By Brigid O’Leary
While the southeastern United States begins to pick up the pieces from Hurricane Matthew, Louisiana nonprofits are still rebuilding from this summer’s flood.
The summer of 2016 was relatively dry. Then rains came to Louisiana, and they did not stop. More than 2 inches per hour for 15 hours in some parts. That, according to The Washington Post, is three times as much rain as the state received from Hurricane Katrina 11 years ago.
The flooding brought with it a devastation that few outside the area can comprehend and which highlights the need for the services offered by many local nonprofit organizations.
“Upon hearing that there would be significant flooding in our service area, I immediately feared that many individuals and families would be displaced and staying in shelter or with relatives or friends,” said Racheal Hebert, president and chief executive officer of Sexual Trauma Awareness & Response (STAR®) in Baton Rouge. The organization supports survivors of sexual trauma and works to improve systems response and create social change to end sexual violence.
“Unfortunately, situations like these can increase the likelihood of sexual violence occurring,” Hebert continued. “After a natural disaster, people are occupied with getting their basic needs met and are forced into situations where they have limited options; this can cause them to become dependent on others for their safety and well-being or leave children alone with others for extended periods of time. During these difficult times, we know predators can take advantage of these situations and commit violence and abuse.”
Schools are usually a safe place for children in times of hardship but the flooding was so widespread that many children found themselves without even that outlet.
“My first thought was my kids at one of the schools, Greenbrier Elementary. I started getting calls from staff in the area. They lost everything. I immediately began to make preparations for relief efforts, care packages, etc.,” said Christina Snowden Selvage, executive director of A Kingdom Connection Changing Lives (AKCCL), which provides services to educational agencies, senior citizens and the disabled, as well as outreach services and opportunities to address emerging community needs and hardships. “I’ve been in the military. I served in the National Guard during Katrina, so I knew this was going to be a priority. That was my first thought. What are we going to do as an organization to support teachers, staff in the area and families in our programs, and of course the school. We need to get ready.”
Being part of a community on the receiving end of Mother Nature’s sucker punch means everyone has an equal chance of being affected, and that includes employees of nonprofit organizations that provide assistance to the community.
“My first thoughts regarding The Walls was to check-in with our operations team and board of directors to ensure everyone was safe. Not everyone was, so helping our team became the top priority in tandem with helping organize a community supplies distribution center in the immediate days following the flood was the priority,” said Casey Phillips, director.
The Walls Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that began as a collaborative effort between members of the entrepreneurial real estate and social communities in Baton Rouge to bridge the gap between the artistic and business communities. The organization started as a collaborative community project between various art and progressive industries but has grown into a citywide and statewide public art campaign. The flooding jeopardized its mission of stimulating the creative arts economy by delivering public art works that inspire urban and rural beautification, dialogue, and unity.
Even those nonprofits that didn’t take a direct hit were affected.
“My immediate thought was, ‘what can we do to help?’,” said Elizabeth Sherman, president and co-Founder of 4theKids Baton Rouge, Inc. “Part of our mission is to promote teen involvement in the community and we wanted to incorporate our mission to give the flood victims a helping hand. We were able to provide hands on recovery assistance removing damaged items from residential homes in Baton Rouge.”
4thekids is a teen-founded charity organized in 2012 to expand and improve the children’s hospital facilities in Baton Rouge, and to encourage and promote teen involvement in the endeavor for the construction of a freestanding children’s hospital in Louisiana’s capital. The organization is the brainchild of Sherman and Sydney Saia, now both students at Louisiana State University (LSU), and run by a board of directors comprised of college students and young adults. With little by way of infrastructure, 4theKids Baton Rouge didn’t have as much to lose with the flooding but neither was it business as usual for the organization.
“My second thought was ‘how do we make arrangements for our Board meetings, events, and fall schedule?’ because the scheduled date needed to be postponed as a result of the flood and the postponement of beginning of the LSU fall semester,” she continued. “This disaster was able to bring out the best in our board and their ability to step up to the plate when it was most needed. We are blessed to all be safe and because we have no physical facility, we escaped many loses that others unfortunately suffered.”
Five Feet High and Rising
Though 4thekids had no physical losses, the Board meeting and scheduling had a domino effect on the organization.
“Due to the flooding, our annual Board of Directors’ and Junior Board of Directors’ induction ceremonies and first meetings were pushed back almost a month, which has delayed our yearly fundraising planning schedule as well as income [from] member dues,” said Sherman. “Our usual income at this time of year with t-shirts, sales, and dues has not been possible because many are faced with expenses with the flood. There is no way to determine this amount but we can estimate a loss of approximately $3,000. We are on a more crunched time frame to plan for our first event. 4theKids merchandise, equipment, and paperwork was thankfully not damaged and we are very thankful for that.”
She noted that the delay of the annual board meeting also delayed the approval of the 4theKids’ Form 990, the previous Board of Directors’ meeting minutes, and treasurer’s report.
It wasn’t the only nonprofit for which the sources of operating income were stunted.
“Our services were pushed back six weeks. Schools had just started that week and our tutoring program begins with the school year. Parents were not able to register their kids, so that was also about five weeks of income loss. And our contributors couldn’t make their donations,” said Snowden Selvage, explaining that AKCCL offers tutoring services for $2.50 per hour, “Most of the people who did call to request a suspension of their contributions are still in crisis situation themselves. Many that were affected did not have flood insurance due to not being in a flood zone. I know they have to use as much of their financial resources to take care of themselves first which is why enrollment is down at even at Villa Del Rey Elementary.”
And everyone was affected; not just those who receive aid from the local nonprofits but those who provide it, even if the the organization itself did not take a hit.
“Due to the flooding, our office in Baton Rouge was closed for many days and several staff members’ homes and personal possessions were lost. STAR operates a 24/7 hotline and we were able to continue our basic support services. We are lucky that our offices were not damaged and we were able to return to work once the roads cleared,” said Hebert. “The biggest interruption to our services has resulted in the many staff and volunteers who were affected by the flood.”
It was a similar situation for Phillips and his team at The Walls Project.
“Our organization was fortunate. The campuses where we deliver our youth programs were back online the week after the flood. The neighborhoods where the youth are from as well as our many of our instructors and program administrators were not so lucky,” he said.
After the Rain
The timeline for returning to standard operating procedures at many businesses and organizations varies.
The Walls Project has bounced back fairly quickly, parlaying its mission and resources into helping local residents reclaim their space by turning its attention to organizing community cleanup and mural art events. During community cleanups, The Walls Project also selects small buildings in these neighborhoods on which artists will paint community collaborative murals with kids and adults while mobilizing hundreds of volunteers to clean up entire city blocks at one time. The equipment necessary for preparing mural projects, including power washers and generators, is used to wash dirt from houses, stairs and sidewalks. These weekly post-school bell and work whistle events, held every Friday from 3:30 pm to sunset, started mid-September and create an opportunity for individuals and families to volunteer with consistency to assist in post flood recovery efforts.
Sherman reports that despite the delays, things are coming together for her team as well.
“4theKids has been focused to get back on schedule. We were able to have our first board meetings about 3 weeks ago and we were able to discuss our yearly event dates to begin our planning process. 4theKids is currently working on creating new committees for the year to divide up duties and responsibilities of our fundraising events. We are hoping to be back on track by the end of the month,” she said.
For some, recovery is being projected in terms of months, at best.
STAR’s 24-hour hotline and hospital accompaniment services runs on volunteers assisting during evenings and weekends.
“Since almost half of our volunteers were displaced, it has caused extra time from our staff to be available to provide these after hour services. We are hopeful that in the coming months, we will be able to recruit additional volunteers to assist with 24/7 coverage,” Hebert continued.
For others it will take considerably longer.
“One of our schools will not resume in their building until … they’re thinking January but it may not be until next school year. They had so much damage from the flooding,” said Snowden Selvage, who explained that the floodwaters and the currents it created moved things within classrooms, even those that were believed to be high enough or far away enough from the waters to have been affected. The damage sustained is going to take a lot longer to right and Snowden Selvage can see first hand the toll it is taking on the children. “It’s going to take a long time to get that school – Greenbrier Elementary – up and running. The principal fought for the school. She fought to keep the kids together.”
Right now, classes for the students of Greenbrier Elementary are being held at a local middle school – alongside the middle school students who are already there. Snowden Selvage noted that it’s crowded and a little stressful for parents to have their kindergarteners walking the halls alongside eighth graders, but that Greenbrier’s principal Myra Jordan wanted the kids to have consistence and stability at school, considering many students and even staff members, remain displaced.
“Currently, many have not returned to their homes; others have returned to their homes after work and during the day to air out, replace sheet rock but go back to a hotel or the shelter for the night,” she explained, adding that the student body of Twin Oaks had to be split up among different sites.
Snowden Selvage pointed out that FEMA can supply up to $33,000 in assistance and that some families have received $16,000 when they have as much as $68,000 in damages. All of it affects AKCCL.
“We provided school uniforms for those who needed them but did not have them. All we can do is support them as best they can. It’s very hard, and at the schools space is limited. We’re not used to having the kids so clustered, especially when it’s time to start tutoring and lots of parents can’t afford it right now. The burden is so heavy on them financially and situationally,” she said, noting that many families are “trying be as frugal as possible” to stretch what funds they do have.
The damage left behind by the flooding is different than that of Hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Sandy (2012), in part because those storms were wind driven and it was the wind that caused the most damage. Both Katrina and Sandy also hit larger swaths of area – multiple states – where the flooding was limited to the considerably smaller square footage of a handful of municipalities.
“It was just … it was a lot. It covered so many neighborhoods, towns and cities; it’s going to be a lot to rebuild businesses,” Snowden Selvage said, adding that even in mid-September, there were whole school systems that had not resumed classes. “Some schools haven’t started back. It’s going to take time. I estimate at least another year. Maybe next year around this time. Maybe. There were businesses wiped out. I have friends that have told me they don’t even know how – they’re considering not even rebuilding because they lost not only their house but their business, too. They don’t have anywhere to live and no way to generate income.”
Future Man, Future Lady
And therein lies one of the challenges facing nonprofit organizations in the wake of a natural disaster, especially one that came on as suddenly and unexpectedly as the 2016 flooding.
“Because many nonprofits rely heavily on fundraising to support the work that they do, there is a concern that because so many families have lost their homes that they will be unable to give,” explained Hebert.
What’s an organization to do?
“Think twice act once. The natural reaction to a disaster in your community is to do something, which is great. Your neighbors are in need, get in there to help. But after the initial push step back as an organization to access where the biggest community needs are that your organization has the capacity and know-how to fill,” said Phillips.
Being able to fill the capacity can be a challenge, one Snowden Selvage knows better than she would like.
“I’m military, so we’re always thinking about mitigation strategy, how to mitigate risk. How many men we need on the ground in the event of the unknown. We’re a nonprofit but we’re supported by the community. So we must be extremely strategic in our pre-planning, preparation and execution. Be business savvy. Have a plan in place,” said Snowden Selvage. “What I wish I had done; I wish I’d focused on building up financial reserves so I could do more for the community. We are there for the community but if we are not putting ourselves in a position as nonprofits to withstand crisis, we can’t do anything for anyone else. That’s my frustration. I wanted to do so much more than I could. It grieves you as a person, as a business executive for this nonprofit, when you have a relationship with the community and you can’t do more.”
Her advice on dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster are based on experience and what she would do different if given the chance.
“I should have established more community alliances, not just with the people I serve, but other agencies – if it’s affecting me, it’s affecting them. We need more partnerships with more people and organizations outside of our area. We’re going to need more resources to pull on. We probably spent $4000 of our personal funds just trying to support the outreach. We were lacking outreach funds. I think if I would have taken the time to build alliances with other organizations and other businesses not in our immediate, local area, I would have been able to pull resources from those other sources,” she said, noting that Colin Kaepernick reportedly donated $100,000 to Louisiana nonprofits.
“We would have been able to do so much more if we had the ability to connect with outside resource like individuals such as [him] and various foundations that support the community. We should have built more alliances outside this area. That would be my advice,” Snowden Selvage said. “It should not just be a team of one, but of many. It’s not just you and your organization. Build partnerships with others outside your region that way you have more support when crisis happens.”