AUSTIN, Texas -- If you're going through a struggle, sometimes the best thing you can do is find someone who has been through it before, someone who knows the ropes on what works and what doesn't.
That was the idea behind a video teleconference (VTC) held this month by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) section dedicated to coordinating interagency resources for community recovery. The VTC brought together officials from four states to share experiences with officials from Southeast Texas who are coping with the devastation of Hurricane Ike.
The "Recovery Mentor Meeting" featured disaster recovery representatives from Pascagoula, Miss.; Windsor, Colo.; Punta Gorda, Fla; and Des Moines, Iowa. All described the major impact that disasters had on their communities and actions that have been taken to rebuild those communities.
Listening closely were officials from Chambers and Jefferson counties. The message they heard was clear: Get government, the private sector, community organizations and citizens together and use the disaster as a chance to make the community better.
Charlotte County, FL, suffered widespread, crippling damage during 2004 as Hurricane Charley blasted through the county and the city of Punta Gorda with sustained winds greater than 145 mph. Many public buildings, homes and business were destroyed.
FEMA Community Recovery helped to coordinate the affected agencies' responses, said Charlotte County Housing Manager Bob Hebert, who was director of community recovery for Charlotte County after the hurricane hit.
"At some time, the local community has to understand that FEMA will go away," Hebert said. But he added that FEMA "brought resources to bear that we would have never been able to put together in a hurry."
Punta Gorda Mayor Larry Friedman, a private citizen at the time, said the reason for the community's success in recovery was planning that involved the entire community and its citizens.
A citizen group called Team Punta Gorda held public meetings and developed a citizen master plan, separate but aligned with Charlotte County's recovery plan, outlining a vision of what the residents wanted the city to become and how to make it happen.
The private sector became involved and raised $250,000 to expedite the process and put the plan on paper.
"We wanted better than what we had," said Roger Peterson, president of Team Punta Gorda. He added that one of the lessons learned was to "focus on one geography and a couple of key projects in order to show the world that progress is being made and there is light at the end of the tunnel."
Others disaster community representatives encouraged Texans to take the opportunity of the disaster and the increased flow of grant funds to do things that probably wouldn't be feasible at any other time.
"This is the opportunity you have to do something special," said Kelly Arnold, town manager of Windsor, Colo., where a May 2008 tornado did major damage to residences. "You've got to take that optimistic viewpoint."
Arnold and others advised setting aside biases toward agencies or communities and recommended coming together regionally to increase influence in obtaining resources for recovery.
Kay Kell, current city manager for Pascagoula, Miss., which suffered from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said that, initially, she disliked going to partnership meetings. Later, she realized that the "best thing was the partnerships and getting people together." Now, governments and communities are doing things for each other they never would have done before, she indicated.
Kell said Pascagoula didn't have the money to hire consultants, but discovered that many free resources were available from universities and from cities outside the disaster area. The International City/County Managemen...