Volunteers: The Often Overlooked Backbone of Disaster Recovery

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Release date: 
July 20, 2014
Release Number: 
NR 069

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The backbreaking work accomplished by volunteers in Alabama  following the April 28 through May 5 severe storms, tornadoes, straight-line winds and flooding seems to have occurred out of the clear blue sky.

  • More than 25 Amish men traveled 70 miles to help a Madison County farmer clean up debris and help fix her home. They asked for nothing in return except a hot meal.
  • Nearly 100 volunteers showed up over a recent weekend to cut and remove 25,000 cubic yards of debris in Bessemer. But that’s just a drop in the bucket – one month after the disaster, volunteers had removed nearly 80,000 cubic yards of debris. All these volunteer’s wanted was a “thank you.”
  • In Coxey, Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian service and relief organization, brought in 471 volunteers who put in 5,900 hours in just three weeks. Also there, a local church was transformed into a storm relief center and overflowed with donations of clothes, food, personal hygiene items, cleaning supplies, and pet and baby items for survivors. The look on survivors’ faces was ample payment for these workers.

Every year and in every disaster, volunteers fill an often overlooked role and seemingly arrive and leave the scene at just the right time. A further look will reveal a network of agencies choreographing volunteer groups with seamless precision to fill the gaps that the federal government cannot. They are called Long Term Recovery Committees or LTRC.

Charles “Larry” Buckner serves as a Federal Emergency Management Agency volunteer agency liaison in Alabama to help coordinate these efforts and provide advice. He also reviews benefit requests to make sure there is no duplication.

“As far as we know, there is $4.2 million in unmet needs in home repair in all nine designated counties in this disaster,” Buckner said. “Of these counties, seven have set up Long Term Recovery Committees, some of which had just barely shut down because of the tornadoes from 2011.”

The two remaining counties have not had LTRCs in the past but are now forming them.

While FEMA and the state can and have helped survivors, neither the federal nor state governments are empowered by law to make disaster survivors whole, that is, to fully replace all that is lost.

LTRCs pick up where FEMA leaves off. Their goal is to identify and meet as many reasonable needs as possible.

These committees are the boots on the ground determining what unmet needs exist. They, in turn, work with state Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters and other groups to attain what is needed, whether it is cash, workers or donated materials.  

The committees are everywhere across the country, Buckner said. The concept has been in existence for more than 18 years.

These committees are made up from a variety of organizations – church denominations, local charities, community foundations and some independent groups, such as nondenominational “mega churches.” The one feature they all share is a calling to help serve those in need.

“United Way is providing case workers in some counties and may act as the fiduciary, the American Red Cross may provide case workers as does the Salvation Army,” he added.

In Alabama, Buckner said the LTRC committees are working with Serve Alabama, part of the governor’s office, and has applied for a grant to be used to hire case workers.

“With the grant, they can hire 12 case workers for 18 months,” he said. “It asks for just shy of $1 million.” If approved, the grant will come from FEMA, he added.

The case workers meet with survivors and assess their unmet needs. They take into account what FEMA provided, but FEMA grants are capped at $32,400 per household. Anything beyond that amount is where the LTRC committees can assist.

The case worker will make a recommendation to a group of three to five committee members “in such a way that the board sees the facts but may never know who that individual is,” he explained.

“That is done to prevent favoritism or being passed over based on who the survivor is,” he said. “Then, the group gives a thumb’s up or down to entirely or partially meet the unmet need. You won’t see them replacing a swimming pool, but they may replace house siding and decide to paint it as well.”

While this is going on, other members of the LTRC are working to recruit volunteer organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, the Mennonites and others to come in and repair or rebuild homes. Still others are securing grants large enough to meet most, if not all, of the unmet needs.

“The dollars can go into the millions,” he said.

And any excess funding all goes to meet the needs of the survivors.

“If there is a surplus, they use the money to replace furniture, appliances and other things that will help people get back on their feet.

 “They want to provide people with safe, sanitary and functional homes,” Buckner said. “In some areas of the country they are not as successful. But they are here because the southern culture dictates that communities take care of their own.”

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FEMA’s mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.

Disaster recovery assistance is available without regard to race, color, religion, nationality, sex, age, disability, English proficiency or economic status.  If you or someone you know has been discriminated against, call FEMA toll-free at 800-621-FEMA (3362). For TTY call 800-462-7585.

FEMA’s temporary housing assistance and grants for childcare, medical, dental expenses and/or funeral expenses do not require individuals to apply for an SBA loan. However, those who receive SBA loan applications must submit them to SBA to be eligible for assistance that covers personal property, transportation, vehicle repair or replacement, and moving and storage expenses.

For more information on Alabama’s disaster recovery, visit www.fema.gov or http://www.ema.alabama.gov/.  For the joint Facebook page, go to www.facebook.com/AlabamaEMA. To receive Twitter updates: http://twitter.com/AlabamaEMA  or www.twitter.com/femaregion4

Last Updated: 
July 18, 2014 - 16:22
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