The Arc of Disaster Recovery & How Philanthropy Can Help: An Interview with Dr. Samantha Montano

Disasterologist Dr. Samantha Montano talked with the YTFG team to share her expertise about disaster lifecycles, what makes this pandemic different from other disasters, and the important role of nonprofits and philanthropic organizations in America’s emergency management system. 

What makes the current pandemic different from other disasters?

 There are a couple of key differences that are important to keep in mind

  1. Scope and Scale: In a more traditional disaster — like a tornado — the impact is relatively limited to a specific geographic area, a set of neighborhoods or a city. By comparison, the pandemic is essentially impacting every community in the United States all at once, resulting in an unprecedented situation where nearly every emergency management agency is activated at the same time which  has never happened before.
  2. Universal Impact: Not only is the pandemic impacting nearly every community, it is also impacting every type of stakeholder: every individual, every group, every business, every agency, every government has been affected by the pandemic in some way – though certainly some worse than others.
  3. Timing: As we all know, the pandemic is occurring over an extended period of time: we have been in this for many months already, and we have many, many months still to go. Compared to something like a tornado, in which case a disaster is happening over the course of a few hours or possibly over a few days, it’s unusual to see a disaster response last for longer than a week, let alone several months.

We hear lots of talk about the high-level “phases of a disaster.” Can you describe how these phases are playing out? How do individuals experience these phases of disaster?

The disaster life cycle has four phases that often overlap: Preparedness, Response, Recovery, and Mitigation. Right now, we are in both the response phase and at the beginning of the recovery phase. The response phase incorporates any tasks that support life-saving measures, working to meet the urgent needs as the disaster, or “hazard event,” is occurring.  We will be in the Response phase for many months, which, again, is an unusually long time.

At the same time, we are at the beginning of the recovery phase, which focuses on restoring, rebuilding, and reshaping what has been broken or harmed as a result of the disaster. Many in the disaster management field have started talking about the importance of thinking ahead to the recovery phase, even while we are still in the response phase; truly, the best time to think about recovery is before the disaster even happens. 

We generally think about response and recovery at a community level, rather than at the individual level.  We take stock of all of the different stakeholders that have been impacted and we keep in mind how these different groups of stakeholders are going through response and recovery in unique ways, and at different paces. Businesses may recover more quickly than individuals; people with access to wealth may recover more quickly than those who don’t; and so on. Even within stakeholder groups, there will be variation based on the resources that different group members have access to. 

It’s also important to keep in mind that recovery is not necessarily a linear process, particularly for a disaster like this one, for which there is no specific roadmap for recovery. For disasters that happen on a fairly regular basis, like a hurricane, we have a general framework for how response and recovery will unfold. With the pandemic, we should expect there to be ups and downs, surges forward and setbacks throughout this process.

Does this prolonged “disaster response” period mean we are depleting our ‘response resources,’ should another disaster occur?  

It’s important to understand the way in which we approach emergency management in the United States. Our system tends to rely heavily on outside support coming into the specific communities that are impacted by a disaster. These outside supports range from first responder organizations, to emergency managers, to volunteers and nonprofits from surrounding communities, and to support from local, state, and federal government. Given the scope and scale of the pandemic, those “back-up supports” that we typically rely on aren’t necessarily showing up in the same way – because all of those emergency management agencies have been activated simultaneously to cope with the impacts of the pandemic in their own communities, and aren’t able to step in as “outside supports” to other areas. As a result, we are experiencing the true — and limited — capacity of the emergency management system.

What is the best role for philanthropy to support an effective response and recovery process?

Philanthropy and nonprofits have an immensely important role to play, particularly given the way that the United States’ emergency management system is set up: in general, the government takes a fairly limited approach to intervention, meaning that individuals must use their own resources first to get through recovery. When those individual resources are exhausted, the government can provide some help, but the nonprofit sector is the main resource to fill the gap that forms between what people can cover themselves, and what the government provides.

As grantmaking organizations continue to determine the most supportive role that they can play, I would strongly encourage them to look to the local organizations in each community. Not only are they seeing additional community needs arise, but many are also facing or anticipating decreased donations. This is not unusual following a disaster, as many donors direct their giving to larger, first responder organizations. 

However, it is important for funders to continue to support these local agencies – who are victims of the disaster themselves — as these are the organizations that are committed to particular communities in the long-term recovery, not just for the duration of the immediate response phase. And, if these agencies are forced to go out of business now, the community will be in a worse position when this emergency subsides. Anything that funders can do to build local capacity to respond is essential.  

Do you have any concerns about how the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors are responding to the pandemic? What might get in the way of them managing this crisis effectively?

The continued uncertainty is going to be a problem for the nonprofit sector –if you can’t anticipate what the needs of the community are going to be, it’s very difficult to create programs or figure out where to direct funding to in order to actually meet those needs. 

The needs are going to be constantly evolving at different stages of response, and as we go through recovery. There needs to be flexibility in programming that can evolve with those changing needs, and there also needs to be an urgency to acting quickly, stepping outside of the normal cycles and timing of support, and thinking ahead to how needs might change or recur as we move through the pandemic.

There is also the challenge of being overwhelmed by all of the need and finding yourself paralyzed, or only addressing the needs of a few “hotspot” communities that have captured the attention of the media, leaving others without support from nonprofits and funders.

And finally, it’s important to keep in mind that the nonprofit sector has been affected themselves in various ways: they are struggling with many of the same remote work challenges, childcare and schooling uncertainties, economic challenges and confusing government aid programs, and health concerns. We need to be aware of the impact on them as well, even as we ask them to play a major role in response and recovery.

As we enter hurricane season, it seems important to consider scenarios where another disaster hits, even as we are in the midst of a pandemic. What should the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors be doing to build resilience for future, overlapping disasters? 

It’s important for every organization to assess their risk level for other ‘hazard events,’ and to think through not only the physical impacts of a disaster, but also the ways in which the different community members and facets of their organization could be impacted– their staff, board, volunteers, funding streams, etc. Essentially, nonprofit organizations need to take care of themselves first, so that they can be effective when others need their help. 

Secondly, nonprofits should become connected with their local emergency management agency, stay abreast of evolving response plans, and consider becoming a part of that planning process if their organizations have an appropriate role to play in crisis response and recovery. 

It’s also enormously valuable for nonprofits to coordinate amongst themselves – research suggests that strong social networks contribute to more resilient communities, and nonprofit organizations can play a significant role in this.  When a disaster happens, there is often a convergence on that community of many different types of nonprofits, each bringing something different to the table, and some of which have experience in responding to disaster, but many who do not. By finding ways to share that expertise across organizations and to coordinate services is important to an effective recovery and can prevent the duplication of services – which is a common problem during and after disasters.

VOADs, or voluntary organizations active in disaster, are one mechanism through which to do this. They look different across the country, but usually they are a group of agency representatives who meet regularly to maintain awareness of the different efforts that are underway, and to build partnerships where appropriate. I think using the VOAD model has particular value in the pandemic response and recovery, given the long timeframe: there is enough time for communities to actually build this infrastructure and be a well-oiled machine as we go into the longer recovery. And, hopefully the communities that already have a VOAD can expand their group’s membership, since this is a situation that requires all- hands-on-deck. 

Funding organizations are facing an unfortunate convergence of pressures right now: their endowments are facing an economic downturn at the very moment when agencies are experiencing greater need. What advice do you have for funders who are grappling with that tension?

We’re having a similar problem in the emergency management field: we’ve created these structures, plans, procedures, we’ve created entire agencies specifically to manage a crisis when it occurs. And yet, there has been a hesitancy to activate those systems and procedures, even as the full view of this pandemic unfolds. Unfortunately, I think that this has significantly contributed to the failure of the government to respond to this pandemic. 

There’s an interesting parallel to be drawn to the nonprofit sector: we created these organizations with a mission to help the community, and we are in this moment when there arguably has never been a greater need for nonprofits to help people and communities. And yet there does seem to be a hesitancy to fully activate that system, to use all of the systems and procedures that we have created. It begs the question: If you don’t use the full power of your organization to meet the potentially unprecedented needs across the country now, then when will you?

In a moment where everything seems fraught with uncertainty, what are a few things that we can be fairly sure of, as the pandemic continues to play out?

We can be certain that recovery is going to take a long time. In a more typically-sized disaster that impacts one or two communities, it takes years to go through the recovery phase. And for larger disasters or catastrophic incidents, we’re talking about multi-decade recoveries. I think it’s safe to say that, given the scope and scale of this crisis, we are going to be recovering for a very long time. Now, I know that can sound very scary and overwhelming, but I think that this is actually really important for people to understand and can provide a starting point for organizations. We need to adopt a long-term mindset, and we need to be thinking about how to sustain critical assistance over multiple years. 

We also know that government assistance is going to be delayed, and we can be fairly certain that it won’t be enough. As I mentioned earlier, the model used in the U.S. intentionally limits government involvement and as a result, we can be sure that there is an enormous role for the nonprofit sector to play to fill that gap.

We can be sure that there will be uneven economic impacts from the pandemic. We know that some populations are more vulnerable than others, and that there will be a great need among those more vulnerable populations. There needs to be recognition development of programs around meeting the needs of those populations in particular.

And the final certainty that comes to mind is this:  we will get through this. Even though there is a long road ahead, and we will unfortunately lose people and organizations along the way, the research suggests that, as a society, we will get through this.  We will go through recovery – and, at some point — there will be an end date for all of this.