Disasters start and end at the local level

Brian E. Hastings, Col (ret) USAF
Posted 6/17/21

Hurricane season is here and this year is predicted to be another active time. As many as 20 named storms are forecast for the Atlantic and Gulf before the season ends on Nov. 30.

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Disasters start and end at the local level

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Alabama is no stranger to natural disasters. Since 1961 there have been 94 disaster declarations for Alabama by FEMA or its predecessor agencies. Many along the Gulf Coast vividly remember the impacts of Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Last year’s unprecedented tropical weather and historic hurricane season affected the state in ways many of us have not seen in decades. There were 30 named storms in the Atlantic Hurricane Basin. Two of those—Sally and Zeta—directly impacted Alabama, adding to the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. When Hurricane Sally made landfall, affected communities got to work cleaning up and beginning the recovery process knowing state and federal help would be on the way. Alabamians know meeting a disaster head-on and coming out stronger on the other side is something that starts and ends at the local level. Responsibility for disaster preparedness, response, and recovery rests on each individual Government’s role in a disaster is to provide support, not to be the first line of defense. Homeowners and businesses lean on insurance coverage, emergency savings, friends, and the state’s capable workforce for help rebuilding. Whether this means putting a damaged roof back on after a thunderstorm or rebuilding an entire community after a hurricane, Alabamians are engaged in some type of disaster response every day. So, what separates a “big” disaster from a “small” one? In emergency management, we often remind people “If your house is the one destroyed, then this is your worst disaster”—even if yours is the only house damaged in the entire community. What distinguishes one disaster from another with regard to qualifying for federal assistance are the scale and scope of the disaster: the number of homes and businesses affected—especially those that are uninsured—as well the amount of funding required at the state and local level to repair damaged infrastructure. Even so, no matter what happens or what kind of assistance may be available, responsibility for disaster recovery ultimately comes back to each affected individual, family, and community. Disaster recovery is a team effort Disaster recovery works best when it is federally supported, state managed and locally executed. Execution at the local level is key to a successful recovery, and there are always many local partners that come together to build a strong team. The most important partners are local non-profits and community organizations, including churches and faith-based groups, who are the backbone of disaster recovery. These home-grown organizations provide services that are tailored to the size and scope of the event—which is why it is crucial to support local non-profits and church groups with donations that build capability in our communities. Alabama Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (ALVOAD) is a coalition of voluntary organizations and partners. ALVOAD and local VOAD groups share knowledge and coordinate resources, such as money, materials and manpower, throughout the disaster cycle. ALVOAD is the primary forum used by organizations to coordinate activities with each other before, during and after disasters, resulting in less duplication and gaps in service and better interagency cooperation. Regional- and state-level foundations and organizations, like the United Way, community foundations, food banks and food pantries, also frequently step in to provide additional resources in larger disasters and for those rural communities that may have a difficult time accessing social services. Lastly, national-level groups, like the American Red Cross, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, Team Rubicon, and The Salvation Army, can and often do provide help in very large disasters by deploying volunteers from around the country and, in some cases, providing assistance directly to disaster survivors. It is worth repeating—disaster recovery starts and ends with each affected person. Unfortunately, not all of us have a strong personal support network. Age, illness, disability, as well as being a caregiver to another person or being away from family and friends are all challenges that can make facing a disaster very difficult. Our personal support network affects how we recover, and our first lines of defense are our insurance and savings. If a home or property is damaged, insurance will soften the overall financial burden while savings covers the cost of deductibles so damage repairs can be made quickly. Every person’s situation is unique, and there is not a “one-size fits all” solution. Lastly, the role of government in a disaster is to provide for public safety on a large scale and to help guide emergency assistance resources to communities as they begin the long road to disaster recovery. Most government-backed programs provide assistance indirectly: funds flow, for the most part, from the top down. Federal dollars go first to the state and then are passed on to municipal and county governments, and in some cases to non-profit organizations that provide government-like services such as our volunteer fire departments. These programs help communities with the costs of debris removal, reimburse unbudgeted disaster overtime costs, and help to fund reconstruction of damaged public buildings and infrastructure. For individuals and businesses, disaster loan programs like those offered by the Small Business Administration and the US Department of Agriculture provide an important safety net, especially for businesses and homeowners who can’t easily access traditional loans. Ultimately, FEMA programs are the last line of defense for uninsured individuals and homeowners. It is important to understand that FEMA’s assistance is not designed to “make you whole” after a disaster and is limited to providing only enough funding and assistance to ensure someone has a safe place to live. There are caps on the amount of FEMA assistance available, and the typical amount paid to a homeowner in a disaster is usually less than $10,000, with an average payout of around $3,000. The FEMA program is very helpful for those who qualify, but no one should count on it: FEMA’s Individual Assistance program is only available in the largest, most devastating disasters. Remember, government doesn’t connect with people—people connect with people. The preparedness of our people is the real measure of Alabama’s preparedness. Are you ready? Brian E. Hastings, Col (ret) USAF Director, Alabama Emergency Management Agency