How do we get beyond tarps?

Photo: FEMA Incident Management Assistance Team members assists a resident as he places a tarp on his damaged roof in Baton Rouge after Hurricane Laura. Source: FEMA

Last month, I took a pandemic-delayed trip to visit southeast Texas and parts of Louisiana along the Gulf Coast, and the bayous and rivers that run through these areas. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy often meets with grantee partners, community leaders and fellow funders as we consider what the long-term community-based needs will be following an event – we call it “shoe-leather philanthropy.” I’ve missed this aspect of my job. 

Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve longed for the opportunity to see firsthand the recovery happening in the communities we supported with funding following hurricanes, extreme freezes, floods and tornadoes in these disaster-prone areas. As we consider additional funding opportunities, I need to be in the communities to understand the status of recovery and how our limited philanthropic resources might be most helpful to continued equitable recovery.  

What I saw 

Though it was heartbreaking to see, I wasn’t surprised by the lack of progress in supporting marginalized populations struggling to recover from disasters that hit their communities during a global pandemic. As I drove down the beautiful forest-lined highways and overpasses over the deep green flora surrounding the bayous, I saw mile after mile of homes still blue tarped and businesses still shuttered – a sign that significant damage remains, and repair and reconstruction had likely not even begun.  

In Lake Charles, Louisiana, I met with a family of five (parents and three teens) thrilled to see drywall and have a roof that no longer leaked. We wept together as the mother of the family shared their story. She lost her job due to the pandemic just before the events that devastated them. Initially damaged by Hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020, their home was damaged again by flooding just as they had begun repairs themselves, destroying the tools and supplies they had recently purchased with minimal resources.  

Living since then in a small FEMA trailer, this family relies on our grantee partner, SBP, to do the repairs to make their home safe and livable. And the crew working on the house and the local leaders at SBP are doing fantastic work to help this family. You can see the love they’re pouring into making this house a home again. Imagine, though, being without your home – a safe place for your children to grow up – for more than two years and seeing it damaged again and again. Mom was thrilled to see the tile in her showers in the bathrooms and countertops in her kitchen. The small things matter when you’ve struggled for so long.  

And this family is one of the lucky ones. Many homeowners have yet even to begin this process. Low-income renters, often single-parent households or seniors, can’t find a safe, affordable home in their community. A staggeringly high number have likely been forced to move from Lake Charles for good – limiting the number of workers available to support this city’s economic and infrastructure recovery. Local nonprofits providing rental and utility assistance for those who have managed to remain are strapped as their services need has grown. It’s a vicious cycle we see time after time.  

Near Houma, Louisiana, I met with leaders of several local nonprofit organizations. They were seeking guidance from fellow nonprofit friends and funders, not just on how to support their communities along the bayous but also on sustaining themselves and their organizations through the layered traumas caused by disaster after disaster.  

Local philanthropic funders are providing some help, but more must be done to ensure these communities survive and thrive in the face of what is likely to be more frequent and more severe disasters in the future. How can they maintain their creative culture and sustain their local economies and commitment to one another and the land where they live if they continually must fight against “nature” and our antiquated systems of recovery?  

What should we do? 

So how do we get beyond the tarps and the destruction in disaster-affected communities more quickly and equitably? Here are a few ways: 

  • We always say at CDP: All funders are disaster funders. And this was proven once again as I saw the devastation to schools, local economies, families, affordable housing, community health and mental health. Philanthropy supports these things during blue sky days, but they are also those issues in communities most affected by disasters.  
  • Funders must continue to invest in building the capacity of local nonprofits to better serve their communities before, during and after disasters. Provide your partners with the flexibility to use funding as needed, with as few restrictions as possible. They know their populations and how to serve them. Provide them with the tools and trust them to do the work.  
  • Funders should stay committed for the long term and not turn away when the needs are greatest. We must consider that recovery takes time and lots of resources. Don’t bow to pressure to “get all the money out the door.” Provide what’s genuinely needed early but know that more money will be necessary as the slow wheels of equitable recovery continue to turn. We plan to provide additional recovery grants for events that happened in 2020, so we’ll be there for our partners and these communities for the long term. I hope you will join us. 
  • Engage with your local, state and federal representatives to learn more about the systems in place and how to encourage improvement. Philanthropy plays a small part in our disaster recovery systems. Government funding through multiple agencies at the federal level, along with local and state funding, provides the bulk of the recovery dollars. But they don’t offer it equitably, and it is not done promptly, consistently and efficiently. Though some bipartisan political efforts have tried to change that, and federal agencies are taking steps to do better, those who fund in disasters need to use not just our dollars but also our voices to affect systemic change.  

How can we secure government dollars more quickly and consistently and in ways that are simple to understand and access? How can we ensure that funding is provided equitably? It doesn’t help to repair a home if the government-managed community infrastructure is not improved to prevent it from flooding again.  

Some good news 

I witnessed a lot of beauty in the devastation: Amazing people and organizations doing the hard work of community support and collaboration. And this provided me with a sense of hope.  

In New Orleans, I spent time with our grantee partner, Culture Aid NOLA, learning more about a recent hurricane preparedness event they hosted that we helped fund. Our partners recognized that evacuation before a hurricane is not always possible due to limited resources. But sheltering in place can be extremely difficult without adequate supplies, which are not always accessible and affordable.  

July Supply brought together multiple partners to provide necessary supplies for free to local low-income residents to help sustain themselves should a hurricane come again this season. The leaders of Culture Aid NOLA plan to make this an annual event and help replicate it in communities along the Gulf Coast. They are building their community’s capacity to respond by helping them prepare. And that’s beautiful.  

(Photo: FEMA Incident Management Assistance Team members assist a resident as he places a tarp on his damaged roof in Baton Rouge after Hurricane Laura. Source: FEMA)
Sally Ray

Sally Ray

Director, Domestic Funds