Role Reversal

October 1, 2005       Alan Naditz      

Shortly after New Orleans began flooding following Hurricane Katrina’s daylong pounding of the city, Jim Vojcsik was ready to offer help. But there was a problem: Vojcsik, executive director of United Way of Martin County, Fla., couldn’t get through to his organization’s sister city.

“All the phone lines were down,” he said. “There was no way to get in touch with anyone in New Orleans because their office was gone.”

The city’s lifeline, nonprofits that respond to emergencies, was wiped out.

As it turned out, most businesses and homes in The Big Easy were gone. Nearly 80 percent of the city ended up under as much as 20 feet of water after two levees broke and runoff filled the city’s soup bowl-shaped basin, according to published reports.

A week later, most of the city’s half-million-person population had been evacuated. Thousands were presumed dead and hundreds of others still awaited rescue. Experts expect damage costs from this hurricane to be the most in U.S. history.

“This storm was an equal opportunity destroyer,” said Marc Morial, chief executive officer of the National Urban League in New York City and former mayor of New Orleans. “It destroyed the livelihood and lives of people of all backgrounds and economic classes. There’s a lot of work ahead for everyone involved. I couldn’t even speculate how long it’s going to take.”

Obsolete infrastructure

Because parts of New Orleans, situated between three different bodies of water – the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain – sit from one to 20 feet below sea level, the city has a disaster plan in the event of flooding, according to Morial. But it’s doubtful that plan was written as a contingency for when a Category 4 hurricane like Katrina hit the city on Aug. 29.

“It’s very easy, having been mayor of the city [from 1994 to 2002] and having done disaster response, for me to second-guess what may have happened,” Morial said. “What I don’t know are all of the steps that were taken after the hurricane in terms of whether or not the city’s actual preparedness and response plans were followed to a ‘T’.”

What is obvious, Morial said, is that mistakes were made. Published and broadcast reports outlined numerous problems: ineffective evacuation procedures, in which as many as 20 percent of the city’s population remained behind to “ride the storm out;” slow-arriving federal aid; and communication problems among the first rescue teams in which local, state and federal groups used different radio systems and couldn’t talk to each other. And then there was the well-documented looting by rampaging survivors, which ultimately drew rescue groups away from the task of saving lives and turned them into law enforcement agents.

There needs to be a national commission — a la 9/11 — to conduct a thorough, balanced investigation of every aspect of preparation and response, and to identify what the failures were,” Morial said. “Obviously, many things went wrong on many levels.”

The city, state of Louisiana and the nation also need to contend with the fact that an entire city of people has now been displaced, Morial said. “The most important short-term objective is to try to help the human infrastructure, because people are going to be displaced for a long time,” he said. “Help these people find jobs and housing, because right now they’re living in shelters or with friends. They have no real homes.”

Those displaced persons include workers at the city’s roughly 3,000 local charities, a group that normally would be the first to roll up their sleeves in the event of a disaster, according to Peggy Morrison Outen, executive director of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management in Moon Township, Pa.

The people who have devoted their lives to taking care of those who live in New Orleans are suddenly in a different position,” said Outen, who until 1999 operated a nonprofit management support organization in New Orleans. “They’re going to need services, support and help themselves, because they’ve lost their homes, too.”

Loss of these local groups won’t be as big an issue at the moment for New Orleans now that federal aid has arrived, according to Morial. The bulk of the pressure now lies with community-based and nonprofit groups in areas now serving as temporary homes to evacuees. “The places they’re going to be needed are in areas like Baton Rouge, Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Little Rock, Memphis or Atlanta,” he said. “These are the places where the not-for-profits and community relief groups will have to be involved and see what effort is going to be needed.”

Vojcsik, a hurricane veteran after seeing six such storms hit Florida during the past 13 months, said he’s already seeing the “What do we do now?” question marks on colleagues’ faces. “I know a lot of communities out in the [Florida] panhandle area with evacuees from the Gulf states,” he said. “They’re wondering how they’re going to take care of these peoples’ needs long-term. These people are staying in hotels now, or living in cars. The question on everyone’s minds is, ‘How are we going to respond to these needs?’”

On the other foot

Outen recalled being forced to evacuate New Orleans when Hurricane Andrew approached in 1998. Although the storm ended up missing the city, some residents were still kept out of the area for a week. “Under those circumstances, it was really a non-event,” Outen said. “This, by comparison, is huge. It boggles the mind to think about what it’s going to take to rebuild a city that was so fragile to begin with.”

Making matters worse is the fact that the areas hardest hit were those with the highest concentration of poor persons — and therefore had a high number of nonprofit programs, Outen said.

Suddenly, the people who need aid and those who routinely give it are in the same proverbial and sometimes literal boat, according to Outen. “The people who have organized their lives around those people who go to see them probably haven’t spent a whole lot of time trying to figure out how to help themselves because that isn’t what their mission in life has been,” she said. “They now have to figure out how to negotiate the insurance companies, the [Federal Emergency Management Agency], government programs — all that they helped other people do.”

Of course, because of their experience, the nonprofit people might be better at handling these agencies than the general public, Outen added.

That’s good news for the large emergency resource groups, which have been overwhelmed since Hurricane Katrina hit shore in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, according to David Albritton, vice president of communications at United Way of America in Alexandria, Va.

Because of general communication problems — power and telephone service has been out in most of New Orleans since the hurricane’s arrival — United Way set up a phone tree for regional affiliates that want to offer help, Albritton said.

Rescue workers are also relying heavily on the state’s 211 emergency service line, according to Albritton. “We’ve stayed in close touch as much as we can with United Way affiliates in the affected states to make sure that No. 1, our staff folks and their families are okay, and to help get them ready to go out there and do their assessments on what the short-term and long-term needs are going to be in those communities,” Albritton said.

State affiliates actually got a dress rehearsal of sorts in 2004 when Florida was hit by five hurricanes during the course of the season, Albritton noted. “As we did then, we’ve asked other [affiliates] from around the country to send some of their professionals or volunteers [to the Gulf states] at the appropriate time,” he said.

Vojcsik, who watched hurricanes Frances and Jeanne blow through Martin County within a three-week period in September 2004, said the storms reinforced the public’s belief in self-reliance. “You always thought that if you were hit by a storm, your neighboring counties would be able to help,” he said. “But these storms last year affected so many communities, each one was left on its own. We really couldn’t count on getting much assistance from our neighbors because they were dealing with situations that were, in some cases, much worse than ours.”

While acknowledging that the damage caused by Frances and Jeanne – nearly $16 billion overall, more than half that amount in Florida alone – was nowhere near the scale of what happened in the Gulf states from Katrina, “it certainly was a case where we had to work closely with the other agencies involved in the relief efforts,” including the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and Martin County’s Council on Aging and Emergency Management Agency, Vojcsik said.

Starting over

Morial stressed the need for a long term plan to rebuild New Orleans after the clean-up. “There’s no telling what kind of damage has been done. Nor can we put any kind of clock on how long it’s going to take,” he said. “But it is going to be a lot of work, and it’s going to require tons of money and cooperation.”

As one surveys the destruction throughout New Orleans and the neighboring Gulf states regions, one point seems obvious, according to Albritton. “In an area that’s been devastated as badly as [these], it’s going to be months or years after this storm before folks are able to pull their lives back together.”

That might not be the case for everyone. Because of the importance of their services in a time of crisis, many nonprofit groups will reopen temporary offices in nearby locations, according to Vojcsik.

Outen recalled the neighbor-to-neighbor network that sprouted in New York City in 2001, when nonprofits provided office space and other types of aid to other nonprofits put out of their buildings due to the 9/11 incidents.

Such goodwill could be even more widespread this time around, according to Outen. She’s already offered use of her two guest roo ms to any persons or families who wish to use them. “More than likely, they’re not going to want to come all the way to Pittsburgh, because they’re going to want to stay near enough to New Orleans to repair or rebuild,” Outen said. “They’re going to want to be able to go in and out of the city, even if they can’t stay in the city.”

But out-of-area nonprofits could still offer items such as frequent flyer miles or cash donations — “anything to try to help the nonprofit organizations that are closer to New Orleans help the nonprofits in New Orleans get back on their feet,” Outen said.

Vojcsik said his office is considering adopting a community from one of the Gulf states hit by Hurricane Katrina. “That way, we can make it a more personalized, one-on-one relief effort,” he said. “It may not be something that we can do this week or next. But we’re thinking long-term. It may be a way for folks in our community to mobilize a relief effort that’s targeted to a community.”

Rebuilding is just one challenge faced by nonprofits in the months to come. The high damage cost will likely result in smaller contributions to charities and other city organizations in the near future, according to Outen. Capital expenditures will also be placed on hold, she said. “Nobody is going to give money to build a new museum when people don’t have sewers,” Outen said. “The redirection of all of the nonprofit community’s resources to survival mode will knock off a lot of the other kinds of activities that were underway, planned or anticipated.”

Ultimately, New Orleans will survive, Outen added. “New Orleans has kept on when other cities would have given up in the face of terrible problems with its police department and its schools,” she said. “The city will be back. This is not the end of the New Orleans story — not even close.