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Pay it Forward: Volunteers Make the Difference

Release date: 
April 24, 2012
Release Number: 

LACEY, Wa -- In the January 2009 flood, the small town of South Prairie in east Pierce County was inundated by mud.  A local high school initiated an MLK Day service project for its students. Coordinating efforts with the mayor, nearly 75 kids showed up to be a 'mud brigade,' shoveling mud out of critically needed roadways, buildings, and the town's only Fire Station driveway.

Volunteers are the lifeblood in any community-but more so in those communities struck by swirling floodwaters, damaging mudslides or landslides slamming over roadways, compounded by ice, heavy snow, and rain. 

And minimizing damage in the midst of a devastating maelstrom such as was handed to Washington citizens in the January 2012 severe winter storms is where volunteers can do double duty. Not only are they working amidst disaster, they are also 'paying it forward' by offsetting some of the unanticipated and unbudgeted emergency costs swamping affected cities and counties.

The time citizens and volunteer groups spend sandbagging, clearing debris from clogged drains, taking and logging calls, staffing warming centers, and many other duties may be an "allowable reimbursement under the FEMA Public Assistance programs," according to the state's Emergency Management Division Public Assistance Program Manager Gary Urbas. "But volunteer efforts need to be organized and documented correctly. The sad thing is that many states throughout the country do not even apply for donated resources."

At least two Washington counties, Pierce and Snohomish, found a bright spot in a declared disaster recovery process: the tracking and documenting of volunteer worker efforts, generally called 'Donated Resources.' This process has nearly reimbursed their share of matching funds required by FEMA Public Assistance Programs for declared disasters.

For South Prairie, according to Barbara Nelson, Pierce County's neighborhood emergency team (PC-NET) liaison, "we sent the town forms for documenting the sign-in and sign-out of each of these kids. They collected permission slips from parents, and the County's Department of Emergency Management (DEM) was able to count those substantial volunteer hours toward reimbursement." 

This one volunteer effort brought nearly $11,000 to South Prairie. Pierce County's volunteer efforts netted reimbursements totaling $29,000.

Once a presidential disaster declaration is issued and damages are documented, FEMA can provide up to a 75 percent cost reimbursement for eligible projects. State and local entities then must come up with a 25 percent shared cost match.

"Our contribution of donated resources allows us to meet our local match requirement and be eligible to receive additional funding to cover our emergency work costs," said Veronica Hill, Pierce County's DEM administrative program manager. 

Snohomish County, hard hit by the winter storms in 2006, had already developed a County Disaster Assistance Program complete with disaster assistance employee job descriptions.  By using sign-in/sign-out sheets and capturing detailed information, they were able to document these volunteer hours, assign a pay rate for each volunteer job, and submit a detailed claim.  In doing so, Snohomish County was able to meet the County's 12.5% match and received 75 percent of its claim for $42,700 in donated resources-adding about $32,000 into its general fund.    

"We've approached the donated resources issue in a more institutionalized method," according to John E. Pennington, Snohomish County's Department of Emergency Management (DEM) director.  Staff developed this method of how to best track volunteer hours within its Disaster Assistance program by creating position descriptions and pay rates.

Since then, Snohomish County has emerged as a leader for programmatically implementing a Disaster Assistance Program according to Urb...

Last Updated: 
January 3, 2018 - 12:12