Oct 26
October 26, 2013

Learning from Disaster


When a disaster strikes in this country we all become instant witnesses not just to tragedy and heartbreak, but to an outpouring of support, donations and financial contributions from fellow Americans. The media descends on a flooded town or a neighborhood shredded by a twister. We see incredible images of destruction and heart-wrenching reports in real time, as they happen. Thousands of us text $5 donations to the Red Cross at the push of a button, musicians hold benefit concerts and corporations and non-profits donate supplies like bottled water, clothes, baby formula and power generators. We rally around communities in distress. It is powerful and it is in our fabric as Americans.

But what happens when the press departs – off to chase the next big story in our society’s never ending 24-hour news cycle? What happens when the National Guard troops are dismissed and relief organizations pack up their temporary operations? How does a devastated community move on? How does it organize to pick up the pieces and rebuild efficiently?

This is a hard question to answer just as a thought exercise. Now imagine trying to answer it standing in a community center with hundreds of your neighbors in Joplin, Missouri following the E5 tornado there, or in the lot in Staten Island where your house was… before Hurricane Sandy.

In the last thirty years, disaster recovery in America has faced its share of challenges. The wheel was almost always reinvented from one disaster to the next. There was no consistency in the recovery process, no sharing of crucial information. This resulted in a crippling redundancy, and a dearth of efficiency, innovation and meaningful collaboration within an affected community’s effort to rebuild. Worst of all, best practices were not carried over to the next disaster, leaving each community on an island, at risk of repeating the same mistakes that had set back so many other communities before them. 

Today, St. Bernard Project (SBP) works to solve that problem. SBP was founded to help the hardworking citizens of St. Bernard Parish (the only county in U.S. history ever to be deemed 100% uninhabitable after a disaster) and New Orleans recover from Hurricane Katrina. Eight years later we have helped more than 500 families get back home in greater New Orleans. Along the way, we have learned important lessons about the recovery process and commonalities shared by all communities seeking to recover from destruction. With substantial support from corporate partners like Toyota, UPS, Zurich, Farmers Insurance and Dow, SBP turned these lessons and best practices into an all-under-one-roof model for recovery that gives disaster-impacted communities a prompt, efficient and predictable path to recovery.

These lessons are too valuable not to share, and so when Joplin was devastated in 2011 we partnered with the community’s local recovery organization, “Rebuild Joplin”, to share our model - quite literally, a playbook for recovery. By implementing it, the community was able to avoid the pitfalls and mistakes made by previous recovery operations elsewhere, essentially gaining a three-year advantage from the start. Today, just two years after the storm, Joplin is only a few homes away from being completely rebuilt.

Following Hurricane Sandy, St. Bernard Project was proud to partner with Friends of Rockaway and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation to again pass on the playbook for recovery, taking into account best practices from both New Orleans and Joplin – best practices that have allowed SBP to rebuild over 600 homes with the help of over 50,000 volunteers.  

Just a year removed from Sandy’s destruction, there is still much work to be done. One hundred and seventy eight homeowners are currently on our waiting list for rebuilding services in Rockaway, NY alone, but we know that by transferring lessons learned and implementing a streamlined approach to rebuilding that relies on the generosity of volunteer labor, we can reduce the human toll of disaster by ensuring that homes are rebuilt affordably and adhere to high standards, all in much less time than it once took.

Today, we are especially proud and privileged to join the Clinton Foundation and Chelsea Clinton on her second Sandy-related “Day of Action” to continue driving the path towards recovery in Staten Island and Rockaway. Further exemplifying her continued dedication to rebuilding communities impacted by the storm, Chelsea will join SBP and our partners as we break ground on the first “Resilient House”—one of the winning designs for the “Designing Recovery” competition. “Designing Recovery” was first announced as a CGI America Commitment to Action in June and today’s groundbreaking marks significant progress not only on that project, but in improving the long-term disaster recovery process nationally.

Relief is just the first step to disaster recovery. Destruction does not leave when the news trucks do. St. Bernard Project, its volunteers, affiliates and partners, including the Clinton Foundation, are dedicated to seeing families find a prompt, efficient and predictable path back home – a dream that so many disaster-impacted American families unfortunately can still only imagine.