By BECKY GILLETTE
When disaster hit Hattiesburg Jan. 21 in the form of an EF3 tornado, four people were killed and 1,131 homes either damaged or destroyed by a tornado that was 31 miles long and a half mile wide. If was the fourth major disaster to hit the region in a little over 11 years.
While it may seem the Pine Belt area has suffered more than its share of natural disasters, the community had the benefit of being able to react very quickly due to the existence of a Long Term Recovery Organization called Recover, Rebuild, Restore Southeast Mississippi (R3SM) established after Hurricane Katrina.
Sheila Varnado, executive director, R3SM, said the most important advantage of having this type of organization in place before a disaster occurs is you already have a recognized and knowledgeable group of people who can immediately start working with the county, state and federal emergency management structure to assist them with the triaging of recovery needs and resources and establishing the information conduit that will be needed once the immediate recovery response phase flows into the long term recovery response phase.
“In 2006, after Hurricane Katrina, the greater Hattiesburg community was fortunate enough to have visionary and caring leaders who knew the recovery from Katrina would be a long, complicated road,” said Varnado, who had earlier retired as the paid executive director and now works as a volunteer for R3SM. “They sought advice from communities in Florida, who themselves had recently gone through a series of hurricanes, and were well aware of the entire long-term recovery process. The strongest advice they received was, your community needs to establish a Long Term Recovery Organization. This nationally recognized disaster recovery organizational model allows for resources to flow into the impacted community swiftly and in an orderly and structured manner.”
Varnado said another advantage is it allows national nonprofits and faith-based organizations the ability to align with a single community entity to maximize the flow of substantial resources. R3SM is the Long Term Recovery Organization for Forrest, Lamar and Perry counties.
“R3SM is able to coordinate case management services where a recovery plan is discussed and created, volunteer labor is used to repair damaged homes and or rebuild a new home and one group oversees donated materials, supplies and money–all of which are key components in a communities’ ability to recover,” Varnado said. “R3SM also refers families to other services and agencies depending upon their needs beyond the scope of repairing and rebuilding homes.”
Following a disaster, a few people may try to take advantage of the process applying with numerous different non-profits, churches and governmental organizations for help. That is why the partnerships like those facilitated by R3SM are so important to make sure that resources are used wisely.
R3SM has partnered with entities like the United Methodist Conference on Relief, Catholic Charities, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way, many local churches and numerous others such as local businesses. Varnado said those partnerships mean more people are helped.
“If R3SM did not exist, it would be a hit or miss approach and it very well could dissolve into recovery determined by who knows whom and only those who ‘know’ someone would receive assistance,” Varnado said. “That would leave a big stain on any community who chose that method of disaster recovery delivery.”
Varnado said the community has learned after multiple disasters how important it is to pull together.
“The community coming together to work under one umbrella organization is far more beneficial to the overall disaster recovery needs than having multiple entities doing the same work,” she said. “Outside contributors respond more favorably to communities who have a central point of contact rather than multiple layers that they would have to figure out and work through.”
Theresa Erickson, executive director, Greater Pinebelt Community Foundation, said working together helped them quickly raise more than $600,000 for tornado victims, including a telethon with WDAM on Feb. 1 that raised $321,000.
“I was very surprised at how generous the donations were,” Erickson said. “Our community really came together. We had donations from all over the country. We even had a donation from Robin Roberts with ABC.” Roberts grew up in Pass Christian.
Erickson said their mission is to build a stronger community through philanthropy. They have found it helps significantly to partner with R3SM, which has a strength with case management, while the community foundation’s strength is with fundraising. Earlier they partnered on a fundraiser to provide relief from a tornado Dec. 23, 2014 in Columbia.
“The process is, we raise the money, and R3SM case managers and investigators go out to the home and verify it was damaged by the tornado,” Erickson said. “They come up with an estimate to repair or rebuild that home. A construction manager goes out. They write up the case determining how much the family is getting from insurance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency to repair or rebuild their homes. Then the case is presented to a Volunteer Unmet Needs Committee. Those volunteer committee members don’t know who the people are. It is just a case number.”
The committee either asks questions, asks for more information or approves the case for funding. After they approve a case, any funders at the table may decide to take the case. Usually it doesn’t mean giving the family money.
“R3SM does a good job getting volunteers,” Erickson said. “R3SM purchases and delivers materials to the home once the volunteers are lined up.”
Erickson said they have learned a lot since Katrina, and the disasters that have followed.
The system has gotten better and better.
“Unfortunately, it is because of experience,” Erickson said. “It is our role to make sure the money is used as wisely as possible. We have streamlined the process. People have gotten used to us and trust the process. We just really appreciate everyone who has donated and because it is going to help a lot of people to recover. That is what we are all about, coming together to help our fellow citizens.”