‘We’re here; we’re ready’
By Julia Sellers
The process of recovering from the tornadoes that devastated Birmingham last April actually started 12 years earlier, when another string of tornadoes left the city in disarray.
“[In 1998] we partnered with the county and really learned a lot about disaster response and preparedness,” said Beth Jerome, Greater Birmingham Habitat for Humanity’s vice president of marketing and development. “Then, we didn’t have an official disaster response plan, so we figured out what made sense for us.”
After getting through that disaster, the affiliate regrouped and created an official response plan that enabled it to assist more than 80 families affected by the storms during the past year.
“It meant this time we were able to go in there much more quickly to our [partner] families and be on the ground from Day One,” Jerome said. “We wanted to be able to engage all the volunteers that we knew would come to this area. We were able to say, ‘We’re here; we’re ready.’ ”
Hit the ground running
Almost a dozen of the affiliate’s partner family homes felt the effects of last April’s storms. Some had minor siding damage that was repaired in a morning; others were moved completely off their foundations.
Through Habitat for Humanity’s Disaster Response team, Disaster Corps teams and AmeriCorps members were able to immediately begin work for partner families.
“Plugging in those skilled workers, even in a short-term situation, really helps us get to a point where we can use other volunteers effectively,” said Giovanni Taylor-Peace, Disaster Response field operations manager.
Back to the regularly scheduled program
By the time school started last August, every original partner family was back in their homes. The affiliate could refocus on new applicants in need of a permanent housing solution.
“We were committed to not stop what we were already doing before the storm,” Jerome said. “Last year we served 129 families, and this year we fully expect to serve more than 155 families.”
That’s possible in part because the affiliate was working with the Central Alabama Long-Term Recovery Committee. The committee acted as a clearinghouse for anyone in need of assistance, freeing up each organization to focus on its respective expertise.
Partnering with other agencies is key to disaster preparedness and recovery, said Taylor-Peace. Affiliates in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Joplin raised most of their own resources for repairs and recovery builds by joining forces with local businesses, other nonprofits and major corporations.
Seeking advice from other Habitat affiliates that have lived through similar situations is also helpful as an affiliate wades through the unknowns of a disaster.
“It helps other affiliates wrap their heads around the current context,” Taylor-Peace said. “Maybe in past disasters they’ve tapped into resources and know how to pull them in to work for other areas.”
And while Habitat’s long-term impact isn’t always easily calculated, he said efforts to move in quickly and effectively as part of the community always aid in getting someone into a better housing situation, even if it isn’t with Habitat.
“It’s not just new construction and repairs,” he said. “Our impact is felt among a larger population. We’re taking people out of trailers, offering referrals to resources when we can’t assist and freeing up rental options when we place homeowners.”
In case of emergency
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Tornadoes and flooding in the central U.S.