“Building Louisiana Better Than Before” – a simple tagline, but a bold idea. When Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, SMHA had a choice – to follow along with FEMA trailers, handouts, and inadequate recovery – or to create a new model. SMHA, known for developing new models and solutions to old problems, chose the latter. SMHA transformed a model of recovery that reinforced entrenched ideas of victimhood to a model that empowered people and built on the strength of the family. This approach – centered around investment and self-help – mobilized more than $10 million over 30 years of recovery following four disasters and generated more than $53 million in tax revenue and equity for communities and families.
SMHA’s model focuses on dignity, a positive shift away from more classic models that can be demeaning to families who need help. SMHA’s Rural Recovery Response builds on families’ capacity for self-help – supplementing and complementing what families can and will do to rebuild their lives. SMHA asks families to allow us to participate in their efforts and they, in return, tell us their stories. Families tell their stories with the knowledge that their stories are not only heard but also make a difference in attracting attention – and funding – to rural Louisiana and informing local and state policy that impacts the hurricane recovery process.
SMHA understands the value of “planning on the move” – learning quickly what families and communities need to recover and mobilizing people and resources to get things done. The success of SMHA’s Rural Recovery Response is due in no small part to our ability to take action immediately without becoming bogged down in micro-planning processes. As a result of “planning on the move,” SMHA was first-responder in most rural communities and was often the only responder for months while government and national charities planned their responses.
The difference in the Rural Recovery approach was in the details, and in the way SMHA and its team of volunteers entered communities and homes that had been destroyed by high winds and flood waters. Volunteers and staff used no paper to record names and numbers – there were no in-take forms or waiting periods. Communities were encouraged to help each other, and they did, supported by over 6,000 volunteers, 3,000 of which were Mennonite volunteers. The Rural Recovery experience further confirmed for SMHA the importance of networks, peer-to-peer connections and value of rural-to-rural connections. The link with the Mennonites was especially critical as the partnership led to Mennonite Disaster Service re-defining “disaster” beyond fire, flood and hurricanes to include the disaster of purposeful and long-term disinvestment into communities of color.
Because of the community building work, SMHA identified a shift in many of the families and businesses that were recovered. Families who understand like never before the need for safer housing and better-planned neighborhoods to withstand hurricane-force winds and avoid flooding, individuals who have learned first-hand how poor public policy impacts their daily lives, communities that have learned that they must work together with a spirit of self-help and cooperation to overcome the lack of attention afforded rural areas following a disaster, and an entire region that has finally recognized the devastating impact of coastal development, oil and gas exploration and other man-made interventions on the sustainability of our state. This is a critical element of the RRR approach – leveraging the self-help recovery work into larger and broader gains in community and the region.
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Here, you can find an overview of each of our Responses:
Instead of the usual government model of recovery that focuses on documenting need, rewards speed, and encourages greed, SMHA’s recovery model is based on the “power of the story” – rewarding and investing in self-help, a spirit of generosity, and culture of appreciation. Need is assumed as a baseline as learned from listening to the family’s story.
SMHA’s Rural Recovery Response follows a well -documented four-phase recovery process, but the work in the field with families occurs without paper: no waiting in line in the hot sun, no efforts to produce tax returns or other documents that were likely lost to the disaster, no documents needed to “prove” one’s worthiness for recovery assistance. Field personnel listen to the family’s story and create the “paper” later in the office, not while working with the family.
SMHA’s model leverages volunteer labor – over 6,000 volunteers were recruited, vetted, trained for re-entry, fed, housed and equipped following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita – as we invest dollars raised from private sources (not government) in the recovery of homes, businesses and churches. While in-the-field processes are paper-free, SMHA’s internal fiscal accountability systems are robust: we are able to account for every dollar of the over $10 million raised for Katrina/Rita recovery, generating reports that can show at the individual home/business level what funder’s/combination of funders’ dollars are invested in recovery.