On August 26, 1992, Hurricane Andrew came ashore in SMHA’s backyard in South Louisiana as a Category 3 hurricane. Media attention, however, remained primarily focused on the densely populated Miami area which had borne the brunt of then-Category 5 Hurricane Andrew’s wrath when the storm came ashore two days prior. For the hard-working staff and volunteers of SMHA, however, Hurricane Andrew’s Louisiana landfall represented both new devastation to South Louisiana homes and businesses and a heartbreaking “undoing” of a great deal of work invested in improving the Four Corners community of rural St. Mary Parish.
For several years SMHA had worked with the residents of Four Corners to improve this impoverished, primarily African-American community. SMHA and the community tore down dilapidated old homes and barns, salvaged wood from the demolitions and cleaned and planed boards for use in construction, repaired and gut renovated homes so families could live in a safe environment, and tackled significant policy issues like addressing raw sewage under homes. Volunteers from the American Jewish Society for Service had spent several summers working in Four Corners and had nearly completed construction of a brand new Community Center building. The Four Corners community was on the move, building their community for a better, brighter future.
Then came Andrew and his 115 mph winds. The newly rebuilt homes and the nearly complete community center, destroyed.
From this devastation, SMHA’s disaster recovery experience and expertise emerged. SMHA approached rebuilding the Four Corners community using the hallmark characteristics of the recovery model that would be updated and deployed 23 years later in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: “planning on the move” to respond quickly and appropriately without “waiting for the plan;” attracting investment and volunteer labor to make recovery possible; skillful use of the media to bring attention and investment to the recovery effort; and trusting the community itself to know best how recovery should happen.
In less than two months, SMHA had attracted volunteers, donations of tools, materials and cash, and had deployed the volunteers to remove trees and debris from homes and yards, find and restack the salvaged lumber carefully saved by community residents, repaired seven homes to livable condition, and completely rebuilt the exterior of the Four Corners Community Center, finishing the work Hurricane Andrew interrupted. Licensed carpenters on the ground in the Four Corners community at the time (engaged by SMHA to lead the volunteers’ construction efforts) stated that the repairs would have cost nearly $1 million had crews been hired to complete them.
Efficient, effective, appropriate and always respectful of community, SMHA’s recovery model based in leveraging and partnerships was born.