Hurricane season has just begun in Louisiana. Activists in several states are “organizing resilience” to prepare their communities and they are pushing officials to fix a disaster relief system which many consider broken.
“The one thing that has actually worked in the aftermath of disaster is the community coming together to help each other,” said Ashley K. Shelton, the Founder, President, and CEO of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice. Shelton does civic engagement work with community organizations and politicians. She is the former Vice President of Programs at the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation.
“For us it’s really important to make sure our community is okay,” she said.
But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) usually shows up about 2 weeks after the storm. When Hurricane Ida hit last year the coalition distributed $200,000 in the first week. Shelton called that “pushing resources to the ground”. Holding government to account is something else they do.
She said natural disasters create two kinds of problems: the needs victims have which aren’t addressed and the ones that the disaster relief system itself creates.
“The disaster economy in Louisiana has become such an industry that we did a lot of work this legislative session to pass legislation around insurance companies and making sure we are holding them accountable to their clients,” she said.
A lot of insurance companies didn’t pay out last year after Hurricane Ida hit. “Lots of provisions weren’t clear in their policies, like it didn’t cover wind or had a cap for natural disasters,” Shelton said.
“Forcing FEMA to stop giving us pretend deadlines. Like we had to submit forms a week and half after the storm. Well, if the gird is down. If there is no electricity and no Internet, how is anybody supposed to submit a form within that timeline?”
The coalition worked with FEMA and the Governor’s office to make sure those deadlines made sense. The coalition held workshops across the state to inform people what resources were available “so they didn’t feel like they were beging ignored and played with by government”. They distributed water proof boxes to store deeds and important documents.
“We know mutual aid works and we know that it is a very thoughtful process that is not fraught with fraud,” she said.
There is a lack of trust on both sides of disaster relief. Shelton said state and federal disaster relief officials are afraid people will take advantage, hence the need for all that red tape.
“The fraud to me is that we are not pressing federal dollars down to these people who are devastated by these storms. The fraud to me is that we are putting people through all of these things at the worst moment of their lives. It doesn’t make sense,” she said.
“What is really true is that we’ve not been able to trust the government. We’re dealing with clawbacks and other things that are happening to people…. You’re having to pay back money you put out to a contractor that you can’t get back, so there are all these things where the government seems to be failing communities,” Shelton said.
Chrishelle Palay is Executive Director of the HOME Coalition in Houston. They do a lot of advocacy work around disaster recovery issues. Home was created when Hurricane Harvey devastated many ethnic neighborhoods in Houston and Harris County in 2017.
“Although Harvey happened almost five years ago, unfortunately there are so many people still waiting for assistance and for their homes to be repaired and especially in low income communities of color that have continued to live with leaky roofs and in homes with rotted wood, moldy ceilings, and walls.
If that were not enough, we also experienced a winter storm in 2021, Yuri, that brought unprecedented freezing conditions to Texas and our power grid failed millions. And this is the energy capital of the world and we were left in freezing conditions and darkness for days and in some areas, actually, for weeks.
And then after the temperatures increased and the plumbing pipes warmed up another disaster struck because there were burst plumbing pipes and water damage to homes and no running water.
Folks along the Gulf Coast are really worried …. not just about the power grid but also about tropical activity and being struck yet again, especially for those communities that are still waiting and waiting for assistance.”
HOME activists are engaging city and county officials to put more resources in flood mitigation in neighborhoods that were underwater when Harvey hit while richer neighborhoods avoided severe flooding because they had adequate storm sewers. (See https://tntribune.com/the-battle-over-redistricting-in-harris-county-texas/
“We are definitely a community that’s waiting and hoping but definitely suffering from PTSD at this point,” she said.
Disaster Preparedness in Nashville
Nashville preparedness for natural disasters is pretty well organized. Hands on Nashville coordinates volunteers who responded by the hundreds when tornadoes struck North Nashville in March 2020. HandsOn is Nashville’s version of mutual aid. Lori Shinton is HandsOn CEO. Here is the web address: https://www.hon.org
Shinton also chairs the Nashville Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD). The group has 41 nonprofits and church members that coordinate and collaborate to respond to disasters.
“We are by tenfold more ready in Nashville than we were in 2020. We have set up our activation protocol,” Shinton said.
“When the tornado touches down we are immediately coordinating with the Office of Emergency Management in Nashville; we are immediately giving data and we are immediately putting up on the website individuals who were impacted by this tornado, fill out your information and we will be following up with you,” she said.
Shinton said about half the members of Nashville’s VOAD jump right in after a disaster and others do the long haul work of recovery in coordination with FEMA and the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. Here is the web address: https://nashvilleresponds.com
For more on disaster preparedness and relief see ”‘Make copies of everything’: Documents to have in case of a hurricane” by Amal Ahmed at Southerly. https://southerlymag.org