Lessons From Katrina: This Organization Tries to Get Hurricane Florence Survivors Home Quicker

Many in North Carolina were left homeless by the storm and its still-receding floodwaters. This nonprofit wants to shrink the amount of time it takes to rebuild after a disaster.
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SBP, formerly known as the St. Bernard Project, was founded in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. The organization has assisted with long-term recovery in at least eight cities affected by other hurricanes or disasters since then, including Houston; Rockaway, New York; and Joplin, Missouri.

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

After Hurricane Florence made landfall in the Carolinas, the USDA’s Forest Service staff and FEMA coordinated to evacuate and rescue residents. Coaches and students at a school in mountainous Asheville, North Carolina, which was not affected by the storm, collected money and supply donations for neighbors. Volunteer firefighters from Oregon made the trek to North Carolina to help clear debris and deliver meals.

But this is just the beginning for North Carolinians whose homes have been destroyed.

“This deadly storm has left a lasting impact on families, neighborhoods, and communities across a wide swath of our state,” Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement. “Now is the time to pull together to help our fellow North Carolinians recover from Hurricane Florence and rebuild even stronger, and smarter, than before.”

Flooding is ongoing, but after floodwaters have cleared, contractors and volunteers will have to rebuild homes and clean up mold, spillage from septic systems, and other debris.

One group is already preparing its long-term recovery efforts in North Carolina. SBP, formerly known as the St. Bernard Project, was founded in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. The organization has assisted with long-term recovery in at least eight cities affected by other hurricanes or disasters since then, including Houston; Rockaway, New York; and Joplin, Missouri. Now, it’s setting up long-term assistance in North Carolina.

SBP began its efforts by sending a team of five AmeriCorps members and two full-time nonprofit staffers to New Bern, North Carolina, on September 18.

New Bern was hard hit by Hurricane Florence. On Sept. 21, the city of New Bern tweeted that initial assessments showed Hurricane Florence is responsible for $74.5 million in residential damage and $25.6 million in commercial damage.

“New Bern lost more than 4,200 homes during Hurricane Florence, and the area our team is working is a blue-collar community that needs a bunch of assistance,” said Reese May, chief strategy and innovation officer at SBP, noting that the organization likes to send its initial team to areas with the most need.

The communities that need the most assistance after a disaster are those that are low-income and made up of people of color.

SBP uses a number of interventions for long-term recovery. These include rebuilding homes quickly, training local organizations to clear debris and mold from buildings, and assisting homeowners with securing funds from their insurance company or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It also advises policymakers to get federal dollars out quickly and efficiently.

When a hurricane is looming, SPB staffers are assigned to track the storm and evaluate options for response. They watch for where it might make landfall, which resources the community already has, and which areas might be most affected. The organization seeks out existing partners in the area that can share resources related to preparedness to homeowners.

While SBP now operates in eight cities, where it will stay until disaster-related housing needs have been addressed in those communities, the organization doesn’t retain a force of volunteers and responders. When new disasters happen, they pull full-time staff and members from AmeriCorps, one of the organization’s partners.

Often the communities that need the most assistance—both immediate and long-term—after a disaster are those that are low-income and made up of people of color. The race breakdown in New Bern is 53.5 percent White, 31.4 percent Black, and 6.12 percent Latinx, according to Census data. And the median household income is $41,970, more than $6,000 less than the statewide median of $48,256, according to Census data.

“It’s not surprising that disasters affect richer people less, that they affect communities of color more, said Dr. Jacob Remes, clinical assistant professor of history at New York University’s Gallatin School for Individualized Study. “[It’s] not because disasters are racist or classist but because people with less power are more likely to be in more hazardous locations.”

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That was  the case in New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina did the most harm to the working class, who stayed in the Louisiana Superdome, where their health and safety was threatened, for days after the storm. Also, the city’s elderly and Black populations “were much more likely to die than would be expected given their presence in the population,” according to a study published two years after the storm.

Remes, who started studying disasters after Hurricane Katrina, said that until Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, he thought response and recovery efforts had improved since 2006.

In Puerto Rico, racism and imperialism impeded the trend of improved recovery response when a disaster occurs, he said. While Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, a 1901 Supreme Court ruling set a precedent for the island to be denied the same rights as states because of its “alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought, the administration of government and justice.” The response and recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria were slow. An internal report from FEMA showed that the agency was ill-prepared to help with recovery in Puerto Rico.

Now with Hurricane Florence, individuals, organizations, and governments have a chance to get things right.

Yet, under the Stafford Act, a law that sets guidelines for the federal response to major disasters, the U.S. government should have treated Puerto Rico like a state.

Now with Hurricane Florence, individuals, organizations, and governments have a chance to get things right, Remes added.

“If you think about who lives near hog farms and who lives near coal ash dumps, those are created through environmental racism and class inequality,” Remes said, referencing the lagoons of hog waste and the pool of toxic coal ash that have been flooded by hurricane rains in North Carolina. “But I also think that we have the opportunity to say, ‘No, we’re going to try to do better this time.’”

In North Carolina’s census blocks with 80 or more percent people of color, the proportion of those living within 3 miles of an industrial hog operation is two times higher than in blocks with no people of color, according to a 2014 report from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In North Carolina so far, the seven-person team with SBP has led and trained volunteers and organizations to clear out carpet, appliances, and other large debris as well as remove mold from homes that were damaged during the storm.

May said he knows this small team has a limited reach, but that immediate response is helpful as the organization prepares to set up its long-term operating site in the state.

“SBP’s not a disaster-response organization,” May said. “We’re a long-term recovery group. But over the years, we’ve learned that if you don’t get in there quickly, many, many missteps can happen, so we've adopted the response phase as well.”

Once the long-term site is set up, SBP will accept applications for recovery assistance from hurricane survivors. The application will take into account both qualitative data about families’ needs and financial background, as well as, “qualitative considerations that get to the health and safety and sustainability of the family’s current condition after the storm,” May said.

Two of the main forms of long-term assistance SBP are to offer will be to rebuild homes and help homeowners obtain payouts from their insurance policies or government agencies, which typically take 12 to 18 months to process.

The nonprofit’s overall mission is to help shrink the amount of time it takes for communities to recover after disaster.

“Mississippi and Louisiana are still recovering [from Hurricane Katrina] and we don’t want that to be the case for New York and New Jersey [after Hurricane Sandy]. We don’t want it to be the case for Houston and South Carolina [after Hurricane Joaquin],” May said. “And we certainly don’t want it to be the case for the folks on the coast of North Carolina right now.”

This article was funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation. 

Correction: September 28, 2018.
An earlier version quoted the number of homes in New Bern, North Carolina, lost to Hurricane Florence as 42. The number is 4,200.