As the nation marked the second anniversary of the tornado that wiped out Joplin, Missouri in 2011, CDP staff interviewed Denise St. Omer, Vice President of Community Investment at Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. She reflected on Joplin and outlined suggestions for funders as they look ahead to supporting recovery in Moore, Oklahoma.

Q: What was the role of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation after the Joplin tornado?

A: Community foundations are so well suited to help in disaster recovery. We know the organizations in the area that are most effective and who should be funded. We became involved with Joplin, in partnership with the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, to bring the expertise and resources of large community foundation (ours is the 7th largest in the nation) to their local community foundation.  We started a fund and raised $750,000 and worked to support the work of local nonprofits over the next year following the tornado.

Q: What were the essential ingredients of this partnership?

A: Relationships.  We already had solid relationships with the community foundations in Joplin, the Ozarks and Southwest Missouri.  That relationship was critical to our ability to be able to connect our donors to the critical needs of the Joplin community in a meaningful way.

Q: What special niche do community foundations play in disaster philanthropy?

A: With disasters everyone wants to help right away. Often they fund food, clothing and shelter.  As time and interest fades and the camera crews go away, the hard work of long-term recovery begins.  We know the communities, their existing needs and what the long-term needs of the community will be.   We also can spot unmet immediate needs and identify and fund the organizations that can best address those needs.

Q: What were some of the immediate unmet needs in Joplin?

A:  Basics that we don’t think about. For example, people are overwhelmed.  They have lost their homes and often all of their important documents including insurance papers.  They can’t figure out how to apply for FEMA assistance and insurance so we funded a team from Legal Aid to go in and to help people through the process.  Another immediate need that is often overlooked is childcare and supporting children in healing from trauma. Kids need normalcy and there are programs in place to help, for example The Boys and Girls Clubs, but they don’t have the resources to expand their work in a disaster.

Q: What were some of the long-term unmet needs in Joplin?

A:  By far the biggest challenge is housing and I believe that Moore will experience this too. Once housing stock is rebuilt it becomes more expensive to buy or to rent.  And when people do secure housing they don’t have money for appliances and basic furnishings such as beds. So we funded organizations that supported rebuilding efforts and helped people settle into their homes.

Q:  On the topic of rebuilding, what role did philanthropy play in looking at rebuilding to mitigate loss in future disasters?

A: Philanthropic dollars allowed the community and the nonprofits there to assess rebuilding needs. Joplin was smart; they spoke to people in New Orleans to ask them about best practices.  For example, the Joplin hospital was destroyed and is being rebuilt in a way to withstand future events.

Q: Looking back, what were some of the unintended consequences of raising money on behalf of Joplin—good or bad?

A: A lot of nonprofits suffered. Money was diverted from them to disaster-related organizations.  Long-term, many organizations’ operating budgets will be challenged, and recovery funds may or may not be available to assist them.

Q: Can you offer donors a few suggestions on how to make their giving in Oklahoma most effective?

A: Yes. First as I said earlier, build on existing relationships and look for opportunities to collaborate with other funders—either ones with local connections or more resources.  Second, be very transparent about the flow of giving and ensure that if dollars will be given out later rather than sooner make that clear to donors and to the community. Third, look to the community to hear what they need; community foundations probably already know about existing community needs that, often increase in times of disaster. Finally, know what you are really good at funding, and fund those areas.

Q: What advice do you have for those people impacted in Oklahoma, people on the ground providing support and to funders?

A: One thing to keep in mind is that there are others who have been through this.  You can tap into the knowledge gained from communities who have experienced similar disasters.  Second, there is hope. In communities like Joplin and Moore what you see on TV is real: people digging through rubble to find their neighbors and being so willing to help each other.  That sense of community and responsibility for looking out for each other grows even stronger over time.  It sounds cliché but these communities are filled with amazing people.  Disasters like this help us create stronger communities, and they bring out our connectivity.