A Better Response: The Importance of Coordinating the Nonprofit Sector to Respond to Disasters

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, nonprofits have acted as first responders, meeting immediate needs for food, water, batteries, heat, shelter, healthcare, and more.  They will continue this work when the news vans disappear to help those impacted get their lives back together – providing mental health services, new housing, replacement furniture, aid application assistance services, and more. The staff nonprofits employ may not wear uniforms, but they perform crucial jobs and are on the frontlines helping in recovery.

When Sandy struck, HSC and our member agencies were called on by the Governor’s Office, the Mayor’s Office, and the Speaker’s Office to respond immediately to the needs of those impacted — and we did.  Without thought to cost, nonprofit human services providers got to the scene as quickly as humanly possible and provided food, blankets, counseling, and more — as we do every day for the poor and needy in the City.  In some cases, provider staff stayed overnight or longer with the vulnerable people in their care in hurricane-damaged residences.  HSC and NASW recruited social workers to staff the recovery centers, and HSC began (and continues) a regular compilation of information that is distributed to hundreds of providers, government agencies, philanthropies, and other stakeholders.

And providers remain in the impacted areas, doing what they do best — giving compassionate care to those who need it.

What didn’t work is that providers at the beginning were not prepared and, even now, are not coordinated in their care-giving.

After 9/11, the sector came together to form 9/11-USG (United Services Group), and worked in a coordinated way with each other and with the State and City to provide for immediate needs and longer-term case management for the victims of this tragedy.  The Human Services Council inherited USG, ready to be reactivated, and formed a Disaster Preparedness and Response Committee, maintaining a network of responders and preparing tabletop exercises, simulations, and the preparation and updating of a comprehensive manual of over 100 pages. This work was made possible through funding from New York State as well as private philanthropies. Funding for the program was cut in 2008 and HSC laid off our disaster staff, closed the committee, and terminated the program.

Needless to say, this short-sightedness on the part of the State is now all too obvious.  Just as the State and City fund disaster preparedness for other first responders such as police and firefighters, and have entire agencies dedicated to disaster response, including the State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services and the City Office of Emergency Management, it is the government’s responsibility to provide the funding that will ensure that human service providers are ready to respond in a more coordinated and professional way.

With climate change and terrorism making the world a more dangerous place, the need for the human services sector to be prepared for disaster response is unquestionable. As the destruction of Sandy fades into the background, it is crucial that we remember the lessons learned and work in a coordinated fashion to ensure that in the next disaster – and there will be a next disaster – that the nonprofit sector is prepared, and funded, to be the first responders that New York needs.

Contributed by Michael Stoller of the Human Services Council.

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About Human Services Council

The Human Services Council strengthens New York's nonprofit human services sector, ensuring all New Yorkers across diverse neighborhoods, cultures, and generations reach their full potential.
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