Working Together in Disaster Recovery

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National Service
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By: 
Zack Rosenberg

We always believed that once you became a homeowner, you were insulated from homelessness or hunger, unless a health or work catastrophe occurred, but seeing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina changed our view of security in America.

Volunteers from Farmers Insurance join AmeriCorps members on a St. Bernard Project painting project.When Liz and I first traveled to New Orleans six months after Katrina, we did not recognize our own country. As a lawyer and teacher living in Washington, DC, without any construction experience, we did what we knew we had to do: We moved to New Orleans and opened the St. Bernard Project (SBP) to help others recover.

In St. Bernard Parish, where we volunteered, there was nowhere to buy food, no restaurants, no grocery stores -- nothing. Families who owned homes were living in attics, cars, and garages. The lucky ones were in FEMA trailers.

After seven years, 50,000-plus volunteers, and 700 homes rebuilt nationwide through the St. Bernard Project, we have learned some key facts about disaster recovery in America.

First, we need a standardized, replicable model for recovery. Disasters are occurring more frequently. They are more severe and they are striking a broader section of our country.

Second, AmeriCorps is an essential, driving force in post-disaster recovery.  Quite simply, no entity approaches the impact AmeriCorps members make on communities. Whether disasters strike the coasts or in the heartland; whether the destruction is fueled by wind, water, or fire; AmeriCorps members are there. And they get there fast and stay until the recovery is complete.  

Third, when AmeriCorps members' will is matched with corporate America's skill --and when corporations invest not just their dollars, but their "sense" -- the impact is even greater.  

I offer three examples as models of the "dollars and sense" approach:

  • UPS volunteers work on a St. Bernard Project service project.During the last three years, UPS has logged hundreds of hours training SBP's AmeriCorps warehouse teams in supply chain logistics and tool tracking.  As a result, SBP has reduced our fuel consumption by 30 percent, purchased fewer tools (because we know where they are), and ensured our 10,000-plus volunteers have the tools and supplies they need to rebuild our clients’ homes.
  • Farmers Insurance has adopted SBP's Joplin, MO, affiliate Rebuild Joplin.  For the past seven months, Farmers has sent employees to mentor and work alongside our members each day and refined our volunteer and client services processes. This has prepared our members to better meet clients' needs and provide meaningful, impactful experiences for volunteers.
  • When Superstorm Sandy struck, SBP was called by local communities seeking our participation. Via disaster deployments through CNCS’ Disaster Services Unit, and later an expansion of our program AmeriCorps has been the vehicle driving recovery. Crucial to these efforts was a donation from JP Morgan Chase, which stepped in and funded half of our AmeriCorps costs for this region.

These examples are indicative of the plethora of public-private partnerships across the country that foster cost-effective, impactful solutions to meet our nation’s most pressing needs.

In our work, SBP is driven by three core values: problems are solvable, community should not be defined by proximity, and clients should be treated the way we want our families treated.  Our AmeriCorps members and corporate partners -- like Farmers, UPS, and JPMorgan Chase -- embody these values.  Without them, the recovery in the communities and clients that we serve would have been further delayed.

For the impact AmeriCorps members and our corporate partners have achieved thus far, and for the solutions they will create for communities affected by disaster in the future, we should all express our strong support and appreciation.

Zack Rosenberg is the CEO and co-founder of the St. Bernard Project.

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