Remember that historic, devastating storm, Hurricane Harvey? In light of other storms and wildfires, nuclear missile tests, mass shootings, and a wave of sexual assault allegations, the storm that battered the Texas Gulf may now seem like a distant memory. But just months ago, my colleagues in Houston were stocking up on batteries and non-perishables. Given the likelihood that these catastrophic events will hit with greater frequency worldwide, those of us in the nonprofit sector—who generally have profound commitments to our communities—should absorb the lessons of Harvey and consider the challenges we might face. This is especially important for those of us with no explicit mission to provide disaster relief. In Houston, many nonprofits had never faced this kind of challenge. And yet so many organizations with seemingly tangential missions were able to pivot in the blink of an eye. Somehow, they harnessed a wave of goodwill and resources, making the most of it while knowing it would likely be short-term.

Many Houston nonprofits had never faced a challenge like Hurricane Harvey. And yet so many with seemingly tangential missions were able to pivot in the blink of an eye. (iStock)1

Disasters of this scale do not discriminate; they affect the vulnerable and the privileged, the constituents and the leaders. During a disaster, everyone must shore up their available resources—ideally in close collaboration with the rest of the community. Effective collaboration requires leaders—even from unexpected places. Now that the water has receded (though the relief effort is far from over), I’d like to share three lessons from the experience in the hope that others might be better prepared if and when their communities are similarly affected. Although the impulse is to pull together emergency kits and tool belts, a wide range of functions are needed—and some of them are less obvious, like coordination and communication. These roles do not require material resources, but they require significant time and sustained efforts, and it may make sense to designate them in advance.

1. Getting out information via unconventional channels is critically important during a disaster.

Decide who in your community is best suited to provide ongoing mass communications to affected persons, how you will receive inquiries from them, and how you will consolidate information in real-time from many different sources to respond rapidly to changing conditions and personalized needs.

As more than 51 inches of rain fell, we saw neighborly love crossing all divides. Regular people cruised around in boats on rescue missions, and celebrities made large and impressive donations. I live and work in Austin, where I worried about my colleagues and wandered around Target with the rest of the city, pulling travel-sized shampoo bottles off near-empty shelves, because our kind-hearted mayor told us to prepare kits for thousands of newly homeless neighbors.

Houston was chaos. Businesses and schools were closed indefinitely. Communication channels and basic infrastructure were constantly in flux. Staff at my organization fielded their own fears about property damage, and the safety of their families, friends, and neighbors. Nearly everyone on staff provided temporary housing to friends or family. One staff member had to cancel her wedding reception that week.

Most ordinary people had no idea what they were supposed to do, where they were supposed to go, when and where their kids could go back to school (so that they could go back to work), or how to find relief. The people who most desperately needed accurate information—those temporarily or permanently displaced—were often the last ones to receive it.

With no existing plan or mandate in place to reach people, we asked ourselves: Who was supposed to do this? Consider the resources available to my organization, Families Empowered, a small nonprofit in Houston. Our mission is to empower and serve families as they search for a high-quality school for their children. We do this at significant scale; every year we provide information to help more than 70,000 primarily low-income or working class families in Houston, San Antonio, and Austin during their search. One channel for communication is our summer call center, where we reach out to families with information such as application deadlines. When the storm hit, we had no experience in disaster relief.

Because we were attuned to communicating with families and children throughout the city, our executive director decided we could fill in the gaps for our families. Staff began readying our data and communications infrastructure to deliver a range of information to those in need. This included practical advice on how to get help from United Way, how to report a power outage, how to file a flood insurance claim, and even how to locate a new refrigerator. In many cases, ours was the first organization to check in with families after Harvey hit.

After immediate needs were taken care of, there was the business of finding new schools for displaced families and sharing information with families about getting back to school. Staff members leveraged our close relationships with traditional public districts and charter management organizations around the city, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, and the Texas Education Agency to gather information. Managers started re-assembling our summer call center, which had already closed for the season. Six former call center interns agreed to pitch in, with one caller working from his out-of-state dorm room. In total, over six weeks, at least 41,000 people in 280 zip codes received email support, automated messages, or personalized information. Despite staffing challenges, in addition to outbound calls, operators took 460 inbound calls from parents about how to access school transportation resources, new enrollment opportunities, school closures, and what legal rights a parent could expect as a displaced or homeless family.

2. Deploying resources effectively and efficiently requires coordination.

Just as you’ll need to communicate with those directly affected, you’ll need someone designated to communicate with the “helpers.” Do not expect that leadership necessarily to come from a federal or local government agency. Rather, plan in advance for a more homegrown effort. Often state and city agencies aren’t closest to the most vulnerable and don’t have credible access to average citizens.

After the rains stopped, the Houston community found itself facing an estimated $180 billion in damages. In the first several weeks, community leaders had to make tough decisions about how to deploy and prioritize available resources, often with very little understanding of long-term needs. We learned the importance of an organization that can effectively convene all the relevant government and non-government agencies to share real-time information and make decisions on priorities. In other words: triage. Although this happened organically in Houston due to prior experience with hurricanes, nonprofit leaders in any given community would be well advised to identify this role in advance, determine which organization has which available resources to deploy, and decide on how everyone will work together.

Children at Risk—a nonprofit that works to improve children’s quality of life through research, public policy analysis, and education and advocacy—played this coordinating and convening role among Houston nonprofits that serve children and families.

Like Families Empowered, Children at Risk has no disaster relief mandate, but it did have some prior experience. After Hurricane Ike in 2008, its staff and leadership found that communities often forgot the needs of families amid recovery efforts focused on infrastructure and rebuilding. After Harvey, its executive director felt the organization was in a position to help because it had established relationships with direct service organizations. Within a week of the storm, Children at Risk staff brought together 60 local organizations for weekly meetings to identify gaps, share information, collaborate, and communicate with other organizations eager to help. The goal was to make sure each partner was working as effectively and efficiently as possible. For example, because of its relationships with schools, Families Empowered helped identify and assess damaged schools for the Texas Education Agency, and contacted philanthropists and construction companies for help repairing them. Other nonprofits focused on mental health for affected children and adults, or on food insecurity.

This approach worked, and in fact, the collaborative still has bi-weekly meetings and has divided into sub-committees that continue to address specific relief efforts. Children at Risk has shifted its focus to sharing information with the Texas Legislature—a role more in line with its regular advocacy work. While the media has moved on from Harvey relief, Children at Risk is aware that many families’ needs will not be fully met for years to come. Its staff regularly travels to Austin to testify on issues its partners face, and the organization recently hosted a Legislative luncheon to educate representatives about issues on the ground.

3. Efforts around and beyond physical rebuilding need donor support.

Philanthropists need to understand the potential range of needs, which go well beyond physical infrastructure, in advance of a disaster. They can do this by leveraging close ties to local communities and working with nonprofits—often existing grantees well poised to understand the variety of needs and translate them to action. Government funding can be slow to arrive and insufficient, and philanthropy can bridge those gaps.

The sequencing and timelines of a relief effort are incredibly complex, and managing them well requires massive amounts of time and resources. Many of our friends in philanthropy charged with coastal rebuilding efforts have scarcely slept in months. The needs range from tenants with damaging air quality due to landlords painting over mold to school districts facing massive enrollment changes mid-year. Having a well-coordinated network of operators close to the ground and ready to deploy at the drop of a hat—and, ideally, help liaise and communicate with constituents—can help immensely in assessing and addressing ongoing needs.

Countless Houston nonprofits have managed to support an entirely new line of (largely unfunded) work without stopping or reducing any other programmatic efforts. The reality is that few funds are available for work beyond rebuilding and direct relief. Most businesses in Houston have diverted all giving for the year to the rebuilding efforts. Many have spent all their giving on relief for employees. (One business with offices in Houston reports that many of its Puerto Rico employees haven’t been able to shower in three months.) Given this, while most nonprofits will want to try to do whatever they can to help, it’s important to remember that the resources may not be there to do both relief work and regular programmatic work. Given the long recovery timeframe for a catastrophe of this scale, this tradeoff may not be sustainable.

When Humanity Calls

We should celebrate the risks and sacrifices individuals and organizations take to meet the needs of our communities. “When humanity calls, it’s hard to deny the opportunity to serve,” said Colleen Dippel, founder and executive director of Families Empowered. If her staff had not supported the Harvey call center, they would have volunteered together. “The staff has been through trauma,” she said.

According to Edith Rahimian of Children at Risk, the financial pressure of pitching in on these relief efforts has not hindered collaboration—yet. On the other hand, it has made many staff members—in very short order—feel like they are working several jobs at the same time. For those working in the field and who understand the long timeline for recovery, it can be overwhelming. “Just because we’re showing we can do it and can make sacrifices doesn’t mean it has to be this way,” she says. In other words, maybe next time—and sadly, there will be a next time—a little more anticipation and a little more well-coordinated support will make it easier.

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