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Learning from Hurricane Sandy Champions of Change


How much of an impact can a small group of volunteers make after a disaster? 

Last Wednesday, I had the honor of addressing the Hurricane Sandy Champions of Change – a group of “ordinary” people who did (and are still doing) extraordinary things to help those who were impacted by Hurricane Sandy.  Many of them suffered damage to their homes and businesses as a result of the storm, but continued to fulfill the needs they saw in their communities.

champions of change at table

CAPTION: Washington, D.C., April 24, 2013 – The White House Champions of Change event which honored people and organizations directly involved in response and recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy. These hidden heroes implemented innovative, collaborative solutions to meet the unique needs of communities and neighborhoods as they worked to rebuild after the devastating effects of this disaster.

The exceptional work of these Champions of Change reminds us that every disaster, big and small, brings out champions in our communities.  It’s our job as government leaders to recognize this and support their success. This impressive group showed us what it takes to be a champion:

  1. Champions aren’t afraid to act – When people hear the term “first responder”, they often think of fire engines and search and rescue teams.  And that’s right.  But many times, the “first responders” after a disaster are neighbors and those within the community.  They’re the ones immediately knocking on doors, checking on friends and loved ones, and seeing if people’s basic needs are being met.  And neighbors are the ones who know the community best. What makes the Champions of Change a special group was that they were able to identify the unique needs of their own communities and respond to them.

    As the Champions shared their individual stories, a few of them said “Do what you’re good at.”  That’s a great perspective, and that’s exactly what they did –they took it upon themselves to help their neighbors— applying their skill set to solving real problems.  If they knew how to cook, they prepared meals. If they could gut and pump homes, they got to work. If they could set up wireless networks for internet access, they made it happen.  Having an impact during and after emergencies can be as simple as focusing on what you’re good at and taking action.
  2. Seeing the public as a resource, not a liability – Within government, there’s often been a tendency to rely on government alone to respond to emergencies.  This top-down approach, assumed people needed to be taken care of and have their needs met for them. 

    What the Champions of Change demonstrate is that this way of thinking is shortsighted – individuals and communities often rise up and solve problems on their own.   We have to look to all of us to solve problems and bring our best.  The best approach by government is to work with the public as a valuable partner— a resource that helps after a disaster, not a liability that needs to be taken care of.  Those impacted by disasters aren’t “victims”, they are “survivors”.  Those of us in government should be continually looking for ways to work alongside impacted individuals and communities so we can bring every possible resource to bear in helping their neighborhoods recover. 
  3. Solutions built around government are too small – Another reality that the Champions of Change brings to light is how big disasters can be.  If we only build solutions or systems that work within the capabilities of government, communities will suffer.  What happens to that system when the disaster is bigger than the government’s scale?  What happens to those impacted by the disaster when that system doesn’t do what it’s supposed to?  Government by itself does not have all the answers – the team responding to disasters must be much bigger than that.

    We can’t fall into the trap of government having the answers because disasters hit communities and families.  That’s why we need to build our response and recovery systems around the public first.  Members of the community need to be at the planning table alongside government, businesses, and non-profit organizations because they’re the ones that best know the needs of the community and they’re the ones who are often the first responders. That’s what the Champions of Change did – they identified people’s needs in the community and scaled their solutions to meet those needs.

champions of change at table

During the event, the Champions were also asked to give their advice to others on how to prepare for emergencies, and our FEMAlive Twitter account captured what a few of them shared:

Without the tireless efforts and countless hours of volunteers, we would not be as far along as we are after Hurricane Sandy.  There is still a lot of work to be done for every community to fully recover.  The purpose of Wednesday’s event at the White House wasn’t just to recognize the impact of the 17 Champions of Change – it was also to inspire others to act.  I hope you will follow the lead of what these Champions of Change are doing in their communities and take action to make your family, street, town, neighborhood, or city more resilient.

For more on the White House Champions of Change, visit

Last Updated: 
07/08/2017 - 10:22