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Long-Term Recovery Never Ends for Some After Natural Disasters

Many victims of natural disaster find themselves left out of the recovery often relying on the generosity of others to bounce back. Nonprofits and others provide assistance, but the process is difficult to navigate.

Right after a natural disaster, say, a hurricane or major flood, there is usually an outpouring of generosity and support for those affected, often in the form of material needs. But a few weeks into the recovery effort, that support and all the donated goods that poured in dwindle.

Often victims, having survived the initial onslaught, fall through the recovery cracks. They may not be covered by insurance or eligible for a small business loan, and the support FEMA can provide may be limited.

“There are many reasons why people may suffer disproportionately after disaster,” said Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “Some of it is obviously financial, those living near or below the poverty line struggle to cobble together the necessary resources to adequately prepare or take action when disaster strikes.” She said the elderly often possess less technological access and fewer social connections, and those for whom English is a second language are vulnerable as well.

A recent article in the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer suggested that as many as 10 percent of survivors fall into this category and often rely on the generosity of others for recovery.

Recovery is a long, arduous process, even for those eligible for some assistance, such as FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program. But for some, like those mentioned above, the process is even worse and many never fully recover. A year after Hurricane Harvey, many people are still in temporary housing.

“As a country, we’re now getting pretty good at immediate-relief response,” said Bob Ottenhoff, president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “FEMA has a role, the big nonprofits like Red Cross and Salvation Army have roles, and there are many faith-based organizations that get involved. But long-term recovery is not as well coordinated, in part because the funds available are really kind of a crazy quilt of different sources.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provides assistance through various programs and there are philanthropic sources — nonprofits, churches, businesses, individuals — that provide relief, but navigating the process of getting that assistance can be a challenge.

Ottenhoff said oftentimes the survivors might lack the wherewithal to navigate their way through the various sources and programs necessary to receive aid. “One of the things that we see is that for people who are not well educated or have some sort of disability, getting through this maze is a really challenging thing.”

The extent of the recovery often depends on the nature of the disaster as well. Wildfires can cause total destruction, as is evident in Northern California where some people lost everything. Hurricanes cause wind damage and floods that leave a home with mold, mud and needing a lot of rehab.

A lot of people who experience devastating floods don’t have flood insurance. Up to 80 percent of victims in recent floods in Louisiana didn’t have flood insurance. One reason is because the nation is experiencing considerably more 100-year, 500-year or 1,000-year floods than is “normal,” and often regular insurance policies don’t cover water damage.

Sometimes the disaster is not a national news item but is nonetheless devastating to a community and that community is left to recover largely on its own.

Ottenhoff’s organization tries to help by aiding the affected community in setting up a long-term recovery committee, which identifies community needs one family at a time. “The committee is composed of local people who know the community and work with nonprofits,” Ottenhoff said. “You can lose your house and that’s one thing, but often you may lose your business, your kids can’t go to school and you may see a range of health issues.”

He pointed to the recent flooding of hog lagoons in North Carolina as a health concern that impacts long-term recovery.

Ottenhoff said the nation should get more realistic about disasters happening with increased frequency and invest in mitigation efforts that serve recovery.

And Peek said understanding that it’s happening isn’t enough. “We must also understand that social forces and dynamics render some groups all but invisible.”