Our Role in Disaster Recovery

In the wake of a disaster, it is understandable that the reaction of an alternative breaker (past or present) is to ask - how can I help? and - how soon can we get there? We have an immense responsibility to make thoughtful and well-informed decisions about our role in disaster recovery and the reality is, good intentions don’t always yield positive results.

The two stages, generally speaking, to be aware of after a natural disaster: 1) response and relief and 2) recovery. Response and relief is the immediate work to minimize any harm or hazard caused by the disaster. Recovery includes returning a community to the pre-disaster state of normalcy, or better - a sense of revitalization for all.

Response and relief may take weeks or months to complete and short-term, unskilled workers are often unable to perform the tasks necessary during that critical period. Resources have already dwindled for current residents, the stakes are high, and the expertise needed is particular.

Inaction isn’t the solitary option for outsiders seeking to offer support during the initial stage. (And active citizens would hardly consider inaction an option.) Active citizenship includes philanthropy: which, in this instance, is donating money - not unsolicited resources and ensuring that organizations you’re supporting are funneling those resources directly into affected communities.

As communities eventually shift their thinking to long-term recovery, short-term volunteers can begin to play a role, but must be willing to acknowledge the realities from recoveries in the past, and move forward ready to center community and the community’s voice - especially those who may have been marginalized prior to any natural disaster. For breakers looking to plan trips to the impacted areas, we have nothing less than sage advice taken from one of our favorite reads, Working Side By Side:

  • Sustain Media Attention. No matter how urgent the needs or how compelling the stories of a community or a social issue, the media spotlight will fade sooner than expected, as will related public interest and investment in those communities. Alternative break programs can help keep media attention on places with long-term acute need.

  • Long-Term Commitment. A longer-term commitment made up front by those seeking to be involved in community work communicates intent for a different model of service. The nature of alternative breaks is inherently short-term; issues resulting from disaster and poverty are complex and require sustained attention to respond to appropriately and build trust.

  • Coordinate Efforts. Community building takes consistent and coordinated effort. Direct service, particularly in disaster areas, should be coordinated so volunteers aren’t overwhelming to the host community and direct service efforts aren’t just duplications of the prior group. Additionally, higher education professionals possess unique and valuable skills and resources. These program leaders, organized strategically and in a nationwide collaboration, could create much more effective results in the community than by acting independently, while easing logistical work for each other and enabling focus on deeper-quality experiences.

  • Communication and Collaboration. Collaborative work thrives with regular communication that develops strong relationships between campuses and community organizations, staff advisors on multiple campuses, and staff advisors and their university administrators.

(Working Side By Side, 339-340, 2015)

Our thoughts are with those preparing for Hurricane Jose, those impacted by Hurricane Harvey and Irma, and with the many around the world who have been devastated by extreme weather. If you’re interested in learning more about our role in disaster recovery and considering the potential for collective action with alternative breaks, join us for our September National Conference call.