Restoring the Infrastructure of Opportunity after Disaster

Today’s post comes from Dr. John Cooper, Associate Professor of Practice and Texas Target Communities Director at Texas A&M University. Dr. Cooper is also an MDC research fellow. Read more about the community disaster recovery work he led at MDC here.

This weekend the South Carolina Gamecocks came to Texas to play my Texas A&M Aggies in football and left with new resources to help relief and recovery efforts after the flooding in South Carolina. In one instance, the Texas A&M Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) teamed with the 12th Man Student Foundation to donate proceeds from the sale of commemorative fan merchandise. In another instance, over 200 members of Aggies CAN, the largest student-athlete run canned food drive in the nation, organized a food drive that began on October 25 and lasted until game day. I should note that this all happened as the death toll from recent storms – tornadoes and floods – in our own backyard was rising.

The aftermath of storms in South Carolina and Texas remind me of the importance of disaster readiness, especially for the poor, elderly, disabled, and others who can’t survive and recover from disasters without help from outsiders. The importance of creating an infrastructure of opportunity is discussed often on this blog, and so are the inspirational and aspirational stories of people and places doing exemplary things to help others climb up the economic latter. Unfortunately, a disaster like the recent floods in North and South Carolina can pull the ladder from under those who need it most in a matter of hours, or minutes in the case of a tornado.

This past February Karama Neal wrote here about how hard it is for folks to live in the South when they face economic challenges, and disasters can exacerbate these challenges. While disasters don’t discriminate, it is no coincidence that disasters in the South (especially floods) tend to affect the poor and people of color more severely than others. This is because those folks historically tend to be concentrated in low-lying “bottom” areas; on land in floodplains not suitable for farming and that no one wanted until waterfront property became fashionable. In the South, it may have been the only land an African American could own. Nevertheless, due to their circumstances, many poor and people of color in the South are place-bound, in homes that are older and less able to withstand extreme forces. They also typically don’t have access to employment, savings, credit or other resources sufficient to recover from disasters. As a result, the hole that some folks were in before the flooding is now deeper and filled with water, and the ladder is missing a few rungs.

Handling disaster recovery is a daunting task even for someone with the knowledge and confidence to communicate with bureaucracy. For others without the resources or access to credit to cope in the short-term, we need an infrastructure of recovery. Volumes were written before and since Katrina about the inequities and inefficiencies of the way disaster relief is managed and I can tell from reports coming out of flood ravaged areas in South Carolina that we are setting up for more of the same. Now that response efforts are wrapping up and before frustrations begin to peak, I want to share a few things based on my 20 years of research and practice, for those interested in increasing the extent to which marginalize populations are able to survive and recover:

  • Don’t settle for a return to the status quo; build better. Typically, recovery efforts seek to “build back” to pre-disaster levels. For the most vulnerable, the status quo is not a desirable positive. Disaster recovery should be transformative; aiming for reduced vulnerability and greater equity.
  • Tighten the safety net. Because navigating the disaster relief process can be a daunting task for folks not accustomed to handling bureaucracy, it is important for non-profits and service agencies to be more vigilant to ensure the populations they serve don’t fall through the cracks. Case management is critical at this time.
  • Participate in local recovery decision making. My colleagues and I recently published an article on pre-disaster recovery planning efforts in 87 counties and municipalities in the South. We discovered most do a poor job of coordinating with nonprofits and involving the public in the process. Stakeholders and those whose mission is to care for the most vulnerable in a community should take the initiative and pursue opportunities to meaningfully participate in recovery planning to ensure the resulting plans account for the most vulnerable populations. They are not likely to be invited.
  • Keep dollars local. Millions of dollars allocated for recovery efforts go to consulting firms and nonprofit relief agencies not based in and ultimately not accountable to the community. One way to use those resources for transformative recovery is to hire local contractors who employ local people and purchase materials from local suppliers to rebuild.
  • Think long-term on housing. Nothing is more frustrating than witnessing resources and time wasted on temporary housing. It is better to invest in more permanent solutions sooner. For example, the Community Foundation of Brownsville, TX has come up with a temporary-to-permanent housing idea that starts with a 400 sq. ft. core unit that is expandable into a 3-4 bedroom customizable home.

My hope is for everyone involved in recovery efforts to be patient and understand that the key to community recovery is a strong community fabric. You are better together.