Helpful Advice for Helpers After a Disaster
For those of you who are helping farmers and other folks in their recovery, here are a couple of specifics to keep in mind from our experience helping people recover from hurricanes Fran, Floyd, Bertha, Katrina, Rita, Isabel, Irene, Bonnie, and Matthew. If you are with people in a disaster, they will remember it forever. If not, well, they’ll remember that, too.
- Assistance from the three main agencies – FEMA, USDA and the Small Business Administration (SBA) – does not overlap, but people can get help from any of the three. FEMA helps with damage to households (including farm households), USDA with farms, SBA with businesses, although they also do some home loans. This division of labor is often a source of confusion. We have had cases where farmers were turned away from FEMA because they asked about farm damage not realizing that they could get help for their home. Within USDA, the Farm Services Agency (FSA) is the primary office and the place to start, although Rural Development also does some home disaster loans. Even if a program does not have money yet, they should get their names in to be at the front of the line.
- Emphasize the need to document everything before they clean it up and to be in contact with USDA and FEMA as early as possible. Some benefits are time limited or require prior authorization. As long as people and animals are safe and cared for, communicate with the agencies and document losses first before recovery.
- We encourage people to get an inexpensive notebook to keep all of their notes in (should be cheap with back-to-school sales), and then write everything down, including what they do, who they talk to, what they ask, and what the person says. If they don’t write it down, they won’t remember. There is always a great deal of confusion in a disaster, both with the people navigating the disaster and officials who are administering programs under a huge amount of stress. Keeping a record can serve as documentation in case people are told incorrect information and are applying for equitable relief. If they go to an office, go with more than one person, and have one ask questions while the other takes notes. And be patient with each other.
- Folks who are under-served by agencies in general will be even more under-served in a disaster. Damages to farms that do not report production will not be reported. Farmers who do not have farm numbers or who sell into direct markets will probably not have crop insurance, which is pretty close to the only source of help on production losses other than livestock and orchards. The farm worker community will lose people, and folks will go elsewhere. In NC, no one knew what happened to many farm workers, and there were stories of folks being left behind during evacuations and stranded. All of them will be under-served by the agencies unless someone – we – step up on their behalf. Let’s step up.
- An immediate ask for folks who are food insecure, or who were made food insecure by the disaster, is the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is a separate pool of Federal funds from SNAP. It must be requested by the state. This is a good early ask of state officials, and a good place to help get word out.
- Remember that if you are offering help to people recovering from a disaster, at some point their frustration and anger and fatigue will be aimed at you. This is a natural part of the process. People also tend to be very overwhelmed and confused. Folks who would normally have no problem with navigating an application may really struggle. This is part of the importance of writing things down, but can also be part of planning for providing help. It is often not enough to just pass on information, folks need help navigating the process.
- While a farmer may ask specifically about farm recovery, remember to ask if they are okay otherwise and about their living conditions. Often folks may be working on farm recovery, but are unable to get medical assistance for a family member, might not have a refrigerator to keep food or may be living in a moldy house and not know what to do. A simple “Wait, How are you doing?” is often very important, even just to acknowledge how hard it is.
- Recovery is a very long-term process. We’re concerned about two or three years down the road when folks have exhausted the benefits and goodwill from the disaster and are still struggling. Two or three years later, when attention to the disaster has moved on, they may still be in a weakened situation with no reserves, and it may not take much to put them under financially. Stick with people for the long haul.