As we draw closer to the eight-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, as well as the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, I have been reflecting on my eight years since Katrina. I realized that most anniversaries are truly cathartic for people who have been through disasters. However, I am more interested in recalling what we have learned over the past eight years, and solutions to those lessons:
1. We often do not implement what we learn. Discussing "Lessons Learned" isn't helpful unless it produces actionable results.
2. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a real problem for people living in disaster prone areas. We have learned that if you don't take care of yourself within the first year, you could still be struggling eight years later. To this end, we need more mental health care, and advocacy for mental health needs to be a major part of any recovery process.
3. No matter how hard we try, well-intentioned people will always donate to relief, and will always give in-kind gifts. It is the job of the media, philanthropic advisors, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, and FEMA/USAID to make donors' compassion smarter and more effective.
4. With the majority of our focus on infrastructure, we forget that disasters impact human life and communities. Their recovery should be the central focus of our efforts and decisions.
5. We need to be talking when disasters are not happening, and not just talking: we need to be setting up partnerships with real outcomes and true memos of understanding of how we're going to prepare before a disaster happens, as well as how we will react during and long after the disaster. This includes the federal government, the state government, local municipalities, philanthropists, and the private sector and corporations.
6. We are the most generous country in the world. With close to 90% of giving coming from individuals (Giving USA statistic), they can be poised to focus on long-term recovery. Philanthropy is a strong agent, flexible, and can work at all points in the disaster cycle.
7. Resilience is hampered by a lack of support, chronic disease, and loss of income. Homelessness is essentially the largest detriment to a person's functionality. Interventions must address these issues. The faster a community can recover, the better that community will do.
8. While we spend a lot of time on evacuation, we spend little time on resettlement.
9. All grant makers are disaster grant makers, because no matter what their focus is, disasters impact their mission and exacerbate problems in their own community; there is no such thing as mission drift in a disaster. The smallest of grants could change U.S. policy.
10. There is a difference between good leadership and good crisis leadership - check all the empty seats in the boardroom after a disaster.
11. The faith-based community serves an important purpose in both caregiving and logistics. They should not be discounted.
12. Different areas of the country and the world require different responses in disasters. There is not a "one size fits all" model to disaster recovery, and philanthropists must remain nimble and adapt to the needs of each individual community.
Wallace Stanley Sayre once said that low-level bureaucracy is the most vicious and bitter form of politics because the stakes are so low. But in disasters, the stakes are incredibly high: we're talking about lives and communities. We don't run on infrastructure, we run on people. This is why it is so vital to work together. As grant makers, we have the opportunity to redefine the role of philanthropy in disaster resilience and move away from vicious and bitter politics.
Finally, my advice to donors is to remember people. Despite cautionary tales and stories of success, people must experience things themselves in order to learn what works in their own community. Philanthropists must remember that you don't give to organizations, you give through organizations that effectively serve people throughout the arc of the entire disaster so that they can swiftly rebuild their lives and find a new normalcy. If this were an actual anniversary card, the inside would read: "You have a partner for the life of your recovery. We are with you."