Recovery ‘the bottom line’

When Garrett Walton talks about hurricane recovery, he unleashes the lawyer within.

BY SUSAN KIM | DENVER | June 23, 2005

"Somewhere along the line I realized the faith-based volunteer groups are going to rebuild this town whether you like it or not."

—Garrett Walton

When Garrett Walton talks about hurricane recovery, he unleashes the lawyer within. You’re in a courtroom, and Hurricane Ivan is the bad guy.

“We’re gonna get him,” says Walton, “and then we’re going to look across the bay at the new hurricane and tell them to come on. We’re ready.”

Why does someone who practiced tax law for 20 years - and, by the way, developed subdivisions and used to be in politics - become involved in disaster response?

Walton, now co-executive director of Rebuild Northwest Florida, said after Hurricane Ivan devastated the Florida Panhandle, he put on his tie and went back to work.

But, he says in his blunt way, “even an idiot could see this one was different.”

Of the 400,000 people who live in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, some 50,000 of them were homeless after Ivan hit, said Walton.

And Walton started talking with his fellow business community members about what do to in a field he says he knew nothing about. “We were arrogant enough - being business people, I guess - that we felt like we could take on something different. We had no idea what we were up to.”

Now Rebuild Northwest Florida has become, in Walton’s words, “a construction company.” It’s really a nonprofit with a mission to help families in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties recover from Ivan by rebuilding and fortifying their homes.

Each county has a long-term recovery committee that brings to the table faith-based groups, voluntary organizations, local churches and community groups. Rebuild Northwest Florida relies on those long-term recovery committees to do the casework that determines the most dire unmet needs, said Walton.

Long-term recovery committees - many started with financial support and guidance from Church World Service - have been vital across Florida during post-hurricane recovery.

Rebuild Northwest Florida is a separate entity, said Walton, who was explaining its function at the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster conference in Denver this week.

But, he says, without the work of the long-term recovery committees, the business community wouldn’t always know who needed help the most. “So right now we are repairing housing, fundraising and doing advocacy. That’s what we’ve done and it’s gone very well.”

Walton has attracted donations and technical assistance from heavy-hitters in the business community where he’s worked for so long. “I had friends of mine, they were sometimes competitive and sometimes partners. Everybody in that group has given $30,000 to $50,000. An accounting firm has given us 140 computers.”

Walton says he likes the word “free.”

“We’ve got an office building that is 9,000 square feet. It’s an old CVS building. It’s free for the next three years.”

But he’s started to spend money on one key thing: hiring roofers. “We’re paying them with our donated money.”

He’s also taken a voyage to Capitol Hill, where he met with eight house members and a senator to advocate for more disaster relief and disaster mitigation funds. “And we’re going back there in July,” he said. “We’ve got some good volunteer lawyers.”

He admits he can be relentless, and both sides have acknowledged it wasn’t always easy hammering out the relationship between the long-term recovery committees and Rebuild Northwest Florida. Deciding who will have what role is still evolving. Now, Walton will simply say: “I’m very proud of the long-term recovery committees and I’m very proud of the construction company.”

Sometimes it has been a matter of businesspeople learning to communicate with voluntary groups. “We came up with this release form for volunteers to sign,” remembers Walton. “I mean, it had everything. We called it the Jim Jones release form because you could almost put poison in someone’s Kool-Aid on the job and they couldn’t sue you - no, not really,” he joked. “But we did have the best lawyer working on that thing.”

Then a well-respected leader from one faith-based disaster response group told Walton he didn’t want his volunteers signing the form. It was simply overkill.

“So we came up with a not-so-scary version,” said Walton, who says he has come to see that volunteers - and the groups that coordinate them - are the backbone of disaster recovery. “Somewhere along the line I realized the faith-based volunteer groups are going to rebuild this town whether you like it or not. It’s the truth. If it were not for the faith-based volunteer groups, we would never get done. We would rot before we got done.”

From the perspective of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), it’s simply a relief to see people in the Florida Panhandle working together. “When I came into northwest Florida, there were these county lines,” said a FEMA official. “It was Escambia County is doing this, and Santa Rosa County is doing that. Then they started dropping those county lines and started communicating. This could be an example to other states when disaster strikes.”

Walton might run a nonprofit but he talks about it like a business - and he can even seem ruthless. “We have 4,000 houses in these two counties that need repair. If we continue at the rate we’re going, we will be here forever. Don’t tell me it can’t be done - now. The bottom line is about hurricane victims who are still suffering.”

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