Opinion
September 14, 2017

Social-Service Groups Can Play a Stronger Role in Rebuilding Lives After Disasters

As America begins the long recovery from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, governments and businesses will spend billions of dollars rebuilding infrastructure. But it is the nonprofit world that will play a key role in rebuilding the lives of those affected by the devastating hurricanes.

Disasters do not discriminate in whom they effect, but how they affect people varies greatly. Inequities that exist before a disaster are exacerbated after — and the impact is always that much worse for those who were living on the edge before a storm. In Texas’s Harris County, for example, which suffered greatly from Harvey, 18 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. And in Florida’s Duval County, which is also experiencing record flooding, over 17 percent of people are impoverished.

Nonprofits, governments, and donors need to understand that those folks, and those not too far from poverty, will need the most help in the days, weeks, and years following this storm.

Social-service organizations in Florida, Texas, and beyond will be in the best position to reduce suffering and help communities damaged in the hurricanes rapidly recover. These organizations provide short-term relief in the form of food, water, shelter, and crisis counseling, and they play a vital role in supporting people over the long course of recovery by providing case-management services, mental-health counseling, and help with cash, housing, employment, and family matters. 

Nonprofits that work in communities every day to provide social services, many of which have contractual relationships with local governments, can be put to better use than they are now in catastrophic moments to reduce post-disaster chaos and get families back to normal quickly.

 In New York, we learned that lesson after Hurricane Sandy. We know how devastating a storm of this magnitude can be and what it takes to race from running a child-care or senior center to suddenly aiding victims of a natural disaster.

The organization I lead, the Human Services Council, worked with executives from disaster-relief and human-service organizations throughout New York City to develop a set of principles, NYC Human Services Sector Framework for Serving New Yorkers after Major Disaster, which serves as a guide to engaging in disaster work for human-service organizations. This report, while focused on New York City, can be useful to cities across the country as they create plans for enhancing coordination between government and nonprofits in responding to disasters.

 Here are some steps nonprofits, grant makers, and local governments can take:

Share information. Human-service organizations should develop a system to exchange updates from government agencies about emergency-response systems. Membership organizations can be key partners in sharing information across the nonprofit world and possibly with grant makers and other donors. Groups should develop and regularly test a system of communication that functions during all phases of a disaster.

Train nonprofits to get ready for a disaster. Membership associations should connect members to training sessions and show them how to develop plans for the continuity of operations to ensure organizations are able to perform mission-critical tasks. These training programs should help organizations build and sustain institutional resilience as well as identify the key roles they can play in each stage of a disaster, from preparation to rebuilding and recovery.

Create emergency systems to facilitate collaboration. Human-service groups can coordinate with other nonprofit organizations and entities to identify the resources available to their community in an emergency. When disaster strikes, nonprofits can join forces to set up a "human-service operations center" to make it easier to share duties and make sure government and nonprofits are working harmoniously and avoiding duplicated effort.

Make preparedness an everyday duty. City governments should consider establishing a permanent function to coordinate and connect the many disaster-planning efforts that municipal agencies undertake. They should include human-service organizations that work across a city or region as well as those that are community-based so they can work with government responders to establish roles and responsibilities. For example, these groups should identify human-service needs in the wake of a disaster, track urgent problems, and provide the best ways to contact people who can provide services to the most vulnerable.

Grant makers should also be engaged in preparedness efforts so they can better appreciate disaster-related funding gaps and be more strategic about their post-disaster contributions. Knowing, for example, what government will and will not finance can help them make decisions about where philanthropic dollars should go.

Figure out how to get the money to where it’s needed. In advance of any disaster, cities should work with organizations to develop ways to distribute private contributions and government aid for planning and preparedness work as well as disaster response and recovery situations. 

Understanding which organizations are able to perform disaster-related functions — such as providing shelter, food, or mental-health services — in advance of a disaster and what funding sources (federal, state, local, philanthropic) are available is crucial to a speedy response. We also need to begin to systematically invest in nonprofit preparedness. Reliable financing to help nonprofits get ready in advance of a disaster is all too rare.

As climate change makes it more likely that the nation will see a growing number of natural disasters, it’s important to prepare.

When It’s No Longer News

Long after the news cycle ends, donations have stopped and many of the volunteers head home, families will still be working to recover from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and local nonprofits will be by their sides.

Social-service groups are accustomed to helping people hit by life’s disasters — job loss, serious illness, domestic abuse, and so much more — but they can also be prepared to help people pick up the pieces after nature’s storms destroy their homes and neighborhoods. All of us who have lived through natural disasters and other tragedies owe it to the people we serve to prepare so we’re all ready when catastrophe strikes.

Allison Sesso is executive director of the Human Services Council of New York, an organization that represents nonprofits.