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How the Red Cross is Expanding Disaster Recovery Assistance in a Changing Climate: A Chat with Jennifer Pipa, VP of Disaster Programs

2023 was a record-breaking year for billion-dollar disasters in the U.S. These extreme weather events ravaged communities and forced thousands of people from their homes, resulting in a significant need for emergency sheltering and recovery resources.

This is why at the American Red Cross, we’re adapting our disaster services and growing our capacity to help families and communities recover from increasing and more frequent disasters. In a recent live chat, Jennifer Pipa, Red Cross vice president of Disaster Programs, explained more about this vital work and how we’ve transformed our disaster recovery programs to address people’s most urgent needs in a changing climate.

What are the basic things people need within the first few days after a disaster? How does the Red Cross help people start to recover?

“Every disaster starts locally. We rely on those local volunteers to support the community after a disaster strikes.

The first thing we want to be able to do is give people a safe place to stay and some food because people get comfort from that. I think a lot of times when people think about the Red Cross, they do think about shelters. They think about gymnasiums or community centers and the cots and Red Cross blankets, and that’s where their image of what the Red Cross does stops. However, we do so much more inside of those four walls than just a safe place to stay and a warm meal.

Sometimes it’s just talking to somebody. It’s a compassionate ear to listen to your experience because if you and your whole family have gone through it together, your family probably isn’t able to process and listen to your story, but we can. We’re a compassionate listener. We’re a shoulder to cry on. We’re a warm hug if that’s what a family needs.

Beyond that, it’s making sure that the family is okay and understanding that families need more than just a safe place to stay and a warm meal, especially in instances when they don’t know when they’ll return home.

People rely on life-sustaining medications, and they may leave without those. People may have medical assistive devices, things like a cane, wheelchair or walker, and they may not have access to those. We have professionals who volunteer their time and sit inside those shelters to connect with people and help replace the medical items they lost.”

How has Red Cross recovery support evolved as the climate crisis has worsened?

“There are a couple of new tools that we’ve introduced when we have these large-scale disaster relief operations. One of them is our shelters; Four or five years ago, our shelters may have opened for three, maybe four weeks. Now, what we’re seeing is sheltering operations that run months and months at a time. What we needed to do was understand what was preventing people from transitioning from a shelter to something more sustainable. How do we help you make that first step in your recovery? For a lot of people when we talked to them, it was simple things like, “I can find an apartment to rent, but I can’t afford the first month’s rent and a security deposit,” or “My car was damaged, and I can’t afford the deductible on my car insurance so that I can return to work.”

We saw this universe of need that was keeping people from being able to make that first major step in recovery, which is moving from a shelter to something more sustainable and stable for their family. We acknowledged that, and said that while we want to open our Red Cross shelters and be welcoming to everybody, we also know that those are not ideal places for you to recover. The sooner we can get you into more stable housing, the better off your recovery is going to be. Hence, why we started a program called ‘shelter resident transition.’ This gives us the ability to provide financial resources to families to help defray those costs and help them be able to make that next step in their recovery journey.

The other thing that we introduced just in the last year, which we had done for a long time in some of our long-term recovery programs, is our bridge assistance program.

I was a regional executive in Georgia, and we had this tornado that came through the south of Atlanta. It was a small town and community, not a large tornado, but it devastated that town. We were helping them move on to their next step, but it was one of these, what we call ‘in-between disasters.’ It was so large that the community was devastated and couldn’t help itself recover, but it wasn’t quite large enough to bring in some of the large partners that could help compensate for the community’s inability.

As we transitioned people, I realized as a humanitarian and representative of our organization, there was a gap, and these families were going to struggle because what they needed for their recovery wasn’t a program we offered at the time. That’s when we came up with our bridge assistance program. We provide this support about three to six months after those ‘in-between’ disasters.

When we call these families back three or four months after a disaster, the first thing we hear is not, “Thank you for some additional financial assistance that will help.” But it’s, “Thank you for remembering that we’re still here and that this is a long, long complicated road to recovery.”

 

What are some of the first types of assistance we may provide to people after a devastating disaster?

“Our recovery starts the moment a disaster happens because we want to make sure people have access to critical medication or medical devices. We want to make sure that they have access to mental health care because we know that those are immediate problems that need to be addressed on day one of a disaster. We tailor how we offer that help based on what a family and community need and how they would most feel respected in receiving that kind of assistance.

We have people who stay in our shelters, and we know that it’s not their first choice. It’s usually because they’re out of any other option. So, we make sure that those families have access to financial resources to help them begin their recovery. Sometimes it’s a security deposit or a first month’s rent, and sometimes people aren’t ready to make those decisions. We talk to families and ask them, “What does help look like to you?”

We then tailor our program so that we can do that in a respectful and transparent way. After about 14 to 21 days, depending on the scale of the disaster, we make what we call immediate financial assistance available. This helps people overcome that first hurdle. Nowadays, we hear that a lot of families have less than $400 in savings, which means that they don’t have access to financial resources to help them navigate through those first recovery barriers. We play a critical role in getting cash into the hands of families right away after that first week or two, to make sure that they can make good choices for their families and start their recovery journey with us. Then, we follow up with bridge financial assistance, which is about three to six months afterward.

That’s where we go back to families that we’ve helped before, we check in on them, we see how they’re doing and how their recovery is going. We connect them with other resources. A lot of times there’s a wealth of nonprofits that are out there that families just may not even understand or have access to. We can share that information and we can also provide additional financial resources.

We also have a new program that we’ve just started in the last couple of years called expanded recovery assistance and that happens at about a year after a disaster. In some communities, we see people who are stalled in their recovery journey, and they need another influx of investment to help them continue to move forward.

Now, we have a robust way to help families and understand what their needs are at that moment in time and have a tool that’s there to help them recover to their next step in the journey.”

What types of financial assistance are we providing families and how are they helping them recover?

“There was a family in Kentucky that had lost their vehicle. They had a new place to stay, but it was going to be further away from the kid’s school and from the parent’s employment. But their car had been absolutely devastated in the tornadoes and they had almost enough money saved up to buy a used vehicle so that they could get back. They already knew where they were going to live. There was just this small gap in financial resources to get them just that little bit over that barrier and buy a used vehicle to help them get back to their normal day-to-day life.

Coincidently, this happened exactly when we were offering bridge assistance — right at the four-month mark. When we called them, we asked them what kind of barriers they were still having, and they articulated this. We knew that bridge was the right answer for this family at this moment in time. So, we explained to them the bridge program and that this was a gift on behalf of the generosity of the American public, who was generous enough to us and trusted us as an organization to invest in us so that we could invest in families to help themselves recover. We said, “We’re able to provide this money to you, will that make a difference?” And the dad who was on the phone broke into tears, and he was so thankful.

He said, “Before this disaster, I just thought you guys collected blood. I had no idea you did anything else.” And he said, “And now here I am and you’re helping me help my family so that we can get back to whatever this new normal is.” Those are the kinds of stories that we hear, that’s that moment in time when we know we have honored our promise to that community to take care of them after a disaster.

We’re also able to say to the American public, “We’re being responsible with the money that you’ve entrusted us with.

It’s an amazing thing to be able to see that not only did you take care of a family in the first couple of days after a disaster, but even four or five, six months after a disaster, we’re still walking alongside that family and we’re still taking good care of them. There is nothing better than being able to call a family a couple of months after a disaster and help them navigate what is a very complicated journey and be there for them as you continue to help them move forward.”

Learn more

Did you know Pipa started her Red Cross journey as a disaster volunteer? Learn all about it and more on our disaster recovery programs in this LinkedIn live conversation.

You can also read more about it in this LinkedIn article penned by Pipa herself.