Speed, Strategy Essential in Transition from Response to Recovery

NEW ORLEANS (October 1, 2020) – “This is as bad as Katrina in terms of the devastation,” said Mike Dorris, a Civix disaster response expert who has worked on virtually every major storm in the U.S. over the past two decades. Mike arrived on the ground in Lake Charles, LA just 10 days after Hurricane Laura made landfall, and now, weeks later, the city is still under an evacuation order and crews are working around the clock to restore power.

Dorris and the Civix team are on the ground to augment the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office staff, guiding them through the complex labyrinth of FEMA rules and regulations.

“Each of some 1,000 Sheriff’s Office employees had a job to do before this storm, and now, even with many of their homes destroyed, they’re working around the clock to meet the needs of the day,” said Dorris. “We’re providing added capacity and expertise that will help ensure the office is able to recoup as many financial expenditures related to the response as possible from FEMA.”

When describing the dire conditions, Dorris instinctively connects the dots to his work. “Most are still living off of generators, which is reimbursable,” he says as if making a mental note.

Communities in Southwest Louisiana devastated by the storm are still in the immediate emergency response phase, and Dorris says this “intense” period typically lasts three to six months before moving on to recovery, which can last several years. He spent five on Hurricane Katrina recovery projects and another five after Superstorm Sandy – where the work was still ongoing when he departed to help with responses to hurricanes in the Carolinas and, later, wildfires in California.

After the response begins the recovery, and Ted Guillot, Vice President of Community Planning and Resilience for Civix, stresses the importance of a strategic transition between these phases.

“It’s a balancing act for communities,” he says. “After the response, you need to focus on short-term recovery while also planning for a future that is better than before the disaster. You have to see the forest and the trees.”

He says federal funds from this disaster will likely flow through the State of Louisiana, and if locals have a strategy in place when the dollars become available, they are better able to partner with the State to determine how those funds are spent.

“It should to be a community-driven recovery process,” Guillot continued. “When locals take the time, early on, as soon as they’re past the immediate response, to thoughtfully develop a cohesive, comprehensive plan for what recovery looks like, they’re better positioned to drive the way the dollars are spent and ensure it reflects community priorities.”

Time is of the essence, though, because there are tight timelines to produce recovery plans once federal funding is allocated to the State. Local planning efforts should start as soon as possible, so local government leaders will be ready to partner with the State and inform its planning process.

Guillot said, “Their ability to drive conversations about resilience-building initiatives is contingent on what they do in the next couple months. There’s a short window.”

Nathan Cataline, says Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish may be a few steps ahead with respect to a long-term housing recovery because of a Housing Study and Program Design he led in 2017. Focusing on addressing the housing demand caused by petrochemical and liquefied natural gas industries, Civix (then called GCR) designed a framework that included solutions for homebuyers, property owners, contractors, renters, and developers.

“The existing housing challenges have surely been exacerbated by Hurricane Laura,” said Cataline. “With the influx of funds that comes with the recovery, it’s important for communities to be cognizant of past challenges, and balance immediate and long-term recovery needs.”

He explains that federal disaster recovery dollars can be leveraged to advance long-term mitigation and resilience efforts, such as through different planning and policy initiatives.

“Another storm will come, and we must build back in a way that is more resilient to future disasters,” Cataline said.

He, Guillot and others on the Civix team are actively engaged in supporting recovery and resilience-building efforts across the country. They recently helped the State of Louisiana, in response to the Great Floods of 2016, develop plans to utilize nearly $3B in federal funds. In addition, they have been working closely with the State of California in support of its recovery and resilience-building initiatives following wildfires that occurred in 2015, 2017, and 2018.

Another element to consider in the arc of recovery is how best to manage the abundance of data that will inevitably flow between the State and applicants for federal aid. Here, too, speed is of the essence, says Rod Thornhill, Vice President of EM Grants at Civix.

“States need processes, controls, and systems in place, ideally prior to a disaster, to effectively manage their public assistance program,” he said. “The immediate response is hectic, and resources are maxed out.”

Regardless, Thornhill says it’s never too late to stand up a grants management system.

“For a program like public assistance, we can have a state system up and running within a matter of days,” he said.

“Our New Jersey implementation is a great example of how to move quickly after a disaster,” he continued. “When Sandy hit, they were up and running within a week. We started with their most immediate need, the active disaster, and focused only on the modules of the system that were needed so they could get reimbursement funds out quickly. Over time, as things settled down, the remaining modules were configured and data from other disasters was added in.”

Civix’s comprehensive grant management system, EM Grants Manager, formerly known as MB3’s EMGrantsPro, is designed specifically for use by State Emergency Management agencies. It manages tens of billions of dollars and has been used in some of the largest disasters in recent history, including Hurricanes Michael, Irma, Harvey, Matthew, and Sandy, the 2011 Tornado Outbreak, the 2008 Midwest Floods, and Hurricane Katrina.

Chris Stassen, Director of Client Services for Civix EM Grants, has been working with state customers implementing grants management software for the past 12 years. Stassen says that the consequences for not having a system in place can slow recovery efforts and open states up to gaps in processes and errors in documentation.

“If you’re not using the right software, ideally one created for emergency management, the processes will be significantly slower,” he said. “Ultimately, it will take longer to get funds to applicants, delaying projects and causing the recovery to take much longer.”

With a modern system in place, Stassen says that the time for processes, like executing state/local agreements, can shrink from months to days, and states can save valuable time and headaches by avoiding audits prompted by gaps in documentation and the lack proper controls. “Having a streamlined, comprehensive system in place is an essential step in a successful recovery,” he said.

Thornhill pointed out that Louisiana is already seeing the benefits of having a system in place for managing Laura. “Our grants management system that’s been in use for some time now in Louisiana already has over 230 accounts related to this disaster. Once FEMA starts approving projects, they will be pulled into the system and funds will be able to flow quickly, ultimately allowing recovery projects to keep moving.”

Natural disasters are inevitable, and cash-strapped state and local governments will continue to face challenges covering the costs of recovery. By acting quickly and thoughtfully, though, state and local governments can leverage federal disaster recovery funds to build back in ways that are better and more resilient than previously possible.

Civix Grants

Our multi-disciplinary team offers a powerful combination of federal grants management and community planning expertise augmented by the Civix Grants Platform of technology products. As former state and local government grant and program administrators, best-in-class workflow developers, and planning experts, we bring experience, lessons learned, and best practices from administering and implementing over $200 billion in federal grants on behalf of communities across the country. Notably, we are proud to provide the only comprehensive grant management system designed specifically for State Emergency Management agencies – Civix EM Grants Manager (formerly MB3’s EMGrantsPro).