In September, with the Houston area still wringing itself out after the historic rains dropped by Hurricane Harvey two weeks earlier, parts of the Caribbean and Florida suffered their own disaster, as Hurricane Irma became the first Category 5 storm on record to hit the Leeward Islands and then moved over much of Florida as a Category 3 storm, causing millions of Floridians to evacuate and leaving the Florida Keys cut off from the mainland.
Recently, PND spoke with Mark Brewer, president and CEO of the Orlando-based Central Florida Foundation, about the relief and recovery efforts in his region and what the foundation is doing to help nonprofits in the area get back to normal.
Philanthropy News Digest: What is the extent of the damage in the region served by CFF?
Mark Brewer: Finding the answer to that question has been an evolving process. As I'm sure you know, there are three phases to these events: response, recovery, and rebuilding. In some parts of the region we're still in response mode, in part because of the widespread electrical outages and water-related issues in the counties on the coast. But response and recovery is going to look different here than it does in South Florida and the Caribbean, even though we suffered a large amount of unseen damage.
This morning [September 25], for example, more than a hundred daycare centers didn't open because they suffered damage to their buildings or their employees couldn't get into work. That translates into thousands of people who couldn’t get to work because they didn't have child care. So when you look out at the roads, things look like they're clearing up, the tree branches are being removed. But when you start looking at nonprofits in the region, you see that they're struggling to get back to full strength.
PND: What are the most immediate needs, and how do you think things will unfold over the next several months?
MB: The response phase is wrapping up. Most of the power has been restored, and people are starting to get back into their normal routines. Recovery is about getting back to business as usual. It's not just those daycare centers, it's also about making certain that everyone who cares for people with disabilities, children, and the elderly are back in business and the overall "quality-of-life-system" in the region operates as it’s supposed to. For the rest of 2017, we're going to be moving into recovery and making certain that service providers are operational and have what they need. Then for most of 2018, I think it will be a mix of recovery and rebuilding as it becomes clearer who was able to recover from the storm and who wasn't. Remember, while we're happy to have FEMA on the ground, it can sometimes take months — even years — for FEMA to pay the bills. That means you will see a lot of nonprofits that are stressed in terms of their capacity to help people with things that they've been told they'll be reimbursed for later.
PND: What is the role of a community foundation in addressing the needs of nonprofits and people in the community after a disaster?
MB: We operate in two areas. One is around the process of identifying capacity issues for nonprofits in the region. We established the Hurricane Irma Relief Fund, which will focus mostly on recovery. If we see gaps during rebuilding, we'll address them, but the first grants out of the fund will go to things like helping people cover their insurance deductibles and making certain that people who are eligible for FEMA grants understand the process and its requirements.
Right now, the foundation is finishing an assessment of a thousand nonprofits in the region. What the early numbers tell us is that about 7 percent of those nonprofits essentially have been put out of business. They're not able to do anything right now because they don't have the people or the resources. Another 40 percent of nonprofits in the region are operational, but they're doing so at a huge disadvantage, either trying to figure out how they're going to make payroll and what to do about holes in the roof, or how to deal with the IT and technology systems that aren't working. Transportation’s another big issue for some of them. But we're seeing a lot of folks in the region looking for and finding ways to help each other get up and running. As we move into the recovery phase, those kinds of needs will become more apparent. It's not rocket science: You do some surveying, get some data, and do what needs to be done.
PND: How much do you hope to raise to address those needs?
MB: Based on the number of people who have access to insurance and FEMA resources, there could be several million dollars of need over the next year and a half in the seven counties we serve. In terms of making sure services are available, it looks like the need is going to be in the $1 million to $2 million range. To achieve that fundraising goal, we'll be collaborating with the United Ways and other foundations in the region.
But it's important that philanthropy doesn't get too far out in front of public money, because that can sometimes lead to the faucet being turned off. Typically, it takes public money a long time to get to those who need it, and getting sufficient dollars from the right pockets to the right places at the right time is all about coordination and collaboration. We will be convening hundreds of nonprofits over the coming weeks and will continue that process over the next year around specific areas of interest, which we hope will help us make a case to the community for addressing some of the problems in the region in a more strategic way. It's not enough to say we have about four thousand nonprofits in the metro area, and 40 percent of them could be in trouble and need help. That's not really a case for support.
PND: How has the response to Irma been different from the response to other hurricanes that have hit Orlando?
MB: It hasn't been much different. As soon as a storm has passed, corporations and corporate philanthropies around the region come together and try to figure out how can they best allocate resources in the areas that they fund. Typically, if a hurricane hits Orlando, we get calls from companies that have employees in Orlando or do business here looking for ways to put money to work. That didn't happen this time, however, because the hurricane affected the entire state, and I think that confused corporations a little bit. They were looking for the worst-hit areas, almost as if they automatically shifted into response gear instead of recovery gear.
As you might imagine, local companies and local philanthropists are a little more strategic. About half of them have been focused on ensuring that people in the region have what they need to survive, while the other half have been focused helping businesses and nonprofits get back to normal. Remember, we're not just talking about social service and human service nonprofits; we're also talking about arts and cultural groups, many of which have not brought in any significant revenue for almost a month, putting them in pretty dire straits. You also have education and healthcare groups, and they're in the same situation, losing a revenue stream that could put them in jeopardy. Local folks are more likely to think about making sure that every business and nonprofit in the community is operational and that we don't lose anybody along the way.
Another way in which storm response has been different this time is that we have a lot of people who weren’t here in 2004 when hurricanes Charley, Frances, and Jeanne all hit Orlando. Literally half the people in Orange County didn't live here in 2004. Recovering from a hurricane requires a lot of social capital — who has good cell phone service, who owns a chainsaw, who knows how to get a tree off a roof or fence. Irma quite possibly created more damage than all three of those earlier hurricanes put together, but we don’t have as many people around with that kind of experience. The social capital is missing a little and needs to be rebuilt. But, hey, hurricane season isn't over until November.
— Matt Sinclair