Study aims to aid disaster recovery

Hundreds of responders to be surveyed about response to Hurricanes Katrina and Ivan.

BY VICKI DESORMIER | GULF SHORES, Ala. | November 5, 2007

Jim Robey (left) and Bill Hemr work with some Alba Middle School students in Bayou La Batre, Ala.

A coalition of disaster response volunteers in Alabama hopes to organize what they have learned about helping people rebuild after Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina so they can make recovery easier and more effective following future natural disasters.

Using $15,000 from a community resiliency grant from United Way of Alabama as an intermediary for the American Red Cross, the group of volunteers from Gulf Shores United Methodist Church plans to interview some of the hundreds of faith-based, civic and government responders who have been working to bring Baldwin County back after the two devastating storms that crushed coastal areas on the southwestern tip of the state.

Amelia Fletcher, head of Servant Ministry at Gulf Shores where the project was being organized, said the physical damage in Baldwin County was nearly repaired. In neighboring Mobile County, however, the storms hit more directly and many homes were still being rebuilt. In both areas, she said, the damage to families was still an open wound.

Fletcher said that the recovery in Baldwin County was easier because infrastructure was still in place when residents returned after fleeing the storms. Students still had schools to go to, municipal buildings were intact and businesses were able to reopen with minimal time for repair, she said.

"Here, we lost houses and our resort industry for a time with Ivan," she said. "But with Katrina, entire communities have vanished."

Mobile County's population is still transient. Many displaced county residents and others who sought refuge from the storms that devastated Mississippi and Louisiana were living in Baldwin County.

"We have a unique situation, but I think there is a lot to learn from how we responded and how people are recovering," Fletcher said. "We have learned so much. We are hoping to put it all together so that we can be better prepared in the future and so we can teach serving professionals and they won't have to reinvent the wheel every time."

Volunteers, led by Fletcher and her partner in the project, Jim Robey, will concentrate on recovery efforts that were geared toward personal rather than economic needs. The goal, they said, was to find ways to help people get their lives back together quickly after a disaster.

Robey is founder and executive director of Attentional Growth, Inc., a charitable organization that promotes health and provides educational enrichment programs for members of the helping professions and the public.

Project volunteers plan to invite response workers to informal "coffee and conversation" meetings where they will discuss what they did well and what they would have changed. Fletcher said they hoped to discuss, in an open conversation, what they learned.

Fletcher said she believed the survey would be the first of its kind in recent time to take the lessons learned by those who work on recovery efforts and centralize the information into an easily accessible database.

Some organizations, such as the United Way of Baldwin County and the county's branch of Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), have posted information on their Web sites that Fletcher said was a good start for someone beginning down the road to recovery. She said the survey would be a tool to help people recover emotionally as well as physically and economically.

"It's something that will serve everyone well, and will be current through 2008," she said.

Robey said information collected would be posted online to help disaster volunteers and survivors efficiently navigate the often confusing path to recovery. There will be tips on how to get through the governmental red tape of making a claim through the Federal Emergency Management Agency as well as gentle advice on returning to a normal life after surviving a natural disaster.

The Web site was in the planning stages, but Robey said he hoped to have it online before the end of the year.

"We want to talk to educators and see how students are doing in school, and identify continuing problems. We'll talk to church leaders and find out the same sorts of things. And we'll talk to civic organizations and see how people in the community are feeling and how they're making recovery," he said.

Fletcher said the database will make the job of disaster organizations that meet often during hurricane season and as needed throughout the rest of the year much simpler.

Centralizing the information will help survivors, relief workers and even governmental agencies understand the processes, she said. And, she added, everyone can "hit the ground running" whenever disaster strikes.

Brenda Lee, president of the United Way of South Baldwin County and a VOAD official, said she looked forward to the results of the survey.

"It is something that is absolutely needed," she said. "I'm very excited to see what they pull together. This is a mitigation tool that helps us be proactive when the next disaster strikes. That's something that VOAD especially needs."

Volunteers will seek out educators, recovery workers and families to ask them about the recovery process, including what was done right and what was done wrong.

The project was expected to begin in November after funding for the entire survey was in place. It was scheduled to be completed by April, with the Web site and other materials in place before the start of the 2008 hurricane season.

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