payout can be a challenge as illustrated by the lawsuits following Katrina and Sandy.
Government assistance is not as comprehensive as one might expect. If a survivor lives in a county that offers individual assistance and the survivor is eligible, the most they can receive is approximately $33,000, though the average is around $5000-$7000. FEMA clearly states that individual assistance is not intended to make survivors whole again, but rather to tide them over.
Over the past decade of working and studying disasters I have gotten the impression that many people have unreasonably high expectations of the nonprofit sector during recovery efforts. Most organizations do amazing work, but they are trying to support mammoth needs with moderate to minimal resources. Some nonprofits really struggle during recovery. Local organizations and their employees may have also been affected by the disaster. Outside disaster groups can only work in a community as long as their financial and personnel resources allow, which may not be to the completion of the recovery process. One report found that a third of individual giving to relief organizations occurs within the first month following a disaster; donations dwindle to nothing within six months. Once the media coverage moves on to other topics, nonprofits have more difficulty raising support funds.
The recovery process is also not a necessarily linear process. Survivor needs evolve over time, and research has found that survivors tend to access different types of aid multiple times throughout the recovery process. A family might fix part of their house, for example, but need more money to repair the rest and will have to wait for additional resources to become available. The process of accessing recovery funds is also difficult. Survivors explain how they develop filing systems of documents that they must keep and use over the months and years of recovery just to access potential resources. The process can very quickly become overwhelming and often escalates to a full-time job, which is something most of us don’t think about until we are experiencing it ourselves.
So, what can we do to support the second disaster of disaster recovery?
How to Help
There are three important things we can each do to help disaster survivors—whether in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, or anywhere tragedy strikes.
First, and most obviously, donate money. I strongly recommend monetary gifts over material gifts after a disaster. We see people on TV in need so we donate extra clothes, furniture, and food. The issue is that when we all get the same generous idea we flood the community with too much stuff. Research has shown that material donations given after a disaster often do not match the needs of the affected community; the community receives too much of one item or not enough of another. They lack the space to store the material donations, and they lack the people to manage the sorting, storing, and distribution. Though our intentions are good, the outcome is not. This is an issue now in Texas and is sure to be one in Florida.
So, to be most helpful, donate cash to organizations that are working in the community you wish to support. Organizations then have the flexibility to acquire the resources they need when they need them. Choosing local organizations that are committed to working through the recovery process is best. They know the community’s needs better than an outside organization would and have more of a “personal” investment than a national organization. Also pay particular attention to organizations that serve marginalized survivors and communities who struggle most during a recovery period.
The second thing we can do to help is volunteer. Many of us see people in need and want to jump right in to help. However, as with donations, for those of us who are not local to the disaster, volunteering during the response isn’t always the best way to be effective. How will you get there? Where will you stay while you are there? How will you find your way around the community? Do you actually have resources or skills that people who are closer don’t have? Too many volunteers can be a drain on the impacted communities’ already limited resources. Instead, choose to volunteer during the later recovery process when there are voluntary organizations set up to support your work. As I’ve mentioned, there are many needs to address in a community during disaster recovery. Nonprofits are central to addressing these needs and many of them depend on volunteer labor to accomplish their goals.
The third and final thing that we can do is advocate. It is not enough to just throw our time and money at communities in the wake of a disaster. We need to actively work to lessen the likelihood of future disasters and help people be better prepared when they do happen. This means supporting politicians that acknowledge disaster risk and put the safety of our communities ahead of their own personal interests. Call your representatives and express your support for funding emergency management programs, a just recovery plan for communities affected by disaster, and for policies that account for climate change and risk.
Humans have, for most of history, called calamities “acts of God.” When we place the blame for a disaster on a god, or even nature, we remove human accountability for the human actions that led to the disaster. Hurricanes themselves are not disasters; a storm’s impact on our communities and the people we care about is the disaster. We have the ability to engage in efforts to make our communities safer, like advocating to protect coastal areas and wetlands or to pass better building codes.
As climatologists gain a better understanding of how events like Harvey and Irma are influenced by climate change, it is more important than ever to understand the needs of disaster survivors, what we can to help, and how to maximize our efforts to minimize future disasters.