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Thursday, May 26, 2022
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Surviving the Storm Is Just the Beginning

This is the case with most American disasters. Recovery is an uphill battle that takes years and sometimes decades.

Last weekend’s tornados dampened many families’ holiday spirit, including my own. After an uncertain night, our family outside Nashville made it through OK. They fled to a neighbor’s basement and spent the day after without power. But thousands of families in Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee aren’t so lucky. Their holidays will be spent managing the very opening phases of disaster recovery. Two-day delivery will be swapped with hours-long lines for basics. Family FaceTimes will compete with hours-long calls with insurers. For many, tidings of comfort and joy will be displaced with an uncertain year ahead.

It’s tough to hear, but this is the case with most American disasters. Recovery is an uphill battle that takes years and sometimes decades. However, the collective expectation of those who haven’t survived a major disaster is that even the most severe consequences will sort themselves out in a matter of weeks.

With such a broken social contract, the stories we will read in the months ahead are already written. As are the injustices of a national disaster support system that remains disjointed and incomplete. While many of us wait for gifts to arrive under the tree, let’s take a moment to remember what is ahead for those impacted by this event – perhaps the most destructive tornado on record.

Last weekend, when many Americans were grabbing a few final presents, those in impacted communities emerged from tornado shelters to find homes destroyed and livelihoods gone. After family, their first call was to their insurer. That’s the very first step to disaster recovery in America: letting your insurer know that you need help. Federal aid is not designed to provide immediate assistance. Instead, President Biden directed FEMA and other agencies to support state and local efforts to reach survivors in these first days of disaster.

On Monday, families were spending their Christmas money on basics like toilet paper, bottled water, and replacing winter clothes. Without a proper kitchen, most were forced to eat out, at a cost three to five times higher than buying groceries and cooking at home. The sheer challenge of simply living in a post-disaster environment is stressful and expensive. And its total costs are rarely reimbursed.

Today, many American schools will close until January. That means sled rides and snowball fights for some, but closing schools in a disaster-impacted community will limit the warm and familiar places where children feel safe. Their parents are sure to be stuck on endless recovery-related phone calls with little time for the hard work of round-the-clock parenting. For these reasons and more, kids need extra care and attention in a post-disaster environment and have few options to get it.

On Christmas Eve, my family will be streaming one of those ’round-the-clock fireplace cams and listening to Bing Crosby. It won’t be quiet in my house, but it will be peaceful. By contrast, impacted families across four states will be looking for some way to salvage the holidays. Head to Grandma’s for the holidays? Not with the minivan totaled in the storm. Replacing the family car after a disaster is a daunting challenge. Used and new car prices remain at record-breaking highs, and car dealers near these communities had their own stock wiped out in the storm.

By New Year’s Eve, things in Kentucky and Tennessee might be moving forward. Most impacted families will have registered for Federal Disaster Assistance and received a small cash payment for emergency expenses. They will speak daily with insurers and will start to understand what is covered and what is not. It’s all still very overwhelming, so disaster survivors will band together to advocate for the best in each community. Recognizing that even the most organized communities have had difficulty navigating the disaster recovery world, many have promoted efforts to streamline the complex environment, including the current administration.  Of note, on Dec. 13, the Presidential Executive Order “Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government” directed federal agencies to address this problem, noting in the press release that “after a disaster, more survivors will be able to focus on helping their families, businesses, and communities because of streamlined assistance processes, rather than having to navigate a complex Government bureaucracy to get the help they need.”

Given the sheer magnitude of this tragedy – and the time of year – we can expect the plight of survivors to stay above the fold and at the top of the news hour. After Jan. 1, things will get more difficult. Media attention fades. Pledges of support dry up. Urgency evaporates.

For the rest of us, January will fly by. We’ll get the kids back to school and plan a quick getaway for MLK Weekend. In impacted communities, it’s likely that school won’t even reopen for several months. Kids will be restless as parents really dig into the mountain of paperwork that comes with every penny of financial assistance from FEMA to the Small Business Administration – a key component to household recovery from disaster. It’s typically around this mark in the recovery process that survivors realize how little aid they will receive – and how long it will take to get back to “normal.”

Memorial Day 2022 will be another big milestone for families impacted by this disaster. At 180 days, many of the state and federal assistance programs will reach their legally mandated end. Families will have to find permanent housing whether it’s close to jobs and schools – or not.

By June, as we are planning beach parties and road trips, impacted families will just begin to negotiate construction contracts for home repairs or rebuilds. Those with insurance checks in hand will find costs 30 percent higher than before due to local demand for builders and materials. While we sit in summer traffic, these families will wait many more months just to break ground on a permanent home.

And by next Christmas, reporters will return to these communities to interview the same survivors sifting through debris today. We will hear of concrete slabs scraped clean and rubble carted away. But a whole year later, the hard work of rebuilding homes, businesses and communities will have scarcely begun. The Bedford Falls Christmas will have to wait another year.

If you would like to change this future, take a cue from Ebenezer Scrooge and donate cash to a reputable relief organization. Despite best intentions, coat drives and canned goods sent to disaster-stricken communities actually gum up the gears of recovery more than they help. Cash to survivors allows them to purchase what they need, restoring dignity to a process that costs too much of it. Cash to relief groups (like the members of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster listed at nvoad.org/current-members) ensures your donation will go to battle-tested programs that truly speed up the recovery process.

What is your favorite part of It’s a Wonderful Life? Mine is the very end, when George Bailey’s community all chip a few dollars to make his family whole. Let’s all celebrate that spirit this week and donate cash to get these communities started on their way to recovery.

Matt Lyttle
Matt Lyttle is a Director of the National Security Segment at Guidehouse. He supports federal clients in strategy, transformation, and communications projects. Before joining Guidehouse, he was Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (HSGAC) staff, where he developed legislation on disaster resilience and emergency management. Matt has held several positions within FEMA’s National Preparedness Directorate, including as the Acting Deputy Director of Individual and Community Preparedness. In those roles, he designed and launched several FEMA programs aimed at building Private Sector preparedness, such as FEMA’s Ready Business program and Organizations Preparing for Emergency Needs (OPEN). Matt has deployed to multiple disasters, including Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, as a FEMA Intergovernmental Affairs Liaison and Private Sector Liaison. Matt is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, serving in Nicaragua and witnessing long-term effects of insufficient hazard mitigation throughout his service. He continues to build resilience in Latin America by introducing community preparedness initiatives to Bolivia, Chile, and Mexico. He is a Security Fellow in the Truman National Security Project focusing on the intersection of climate change and national security. Matt lives in Fairfax County, Virginia where he volunteers on local land use and planning task forces.

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