A Great Team Leads a Community in the Recovery from a Disaster

Author’s note: This blog was published as an 8-part series.  I have consolidated it into a single piece which makes it quite long (9,000 words).  

PART ONE–The shock and the knee-jerk

It was 2008.  I had been president of our United Way for thirteen years.  Everything connected to that job was going exceedingly well.  But it had been six years since our last big accomplishment of establishing and operating a co-location of about fifty human service agencies and programs.  I needed a new dragon to slay, but I had no new ideas.  Continuing normal growth and routine success were not what I was here for.  I was faced with the boring task of chasing mice.

In June, what did we get?  We got eleven inches of rain in five hours in the counties upstream from us.  With it, came what is known as a hundred-year flood.  Floods are labeled according to their predictable frequency.  I’m not sure the weather people ever decided whether this was a hundred or a five-hundred year event.  All I know is that there was water where water had never been before in my lifetime or in the memory of any of my fellow citizens.  Witnesses who were sitting on their porches during the rain described the oncoming water as looking like a small tsunami.

Hundreds of homes were flooded, many beyond repair.  Patients were airlifted from our hospital to hospitals in surrounding counties. Schools and businesses were buried in water on their lower levels.  Red Cross set up emergency shelters anywhere they could find a dry building.

Obviously, this is not something I had hoped for, but since it happened, I jumped into the fray.  As suddenly as the water rose, I had a purpose again.  The flood was on a Saturday, and transportation throughout the county was virtually shut down.  Several islands had been formed, each cut off from the others.  By Sunday noon, the waters were subsiding, and one-by-one the police were opening roads.

As might be expected, actions were disjointed and intense.  Everyone wanted to help, but there was no organization to the effort.  Some residents just went into neighborhoods and started cleaning up.  The city safety director set up an ad hoc committee of community leaders and representatives of several human service organizations.  A group of six pastors organized an open meeting to start to plan actions for cleanup.

Carolyn and I had been marooned in town and ended up sleeping in my office.  We had been at the Fourth Street Bar in downtown Columbus and, disregarding the flash flood warnings as we are wont to do, had decided to have one for the road.  After trying several exits from town, we went to the United Way Center which was six blocks from where we had eaten.  When a road opened that would give us access to home on Sunday morning, I took Carolyn home and returned to the building to do whatever I could to help.  I thought that our building would be a logical haven for folks who didn’t know where to go.

I was correct, and when I arrived Angie Huebel was already there.  I had recently appointed Angie to the position of executive director of the Volunteer Action Center (VAC), a division of our United Way.  VAC’s mission is to recruit and connect residents who want to volunteer with agencies that need help.  I didn’t know Angie very well, but that was to change quickly in the crisis.  By noon, we had been joined by about two-dozen people who were a mixture of displaced residents and volunteers.

Within minutes on the morning after the flood, Angie and I decided that the United Way Center lobby was going to be the focal point for volunteers.  Of course, we had no authority to make that decision.  We just did it, and it stuck.  I underestimated the magnitude of the job ahead and went out to buy a cell phone, which was to be dedicated to calls about the flood cleanup and recovery.  By Tuesday, there had been six phone lines installed in the lobby, and the cell phone was a thing of the past.  The number of calls on both sides of the volunteer/victim ledger was overwhelming, and the lobby was packed with victims and people either already involved or wanting to be involved in the cleanup.

Angie was terrific.  She invented a system on the fly to handle volunteers efficiently.  One of her first actions was to recruit the first six women who appeared to have any interpersonal skills to work the lobby.  She sat them at a table to register people, and on Tuesday she gave each of them one of the new phones.  I don’t know what these women had in mind when they volunteered, but many of them worked more than one day a week for several months.  Angie recruited more volunteers to handle the phones.  We wanted all of them to be answered from 8 to 5.

She assigned me the job of ice man.  Each morning by seven o’clock, I was to bring four twenty-pound bags of ice to the building, empty yesterday’s melted ice from the coolers, and stock them with fresh drinks and ice for volunteers to enjoy during their work day.  For this, I became known as “Iceman” throughout the recovery.  Some volunteers didn’t know me by any other name.

PART TWO–From a Deluge of Nature to a Deluge of Help

By Monday, the word was out nationwide, and the response was unbelievable.  Groups began to arrive, not only from Indiana and contiguous states, but from as far away as Utah and Connecticut.  FEMA, which had taken such a bad rap for its performance after Katrina, was on hand early and did a great job for us.  I think that was after they had rid themselves of George W.’s buddy whose credentials were that he had run horse shows.  From Bartholomew County’s perspective, I had no complaints about FEMA.  Others on the scene early were volunteers from the Billy Graham Foundation, Samaritan’s Purse, INVOAD (the Indiana arm of a nation faith-based disaster organization), and many more whose names I can’t remember.  Most were from faith-based organizations, but there were also groups from colleges, service clubs, and just plain people who organized themselves to go help where it was needed.  Many families took on the project as a family event.  One family even made it a reunion with segments of the family coming from St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and rural Kentucky as well as Columbus (IN).  It was thrilling to see how many people were selfless enough to come to our town and help when we, absolute strangers to them, needed it.

On Wednesday, I returned from a meeting at City Hall to find a group of people gathered in the United Way Center board room. I recognized some staff and volunteers from my own organization, the Executive Director of Red Cross, and several other local do-gooders.  A smallish dark-haired middle-aged woman appeared to be running the meeting.  As if she owned a crystal ball, she was expounding on what would happen next and what we needed to do about it.  Who the hell was this woman, and who appointed her queen?

I took a seat in a corner of the room and listened.  It turned out that her name was Susan Scales.  She and her husband Monty were, for lack of a better term,  professional disaster followers.  They had spent the past many months assisting in the gulf area as apart of the Katrina recovery.  Once we got past the moment of my thinking she was a know-it-all busy body and she thinking there was no chance that I could lead this recovery, we got along great and became fast friends.  Susan shared knowledge that allowed us to greatly reduce our learning curve and avoid mistakes that come from inexperience in dealing with disasters.  Monty’s specialty was in the physical cleanup and rebuilding.

Susan’s particular interest in us came from the fact that she was from Bloomington, forty miles to the west, and still had family there.  Our flood presented an opportunity to come home for a while.  Their lifestyle was simple.  Because they travelled from one disaster to another, they carried their home with them in the form a trailer.  Wherever they happened to land could be home.  I never quite figured out where they got money to live on except some vague notion that they were associated with some religious organization that paid them a stipend.

There are three distinct steps in dealing with a disaster.  Within a given community, there is an overlapping of steps, but there is a clear difference.  The first response is to ensure that everyone is safe.  In our case, that component was led by the Red Cross, which performs that role in most disasters everywhere.  This work is usually pretty short-term.

In a flood, first response is closely followed by cleanup, the first part of which is muckin’ and guttin’.  I must admit this was a new term to me.  It pertains to cleaning up the mud in the house and carrying all of the ruined items, including the walls, to the street to be thrown away.

Everything porous that got wet has to be thrown away.  Even if you dry it, mold will form, and that will create a health problem, not only to the residents of the house affected, but in the neighborhood.  That means that not only the furniture and carpets have to go, the wallboard has to be stripped, and in some instances the framing must be torn down.

The pastors group held another meeting on Monday.  By this time, there was more awareness of their existence, and the room was full of victims, volunteers, media, and other interested parties.  I went early and asked if I could join their leadership team, which they had already dubbed the “steering committee.”  They seemed happy to get me.  Talk about a fish out of water!  There I was with six preachers, and I with absolutely no religious convictions.

They gave me one humbling surprise.  I had been president of United Way in their community for thirteen years.  There was something about United Way and me in the newspaper at least once a month.  People I don’t even know speak to me wherever I go.  And yet, not one of the pastors had ever heard of me.  I concluded that those in their profession are so involved with and dedicated to their own congregations and causes that they don’t have time to look beyond those into the community.  I think that is neither a good thing nor a bad thing.  It’s just the way it is—at least in Bartholomew County, Indiana.

Within ten days, it was apparent that a single leader of the flood cleanup and subsequent recovery was needed and that none of the pastors wanted the job.  In addition, none of them was connected enough to the necessary resources to do it effectively.  I had both qualifications plus a great amount of experience with crisis management from my former life in manufacturing.  I volunteered to be the director of the flood recovery, and they quickly accepted the offer.

My own board was less than thrilled when I told them of the new role I had taken on without asking them.  “Who’s going to manage United Way?”  “I am.”  “Won’t some of the work be neglected?”  “No!”  I continue to be insulted when people who don’t know what they are talking about underestimate me.  It’s not as if I have a long string of failures trailing behind me like sheets of toilet paper stuck to your shoe as you walk back from the rest room.

By now, you have probably figured out that of my many shortcomings, lack of ego and self-esteem are not on the list.  That’s another reality that I don’t consider good or bad.  Sometimes people are turned off by it, but then I am often turned off by timidity and lack of action.  It takes all kinds to make up a society.

A week into the cleanup, we identified eight major geographical sections of the county that were hit hard and several other areas with lesser damage.  We assigned volunteers to teams that would be sent to a specific home or block of homes.  That assignment would be that team’s project until it was either completed or the volunteers’ time to stay had expired.  Two of the areas were large mobile home parks.

I soon learned of a few problems, which Angie took care of at once.  In response to some reports of looting, Angie and her team devised a system whereby all authorized volunteers would wear a wristband that they could obtain in the United Way Center lobby.  It showed that they were registered as members of the flood recovery team.  The system wasn’t foolproof, as many people just stopped by flood sites to help and weren’t even aware that there was a system in place.  We didn’t run these people off, but someone in the area would advise them that they should stop by flood recovery headquarters and get a wristband.  The local police were tuned in to the system and found it quite helpful.

Angie’s gang and I needed to have some fun to keep our sanity and senses of humor through this mess.  We decided that a good diversion would be to create some ironic groupings among the volunteers.  Angie sent a group of Amish folks from northern Indiana out to work with a group from a synagogue in Louisville.  A busload of students from the University of North Carolina partnered with a senior citizens group from Michigan to clean up one of the mobile home parks. The Carolina kids came back three weeks later, and this time Angie sent them out with another busload from the University of Louisville.  They got along just fine as long as they didn’t debate who had the better basketball team.  I think her best match might have been a Southern Baptist Church from Hazard, Kentucky, with an Italian-American social club from Chicago.

But you know what came from our little sociological experiment?  Nothing!  There was not one negative incident.  There was no conflict that was noteworthy enough that anyone back at volunteer headquarters heard about it.  And we would have heard because there were teams of supervisors in each of the affected areas.  The supervisors were there to ensure safety, to make certain the necessary tools were available, and to direct work and answer questions.

Of the few personnel problems that were experienced through the weeks of cleanup, not one was caused by conflict among the volunteers.  In fact, there were many reports of volunteers exchanging email addresses and phone numbers with their work mates.  I have often wondered if any of those relationships continued in the months and years since the flood.

In that first week or so, there seemed to be one meeting or another every hour or two.  Each had several common participants, and each dealt with a different segment of our population.  None of us had ever done this before, and we all wanted to do everything we could to fix the problem as quickly as possible.  The city safety director hosted a meeting at City Hall every morning at 8 o’clock.  Soon, the preachers and I were functioning as the steering committee of the Bartholomew County Long-Term Flood Recovery Team.

PART THREE–Listen, Observe, Organize, Communicate, Act

In talking with Susan Scales and other flood experts who visited us in the beginning, we learned that there is a predictable chronology of emotions, attitudes, and events in a disaster.  Immediately, people are in shock.  The victims want to save their families, their property, and their belongings.  The non-victims want to help.  The problem is omnipresent—visible in any direction one might drive.  Then in four to six weeks, the visibility wanes.  There is no more mud in the streets; the trash at the curbs has been hauled away.  Conversation among those who were not directly affected diminishes.  It is replaced by talk about their jobs, kids, teams etc.  Those people don’t have the ravaged neighborhoods in their paths as they travel to work, school, or the mall.  The influx of first responder organizations has moved on to the next disaster.

This is the moment at which local leadership must take hold.  Several actions took place in those first few weeks that put us in a position to fly on our own, assuming that a reasonable amount of local volunteer help continued.

  • The pastors on the steering committee gave us access to a large volunteer population through their churches. They encouraged volunteering at all of their services. This kept the volunteer pipeline flowing longer than it might have.  Lanny Lawler, head pastor at North Christian Church in Columbus had been one of the organizers of the steering committee and had hosted all of the early meetings at his church.  I asked him to chair the steering committee, and he agreed to do so.  I believe any organization, even if it is temporary, needs some formal structure, and this gave us the equivalent of a board of directors.
  • Although the hospital was shut down, management decided to keep everyone on the payroll at full salary for the duration of the recovery. This turned out to be a really big deal. There were 1500 employees, of which only a relatively small percentage could work on the hospitals cleanup and recovery. With no patients, this meant the hospital could make a thousand people available to work on various aspects of the cleanup and recovery throughout the community.
  • Lilly Endowment, the philanthropic arm of Eli Lilly Corporation, which is headquartered in Indianapolis, granted $45 million to be used for recovery related to all Indiana disasters in 2008. This grant would be administered by the Indiana Association of United Ways (IAUW). $10 million would go to Red Cross with the remainder to be distributed by IAUW. In addition to the flood in our county, many counties in the state shared the same experience. Plus, there had been an earlier less devastating flood in the northern part of the state and a couple of tornadoes.

Angie suggested that nurses from the hospital were their patients’ case managers and, with minimum training, could become case managers to flood victims.  This brilliant observation allowed access to a cadre of smart people with experience in managing the crises of individuals.  The hospital assigned twelve nurses to work full time as flood recovery case managers at United Way Center.

When the committee at IAUW reviewed the needs across the state, we were granted $1.7 million to fund recovery for individual home-owners and small businesses, and the hospital received another $6 million.

Success through People—Many Professionals and Many Many Volunteers

In the first month, the focus was entirely on cleanup.  The recovery team had developed no strategy for the long-term recovery.  That allowed rumors to be rampant as to what would happen beyond cleanup.  The daily meetings at City Hall continued for the first two weeks, but they too were about cleanup.  A couple colleagues and I represented United Way and the Long-Term Recovery Team at those meetings.  Those two entities had become synonymous in people’s minds.  The usual cast of city and county officials was present at the meetings along with FEMA and the other helping organizations as long as they were in town.  Of course, the predictable number of local politicians, congressmen, and legislators dropped by to pledge their support.  One congressman even cried when he spoke of seeing the devastation in the neighborhood in which he had grown up.  I will never believe those weren’t crocodile tears, but I admit to being cynical when it comes to politicians.

While the morning meetings had been invaluable in the first ten days, attendance began to decline as assignments were completed, and within another week, that meeting ceased to exist.  That was not bad thing because we had reached the point of too many meetings, often producing conflicting information.  It was around the Fourth of July that the recovery segment began to take shape.

We identified three major components as essential to the recovery—volunteer coordination, case management, and construction.  I recruited a manager for each component who would join me on the management committee of the Long-Term Flood Recovery Team.  The volunteer manager was easy.  Angie had entrenched herself in that job from day one.

Within a day after the nurses had reported for duty, Sharon Spencer, who was the daytime charge nurse on the fourth floor of the hospital, distinguished herself as the leader of her peers.  During the training session to transition their skills to flood-specific problems, she was the first to understand.  In fact, within an hour, Sharon had transformed herself from trainee to trainer.  She accepted my invitation to be the Case Management Manager.  Susan Scales’ role evolved into being a de facto consultant to the case management team.  If there was ever conflict of authority between her and Sharon, I never heard of it.

I had to look outside for the Construction Manager.  It was time to reach back twenty years.  John Boyle had been a supervisor for Dunlap Construction when they built the manufacturing facility for which I was to manage the startup in 1988. John was a good-old- boy who was always quick with a smile and a joke.  I think our attraction to each other was that we were both wise-asses who disdained authority figures that were too full of themselves.  In the ensuing twenty years, I had run into John about a dozen times in grocery stores and bars.  On those occasions, we always shared a laugh and then went our own ways until we met again.  But recently, I always had sensed that John was covering up some depression with a faux happy-go-lucky attitude.  I suspected that the cause was that he didn’t have a regular job.

In my most recent contact with John, about a year earlier, I learned that he was no longer with Dunlap and was doing occasional jobs he could pick up on his own.  After the flood, I called him to come in for a talk.  Meanwhile, Angie told me that she had met John when he came in to volunteer for flood work.  She, being unaware of his experience and skills, had assigned him to a muckin’ and guttin’ crew, and he had readily accepted that work.  When he visited me, John jumped at the chance to have full-time work for an estimated two years as the working manager of the recovery construction team.  He would recruit his own crew and be paid 32 bucks an hour.  His crew would receive $20 to $28 depending on their skills.

PART FOUR–Time to meet the people

It was now late July, six weeks after the event. The muckin’ and guttin’ work was winding down.  I had my management team and knew how much money we had to work with.  We were ready to fly.  I asked the media to publicize a community meeting that would be held on August first in the high school auditorium.  The newspapers and radio stations responded enthusiastically with banner headlines and lead stories in every newscast.  If I were reading this as one who had not been involved, I would think that seven weeks between the flood and the big informational meeting regarding recovery was an unreasonably long time.  Believe me.  It could not have been done any faster.  We were not ready for long-term recovery until all the first response work was completed and we were well along in the cleanup.

By then, the three recovery components had their members identified so that they could hit the ground running as soon as the community meeting was behind us. I had begun to have regular meetings of the management team (the three function managers and I) on Mondays and Thursday at 8 AM.  These were essential early on because the three functions shared the same cases from different perspectives.

It can be argued that the use of tee shirts in America has become overdone.  It seems that every time you go for a walk, it’s for a cause, and you get a tee shirt.  On the other hand, it gives us a chance to tell the world what team we root for, what charities we give to, or that we are proud grandmas.

I thought this was a time when tee shirts would serve a real purpose.  I designed a shirt that you couldn’t miss.  It was bright red with large white letters, Bartholomew County Long-Term Flood Recovery Team.  Two days before the meeting, I coaxed a local sporting goods store to print a hundred of them on short notice and have them to me before the three o’clock meeting.  At 2:45 the shirts were delivered outside the auditorium.

All of those who were to be on stage were assembled in a classroom which we used as the school’s version of a green room.  There was the entire Flood Recovery Team, which now numbered twelve with some additions I had recruited so that I would not be so overwhelmed by the religious contingent.  Also, there were the other management team members, two FEMA reps, a Small Business Administration spokesperson, a congressional aide, and a governor’s representative.

We gave everyone except the politicians a shirt and told them that they had to wear it in order to be on stage.  The men who had worn dress shirts and ties could wear it over their shirts.  The priest on the steering committee wore his over his collar.  Women who had dressed up for the event could cover their fancy clothes with it, but we were all going to wear them.  The impression I was bent on making was to ensure the community that there was an organized effort to help them out of the mess.  The words long-term and team were deliberately chosen.  Long-term said we were on the job until it was done, and team implied that this was not just a committee, which can be perceived as a small group that accomplishes little and disbands prematurely.

Twenty chairs were lined up across the stage.  The crowd numbered about seven-hundred.  There was a large contingent of flood victims.  Our ushers directed them to sit together in one section.  The rest of the audience was made up of government officials, media, and just plain citizens, most of whom were volunteering in some way.  The case managers, in their red shirts, sat as a group in the front row.  This was a moment everyone had been waiting for.

The team and I all walked onto the stage together and stood for a moment.  The politicians obeyed my instruction to take the last two seats away from the podium.  Actually, we were one chair short, so the congressman’s aide had to step off stage and get another folding chair for himself.  The audience reaction was something none of us had anticipated.  There was a prolonged silence, I think while they read the shirts, followed by loud applause.  It was if they had seen the first reason to think there might be an end to their nightmare.  I wasn’t alone in not being unable to choke back tears.

Then, the others all took their seats while I opened the meeting.  As my opening address, I shared the following information, plans, and promises:

  • While I hoped that this would be the meeting to end all meetings, I was sure that it would not be.
  • The people in the red shirts would not rest until the recovery job was done.
  • The structure and purpose of the steering committee and the management team.
  • The function of the case managers whom I asked to stand. The case managers would be seated at a long table in the lobby and were prepared to serve victims after the meeting. For those who already had a case file open, the case manager would update the file and answer questions. For those who were seeing a case manager for the first time, a file would be opened. For both existing and new clients, appointments could be made for an in-depth conversation either in the case management office or at the flood site.
  • None of the team would leave the auditorium until every one of the victims’ questions had been answered to the best of our ability. In some cases, the answer would be, “We don’t know, but we will find out and get back to you.” In those instances, we took names and contact information.
  • The media had volunteered to publish daily updates, and there would be a weekly meeting at the Disciples of Christ Church as long as those meetings remained meaningful.

We set a minimal number of ground rules for the meeting.  Everyone on stage would remain after the meeting to answer questions that were specific to a single property.  I asked the questioners to use that forum so that they would not tie up everyone’s time for issues that were not of concern to multiple people in the audience.  In the same vein, I reserved the right to cut off anyone who was monopolizing the time.  I deliberately did not outlaw anger, although we were prepared to deal with anyone who got out of hand.  This turned out to be a good decision because a significant number of victims were angry, and many didn’t know for sure at whom, so they took it out on whoever was available.

I then introduced the members of the Long-Term Recovery Team, the experts from afar, and the politicians.  It was time to turn the podium over to one of the FEMA reps.  She presented valuable information about what victims could expect from FEMA and how they could access FEMA’s help.  She pointed to our case management operation as the place to go when they had questions.  The Small Business Administration representative explained, in detail, how to obtain an SBA loan.  She also clarified that the word “business” in their name was not meant to imply that individuals were not eligible.  And a representative of Indiana government told of some assistance available through the state.

The rules for accessing FEMA and SBA were clearly defined.  Flood victims were required to apply for a FEMA grant and an SBA loan.  Whatever money they received from those sources had to be used for their personal flood recovery.  Then they could come to the Long Term Recovery Team, and a case manager would review their situation with an eye toward covering the remaining cost to make them whole.  We gave the case managers considerable autonomy in those decisions, but some situations were so gray that they had to come before the management team.

That was enough speaking.  We were there to listen to the victims’ questions and needs.  So we opened the gates, and the questions rolled in.  Most of the comments and questions were pretty civil.   However, there was some rage over what had or, more often, had not been done to date.  Some of the anger was well directed about mistakes or omissions that had occurred.  As we had agreed before the meeting, the team did not make excuses.  We simply apologized and promised to correct any mistakes as soon as possible.

Of course, in a situation as intense as the flood recovery, mistakes and omissions are bound to happen, but when they happen in your case, understanding is not easy to come by.  All victims were encouraged to stay to talk with any member of the recovery team.  If the person they were talking with could not help, they would be taken to someone who had the knowledge and authority to give the necessary assistance.  Most of the victims appreciated the time and interest we were taking.  Of course, there are some people you just can’t please.  Even with the crankiest of clients, the team members did the best they could to be patient and serve them.

PART FIVE–Restructuring the organization for the long term recovery

Angie’s original volunteer management group transitioned from coordinating volunteers for cleanup to assigning jobs for recovery.  Three of the women assisting her with volunteers were working so many hours that the management team felt it was only right to put them on the payroll.  We settled on a stipend of $10 an hour for any member of the volunteer team who regularly worked over 10 hours in a week.  Most of the others were working either one 8-hour day or two 4-hour days, and none of them thought that policy was unfair.  They all said that they intended this as a volunteer activity and didn’t expect to be paid. On the other hand, the three who were working 30 to 40 hours a week really appreciated the gesture.

Two of those women, Judy Hanson and Bonnie Morrison, joined us as volunteers in this time of crisis became so valuable that we kept them.  I equate Judy and Bonnie to utility infielders on a big league baseball team.  We could plug them into any job that needed to be done, and they did it without ever complaining.  I am sad that the for profit world has eliminated all if its utility infielders in the attempt to convince their stockholders they are cost conscious.  Of course, no one asks how much value added has been lost in employing that strategy.  Anyway, Bonnie is still at United Way adding value every day, and Judy retired this year in order to move nearer her family.

Sharon Spencer had a full complement of case managers, twenty-seven in all.  The twelve from the hospital were all outstanding.  We had predicted that based on the nurses’ case management experience working with patients, and we were not disappointed.  The other seventeen were of mixed quality, ranging from excellent to incompetent.  About a half-dozen saw their role as telling flood victims how to straighten out their lives, rather than focusing on listening to their clients’ needs and responding in a helpful and compassionate manner.  Angie tried to assign those people to other jobs, but most ended up falling off the volunteer wagon.  A conference room in the United Way Center was converted to serve as the case management war room.  Eight computers and phones, which came to be busy ten hours a day, were installed.  That was enough equipment.  Much of a case manager’s job was to visit clients at the site of their homes, and few case managers worked all day or every day.

John Boyle did a novel job of recruiting.  He had to find men with some construction skills who were not regularly employed.  He found one guy who could pound a nail straight at the county jail.  He had two months remaining on work release and stayed on the team afterwards for the full run of the recovery.  At $28 an hour, this was the best job he had ever had.  Last I heard, he had used the recovery work to turn his life around.  The experience enabled him to create a resume and find a job out of state.

Another recruit was a 28-year-old Dartmouth graduate who had rejected what he called the bullshit of the business world and was out of work.  He clearly preferred to work with his hands rather than use his Ivy League education.  He was about 6-2 and 220, in perfect shape, and could bench press 400 pounds.  He too moved on after the recovery.  I have lost track of him, but I suspect he found a way to combine his mind and body to achieve success.

The first recruit in filling the roster was a drywall-finishing specialist.  John Goddard was a fireman whose avocation was carpentry.  He could work only two days out of every three because he was on duty at the firehouse for 24 hours every third day.  A painter and a retired carpenter rounded out the team.  Although most of the men had specialties, everyone served, to some degree, as a generalist as well as a goodwill ambassador.  I couldn’t believe how many of these guys got invited to birthday parties and family dinners of the people whose homes they repaired.  The only paid tradesman we used was a self-employed electrician who carved out time to fit us in as needed.  He gave a discounted rate to all flood recovery jobs.

We learned that some national volunteer organizations concentrate on early response work in disasters while others specialize in recovery efforts.  Still others work on the transition between the two steps.  One such group was the Christian Reform World Recovery Committee or, as we called them, the Green Shirts.  They came to town seventeen strong in mid-August and stayed for two weeks.  Their specialty was outreach.  They searched for victims who had yet not been helped.  It was hard to believe how many people they found who didn’t know about us.  Despite the fact that the work of the Flood Recovery Team had been highly publicized and had been the subject of a high volume of word-of-mouth, some weren’t aware of our existence and the help that was available.  Others were embarrassed to ask for help, thinking of it as welfare.  Still others were distrustful of all organized efforts that might be connected to government or big business.

The Green Shirts worked long days, knocking at the door of every home that had been affected.  If the residents weren’t home, they left a note instructing them to call the recovery office.  If it appeared that the residents had left the home either temporarily or permanently, the Green Shirts asked neighbors how they might be reached, and they followed up.  This group discovered about a hundred individuals and families who were not in our case files, most of whom were subsequently assisted by our team.

An estimated 2,200 homes were damaged to some degree.  There were a variety of dispositions of those cases.  Some experienced only minor damage, and the owners paid for the repairs without seeking help.  For some, the FEMA money and SBA loan they received covered their cost, so we didn’t hear from them.  A few had flood insurance, which they used, and they were not visible to us. By the time those dispositions had occurred, we were down to about 550 cases that our team officially handled.  There were also an undetermined number of others for whom our case managers facilitated the connection with FEMA, SBA, or their insurance company.  Those instances were not counted in our case load records.

The construction team divided the homes that needed external and/or internal structural work into four categories.  Total rebuilds meant tearing down the remains and keeping only the original foundation.  For those, we built a new home.  In fact in two cases, we couldn’t even save the foundations.  There were eight homes that qualified in that area.  Major damage included houses that would require $20,000 or more to restore.  Eighteen homes were in this category.  Twenty-five homes made up the segment that was characterized as moderate damage—$5,000 to $20,000.

Of course, the largest category was those with minor damage—under $5,000.  There were several hundred residences falling into this segment, including over a two hundred mobile homes.  Almost all of them needed to have the skirting replaced.  Beyond that, the work was often minimal–little more than replacing drywall and some or all of the flooring.  In addition, almost all of these places needed furniture.

 

PART SIX–Let’s get to work

Volunteers were a mixed blessing to our construction crew.  Sometimes locals, usually parishioners from the victim’s church, just showed up and offered to help with construction.  In construction knowledge, these people ranged from having much experience to little experience to those who didn’t know which end of the hammer to hold.  The majority tended to be toward the low end of the continuum.  Even the experienced ones often had a different way of doing things than our team.  And many thought they knew how to do something that they really were not equipped to do.  As was pointed out to me several times, hanging drywall is a relatively simple task that can be done by someone with a small amount of mechanical ability.  But finishing drywall is a craft in itself.  In addition, the volunteers that showed up one day and took our guys’ time to give them instructions, often didn’t come back.

All of this led to a generalization expressed by John Boyle in virtually every management team meeting, “Keep those fucking volunteers away from us so we can do our jobs.”  Angie got the message and learned to screen those who specifically wanted to do construction and guide them to other jobs that required less expertise while still making them feel valued.  That is a skill in itself which requires firmness coupled with diplomacy.  She got to be very good at it.

The management team determined that our practice would be to give the benefit of the doubt as to victim’s accounts of what they lost and other circumstances around their flood experience.  Bartholmew County had $1.7 million from the Lilly grant through IAUW and another $300,000 from many individual and corporate contributions, a concert, and the local community foundation.  We thought that would be enough to fund everything that needed to be done, but we didn’t know what problems might pop up as we proceeded.  Some caution needed to be exercised rather than simply our being a source for free money.  A few people used their FEMA money to pay off their mortgages and then sought help from Long Term Recovery.  This might appear to be wise money management, but it does not fit within the spirit of the work, not to mention the letter of the rules.  It was never intended that the flood would provide home owners a windfall, after which they would be debt free and significantly better off than they had been before the flood.  There were other instances where, when the case manager or construction crew went to the home, they saw a brand new pickup truck in the driveway or a new 60-inch plasma television in the living room.  Sherry investigated these cases and generally ended up withholding money from those people.

Then there were the gray areas.  In a few cases, John’s crew found homes in such a state of disrepair that it was obvious that, while the flood had done some of the damage, the house had been a wreck before June.  What would you do?  We couldn’t fix just the part that was affected by the flood.  The choices were to fix it all or nothing.  These cases were brought before the management team to determine if any of us had additional information about the case.  Unless we had a compelling reason to refuse, we always decided to fix it all, and the flood just turned out to be a break for the owner.  In my cynicism, I guessed that, within a year, the owner would allow the house to go to hell again.  I never went back to check.

By early September, some people were getting back into their homes.  It was time to address other losses.  As I mentioned earlier, everything that was porous and had gotten wet had to be thrown away.  This included furniture, carpet, clothing, wall board and often flooring and framing.  The construction crew took care of the permanent building components, but someone else had to deal with furniture, clothing, and other household items that had been destroyed. Since we were committed to leaving victims at least as well of as they were before the flood, it was incumbent on the Long-Term Recovery to provide replacements.

The homes we were working with were, for the most part, owned by citizens with low to moderate incomes.  They didn’t lose expensive furniture or designer clothes, but what they lost had been the best they could afford.  Often their losses consisted of furniture that was beaten up from years of use and clothing that was threadbare or patched.  The management team declared that there wasn’t enough decent used clothing or furniture available at second-hand stores to outfit several hundred families.  We also decided that, within reason, we would take people’s word as to what they had lost.  And we took a what-the-hell position regarding victims ending up with new furniture when what they had lost was old.  After what they had been through, Long Term Recovery was not going to be a cheapskate.

I felt that, if possible, buying from locally-owned retailers was important.  I went to the best known mid-priced furniture store in town to meet with the owner.  He was elderly, and he and I had never met.  I told him what we were doing and offered him the opportunity to be our primary supplier of replacement furniture.  I explained the potential of the business and asked if he could give some discount for these sales.  I told him that we didn’t want his entire profit, but if he could give 10%, it would be appreciated.  Mostly, I just wanted a gesture of good faith.  The owner refused to give any discount and obviously did not believe the scope of the business he might receive.  I left determined to give him no flood recovery business.  This is another instance of my lack of patience when it appears that people don’t believe that I am acting in the best interest of others.

When I approached the owner of the next affordable store, whom I had also never met, I was met with similar doubt.  I had my Flood Recovery Team shirt on, and I gave him my card identifying me as president of United Way, but I had no real credentials that showed my authority to make a deal.  I explained that we were going to send flood victims to him to pick out whatever they wanted for up to three rooms at $1,300 per room.  If more than three rooms of furniture at a single location had to be replaced, the limit was still $3,900 unless one of our soft-hearted case managers issued a waiver.  The home-owner simply had to present a voucher issued by her case manager, choose her furniture, and drive off with it.  The voucher stated how many rooms each person was eligible for.  In cases where the recipient of the furniture absolutely could not pick up the furniture, the dealer agreed to deliver it at no charge.  He also agreed to a 10% discount for all flood related purchases.  Before it was over, the store had grossed over $300,000.  Given typical furniture markups, I would guess that yielded a profit of around $100,000.

PART SEVEN–A big lift from a big celebrity

The recovery effort received a small windfall in September after the flood.  The A & E television network was producing a series of shows that took celebrities back to their roots.  John Mellencamp is from Seymour, Indiana, just a few miles from Columbus.  At the beginning of his career in 1976, when he still called himself Johnny Cougar and was unknown on the national stage, he had played a concert at the 600-seat Crump Theater in downtown Columbus.  I remember that my older son, who was eleven at the time, spent five dollars to attend.  A & E decided that they would tape the show featuring Mellencamp at this theater, which had been closed for ten years.

The building was owned by a local civic group and was a mess from years of not being used.  One member of that group is Hutch Schumaker.  He stepped up and said we will get this done.  I credit Hutch for driving many of the good things that happen in Columbus either out in front or, more often behind the scenes facilitating the success of whotever the project is.  Hutch’s wife Kevina is equally dedicated to community betterment and was a great partner in the determination to get the theater ready for the big event.  The Schumakers and several other volunteers worked day and night for a week to install missing seats and to give the place a much-needed cleaning.

Mellencamp’s management connections had heard about the flood and decided to contribute all proceeds to the flood recovery.  However, admission was to be free, so we had to figure a way to create some proceeds.  Tickets for the entire lower floor were to go to Mellencamp’s family and hometown friends, A & E people, and other chosen guests.  There were 150 seats in the balcony, and they gave all of those to the Flood Recovery Team to distribute as we saw fit.  I called the steering committee together to decide how to glean income from the tickets.  One of the pastors thought that maybe tickets could be sold for $50 each.  Another was worried that we couldn’t get that much and would be stuck with many of them.  These guys had no idea as to what a big event this was or of the going price for concerts.  To see a major rock star in a 600 seat room was unheard of.  Mellencamp plays stadiums.

We finally decided that there would be a silent auction for pairs of tickets.  Minimum bid would be $200 a pair, and the top 75 bidders would get two tickets each.  Bids were to be dropped off at United Way Center and include a check for the amount of the bid.  If unsuccessful bidders wanted their checks returned, they needed to include a self-addressed stamped envelope.  Otherwise, checks for losing bids would be shredded.  The deadline was Friday before the Tuesday concert.

When bidding closed, there were over 300 checks covering bids for pairs of tickets.  They ranged from the $200 minimum to $1,500.  The concert raised $44,000, an average of $586 a pair with the low winning bid $381.  Carolyn and I were the balcony ushers for the event.  We went in early and found that John was on stage playing acoustic guitar and singing some his better songs.  We were thrilled when he asked us if we could hear okay in the balcony.  His connections from New York and Los Angeles, who were also in the theater early, could not have been nicer to work with.  I had talked with them several times on the phone to establish our part of the arrangements.  They went out of their way to come to the balcony to introduce themselves and to empathize with us about the flood and the recovery job.  I even did an interview with a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, who was travelling from town to town following the A & E project.  It was a highlight to do some good and have a tiny brush with celebrity.

The room was electric before and during the concert, and John and his band fed off of the crowd.  No one sat for even a moment during the two-hour event with no break.  Many in the balcony who were now successful professionals and community leaders had been teenagers in the seventies and eighties and were uninhibited in turning their personal clocks back to those halcyon days.

Despite all that excitement, my strongest memory of the evening is when Carolyn and I got there about two hours before show time.  There was Hutch in the mezzanine bringing in a keg of beer for the cash bar and simultaneously talking with the fire marshal to gain final approval of the building.  He was successful at both.  And there was Kevina in the lobby with a bucket and a rag cleaning a glass case and conversing with Mellencamp’s wife at the time.  I don’t recall that Mrs. Mellencamp, a big time model, had a rag in her hand.

PART EIGHT–The finish

The case managers had access to a special fund that was set aside to purchase other replacement needs.  They were authorized to grant up to $500 to buy kitchen items, clothing, lamps, tools, and other needs.  A few families needed lawnmowers and garden implements.  A larger grant had to be approved by Sharon, but there were only a few such requests.  None of the case managers saw much attempted abuse of this system, and most recipients were extremely grateful.

By the time we reached July of 2009 (a year after the flood), the nurses had been called back to the hospital.  Volunteering by many had run its course.  I negotiated with the hospital to keep Sharon through the year.  Her manager agreed on the condition that Long Term Recovery would pick up the cost of her salary and benefits.  By that time, I could see that there was enough money to finish the job, so I was able to make that concession.  There were still six case managers working who were committed to their clients.  The case load had shrunk from a high of 550 to about 90, and this was manageable by the remaining team.  Most of the low-hanging fruit related to construction had been picked, and most of the remaining work was related to complete rebuilds and major repairs.  This allowed the crew, which was still intact, to work more efficiently.  John and his team could concentrate on a single job for a whole day or string of days without jumping around from job to job.

In mid-February 2010, the construction team pounded its last nail, and all cases were closed.  A job that experts estimated would take three years was completed in twenty months.  In the end, there was no celebration of the completion of the work.  In fact, it went relatively unnoticed.  We had celebrated many victories along the way.  We celebrated with home owners as they moved back in.  We celebrated individual victories in helping a victim get their FEMA or SBA money.  And we celebrated among ourselves just to keep us going when some of us got down.  Those events included a couple of organized ones at The Garage Pub at which many of us invited spouses.  Then there were a few spontaneous ones at the end of the day with whoever was around.  As if by magic, a case of beer always emerged as we sat in the United Way Center lobby and smiled about what wonderful work we doing and cried because it wasn’t enough.

But in the end, it was enough.  I am proud to paraphrase Carly Simon, no team could have done it better.  IN A MOMENT OF COMMUNITY-WIDE DISASTER, we done good.

 

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