In February of 2006 I boarded a plane, unsure of what I was getting myself into, and headed down south six months after Hurricane Katrina. That ten day trip with a group of other young professionals led to five more years of week-long visits and an additional five years of organizing volunteer trips for other student groups. I can still recall the images, faces, and the stories I heard during my trip to Mississippi and New Orleans.
As I hear the stories of the people impacted by Hurricane Harvey, see the eerily similar images, and listen to updates of friends that live in the path of Harvey’s destruction I cannot help but think about the lessons I learned from those trips about volunteerism, our capacity to help those in need, and hallowing stories that were shared by people that were waiting on roof tops, took refuge in the Super Dome, and had evacuated to another area.
Lesson 1: Don’t make assumptions about how best to help
During my first trip I had the great opportunity to travel with a highly committed group that wanted to make a positive impact. During this trip we would split our time between two locations. We began our rebuilding effort by helping the small town put a tin roof over the top of a building that was their community center. The building housed all their after school programs, church dinners, and was a safe place for kids to play. So what happened?
As we learned more about the town members of the group started developing new ideas on how to help the town and the children that would use the center. These were truly great ideas. While the solutions were fantastic, they created new problems. The energy of some members of the group moved towards these new projects. This meant there were less people working on installing the new roof. In addition members of the town did not feel comfortable saying no to the volunteers because they were being gracious hosts and were so grateful for all the help. The last concern was that many of the ideas required a lot of supplies that the town would not be able to afford long term.
On our last night we worked late into the night and we were able to finish the main building’s roof, but never were able to start the second building. What I learned and try to pass down to my students is this: Remember that you are just passing through the lives of residents. Stick with what they believe is needed to help them move forward. Even if the task seems crazy or counter productive, you do it. Why? Because at the end of your week, you are going home to your house and you want to be sure that you have helped the resident take a few steps closer to returning to their home.
Lesson 2: Listen to what the experts say is needed
In many ways lesson two builds on the first lesson. People’s needs are different and organizations help in a variety of ways. Yes, many families may need school supplies, but immediately after the water recedes school supplies are not what they need most. Organizations mostly need money in order to buy supplies to gut houses, perform mold remediation, and purchase construction materials. If you find yourself heading down to volunteer, you can also bring Home Depot or Lowes gift cards. If you happen to be a skilled tradesman, electrician or plumber, consider donating your time, as these can be very expensive parts of a rebuild. Just remember- they know better than you when it comes to what is most helpful.
Find an organization that you trust and look for what they are requesting. Personally, I am drawn to the St Bernard Project. They have created a system that utilizes volunteers, leverages the AmeriCorps to help, and have a proven system of rebuilding neighborhoods.
Lesson 3: The recovery effort will continue long after it fades from our mind
As Americans we are first rate at responding to emergencies and major tragedies. People show up to help and offer financial assistance. Social media has taken a role by organize fundraisers through their platforms. However in a few weeks most people will move on. How did I end up organizing trips to New Orleans for a decade? Because not every person has been able to come home yet and neighborhoods are still recovering. The type of destruction we saw with Katrina and now with Harvey is not the type of damage that can be fixed easily. It can require rebuilding the infrastructure of neighborhoods, like the municipal water and sewage lines, it requires families to have the money needed to rebuild, and so many more details. We are twelve years post Katrina and there is still a lot of work to do. Many other major natural disasters and national tragedies have occurred that deserve our attention, but we also need to remember that just because we moved on does not mean those impacted have also moved on. If you are interested in continuing to help Harvey victims don’t forget to check in six months, a year, and even a few years from now.
Lesson 4: Urban, suburban, and rural communities all get impacted by the hurricane
Often times the big cities get most of the imagery displayed because they have a higher population density. Don’t forget that all the neighboring towns and counties that were in Hurricane Harvey’s path have tremendous amounts of damage as well. In many cases in rural areas, the hurricane can actually lead to tornado development as well.
Lesson 5: Get your community involved
When a community commits to helping solve a problem they can do incredible things. This is why many communities still send a group to New Orleans annually or raise funds to help the victims of tsunamis. Imagine the impact a community can have over a few years!
At Brimmer our faculty and staff will be collaborating with students to come up with a response for our community. I am proud to be a part of a community that saw a problem and immediately began organizing themselves to help those in need. Be sure to pay attention to details that come out about our effort support those in need due to Hurricane Harvey’s destruction.