09/04/2013 09:32 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

Lessons From Katrina and Sandy

Eight years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of thousands of people along the Gulf Coast faced an overwhelming task: rebuilding the lives and communities ravaged by the storm. Just days after the storm, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) deployed national service members to help. Teams of full-time AmeriCorps members recruited, deployed and managed hundreds of thousands of volunteers streaming into the areas affected. More than 110,000 of these members leveraged the power of 648,000 additional Gulf Coast volunteers to muck out and rebuild homes, serve meals and distribute food to those in need and fill in at local schools to ensure that students could return to school as quickly and safely as possible. The response was swift and powerful, showcasing the unique role that national service members can play in the wake of a major national disaster.

After Hurricane Sandy, national service organizations deployed 3,600 members throughout New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania to assist in Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts. Those members managed more than 30,000 volunteers, mucked and gutted 3,700 homes and operated and managed 45 shelters. Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey saw firsthand how essential AmeriCorps members were to helping his state recover:

"I will tell you from traveling the state that what AmeriCorps volunteers did was not just the work that needed to be done and is still being done by AmeriCorps volunteers, to get people back in their homes but what AmeriCorps volunteers did was lift the spirit of the people from our state."

It is impossible to ignore the increasing number of major natural disasters across the country over the last decade. With catastrophic fires on the West Coast, shattering tornados in the Midwest and overwhelming flooding along the East Coast from storms like Hurricane Sandy, national service members are more essential to community recovery than ever before.

The unpredictable nature of storms like Sandy and Katrina catch communities off-guard and overwhelm existing support networks of families, community agencies and first responders. Recovery and rebuilding takes time and a cadre of committed, full-time boots on the ground. Increasingly, those boots are worn by AmeriCorps members who coordinate recovery and rebuilding efforts in communities across the country through national service disaster teams.

Over the last eight years, CNCS has continued to innovate in the area of disaster response and recovery, identifying ways to increase efficiency on the ground, deploy more targeted expertise in affected areas and leverage the power of young people standing in line ready to serve their country and their community. In 2012, CNCS created FEMA Corps, an innovative partnership between AmeriCorps and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that combines the people power of national service with the disaster response expertise of FEMA. Just this year, FEMA Corps graduated its very first class, marking 10 months of service rebuilding local communities after natural disasters. The 300 original members of FEMA Corps were integral in the response and recovery efforts for Hurricane Sandy. Teams were on the ground in the first few days following the hurricane and provided direct assistance to disaster survivors by working at Disaster Recovery Centers and going door-to-door in impacted neighborhoods providing disaster information. FEMA Corps also provided assistance in 20 other states including Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Florida during their assignment.

In addition to helping communities recover and training young people for disaster preparedness careers while helping them pay for college -- FEMA Corps will save the federal government nearly $60 million. At a time when cities, states and the federal government are all looking for cost-effective ways to meet mounting needs, national service is a uniquely powerful answer.

Lawmakers across the country are looking for solutions to the many pressing challenges facing our nation -- responding to disaster, addressing education challenges, delivering health care services, providing senior citizen support -- and many are increasingly looking to national service as a cost-effective and efficient partner. Despite this expanding support and interest, there is still a small minority in Congress that continues to propose budgets that would eliminate funding for AmeriCorps, FEMA Corps and shut down CNCS altogether. They propose these cuts as a deficit reduction strategy, but in reality the programs administered by CNCS represent less than .0003 percent of our nation's budget (as the federal government spent $3.5 trillion in 2012, $1,048,883,856 of which Congress appropriated to the CNCS), and offer a unique and cost-effective way to leverage citizens to bring help and hope to those who need it most. We need to move beyond "politics as usual" and leverage the passion and idealism of our citizens to solve the challenges that are before us by investing in national service. As Governor Christie said, "[National service] knows no partisanship." It is time for Congress to come together, recognize the extraordinary return on investment delivered by national service and say yes to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are standing by, ready to serve their country.