An Equitable and Coordinated Disaster Response is Possible: Q&A with Elaine Morales

Connective’s Design Potluck, 2022.

Climate change is at our front door. Winter storms, hurricanes, wildfires, and floods are our new normal. Recovering from overlapping disasters is now a way of life, and Gulf Coast communities on the front lines of dangerous climate risks must prepare for and adapt to their new realities.

The Nonprofit Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF) is a step toward a comprehensive disaster recovery playbook built by and for the people who will use it.

Over the past eight months, Connective convened over 30 local nonprofit organizations and social service providers to envision a local NDRF specific to Houston as a way to build a culture of adaptation into our disaster response.

This month, we spoke to Elaine Morales, Director of Partnerships & Policy at Connective, about the NDRF and what it means for the Houston area and its future.

Q: What is the Nonprofit Disaster Recovery Framework?

A: The Nonprofit Disaster Recovery Framework, is a local guide built by and for nonprofit social service providers and organizations to inform a coordinated service delivery strategy during disaster response and recovery. This local framework also informs our organizational ecosystem preparedness and resilience activities that will better prepare us to address current and future crises.

What if — when the next storm hits, we are ready — in our own roles — to respond to our community’s needs in a coordinated and human-centered way? That’s where a local disaster recovery framework comes in! Now that we have a draft, we are ready to share and continue shaping it with our broader community. Even though the bulk of the funding comes from governmental response (as it should), we have seen how critical the participation of nonprofits is in addressing unmet needs and gaps left by these larger systems.

Preparedness Infrastructure Guiding Framework, Connective, 2022.

Q: What’s in the Nonprofit Disaster Recovery Framework?

A: Currently, the framework has two main components: (1) a guiding framework, providing an overview of the suggested delivery sequence to address current pain points and expected needs, and (2) a knowledge repository, which is a living document with our collective recommendations on strategies, proposed programs, services, and best practices.

Together they provide guidance about the main nonprofit and philanthropic-led activities after a significant disaster:

  • Needs and damage assessments
  • Disaster assistance navigation
  • Basic needs & emergency cash assistance
  • Public benefit assistance navigation and coordination
  • Financial and rental assistance
  • Muck & gut
  • Home repair assistance
  • Housing counseling
  • Temporary housing
  • Housing reconstruction and relocation

The framework also provides recommendations on organizational and ecosystem capacity building, community engagement and public communications, continuous improvement tools such as technology supports, and quantitative and qualitative data.

Finally, one of the most critical sections of the framework is a set of overarching recommendations that have the potential to improve our disaster recovery system at the local, state, and federal levels.

Q: What are those overarching recommendations? Can you go into more detail on each of those?

A: Of course! We are very proud that these recommendations were built with the support of our contributing partners. We believe these recommendations should be considered in the design, development, and implementation of all social service and disaster assistance programs and initiatives.

NDRF Overarching Recommendations, Connective, 2022.
  • Work to increase ACCESSIBILITY to available assistance to underserved and disproportionately affected populations. We can do this by designing programs and services that are human-centered and equity-focused. For example, removing eligibility and application barriers when possible and meeting people where they are.
  • Foster COLLECTIVE ACTION and establish coordination strategies that enhance communication and cooperation among service providers, advocates, and seekers of services. We should prioritize building interagency relationships, developing tools and program models that improve assistance distribution and communications among agencies, and collectively advocate for robust public engagement surrounding the distribution of local assistance funding.
  • PROACTIVE ADAPTATION is building and investing in pre-disaster planning activities for all blue-sky programming. Simply put, accepting our risks and building resilience in everything we do. Some examples include establishing rainy day funds, maintaining year-round programs that strengthen our capacity to respond, and addressing our community’s pre-existing inequities and vulnerabilities.
  • We need to build agility into our work and not let “perfect” be the enemy of “good.” We need to move from planning to action and establish mechanisms and tools that help us improve and iterate our approaches. CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT also involves establishing feedback loops and evaluating as we go.

Q: Does a Disaster Recovery Framework only apply to situations like hurricanes or other storms?

A: The vision for this draft of the Disaster Recovery Framework emphasized weather events like storms or floods. This is especially true with the guiding framework, as it shows a sequence of service delivery that starts when a disaster hits. However, the recommendations included in the framework can improve social service programs and disaster assistance in multiple scenarios, including during blue-sky periods. We hope to go through scenario planning and simulations within the next year to pressure test the framework and have a playbook we can use during different circumstances to make collective decisions and influence overall disaster recovery practices.

Q: We heard the NDRF can be overwhelming. Where do I start if I want to learn more about it or use the framework to inform my organization’s work?

A: It is overwhelming! Disaster recovery is complicated, and it involves many components and activities over time. As such, this framework is also complex and loaded with information. It is hard to show the big picture of this process from response to long-term recovery while simultaneously elevating recommendations for each of these activities.

However, we hope to simplify the framework and make it easier to understand and use. We think this content can transform how we work together after a disaster. A month ago, we engaged ten designers and visual artists in a Design Potluck to help us make the framework more accessible and easier to navigate. We got so many ideas! From printed illustrations and gamified experiences to interactive and online navigation tools, we are excited to explore them further.

Q: What is next for the Framework, and where is Connective in the process?

A: We plan to go through three phases to develop this Disaster Recovery Framework. We just completed the first one, the “Envision” phase. We are now preparing for the “Engage” phase. Connective is planning a series of engagements across Harris County to increase awareness about the framework and encourage public participation in disaster recovery processes. These engagements will lead to the final phase of the framework: “Activate” by the beginning of the 2023 Hurricane Season. We hope to create enough momentum to activate specific blue-sky and preparedness initiatives and to activate this living framework when needed.

Through these phases, we strive to foster framework “champions” who can promote the framework in our community, advocate for the adoption of the recommendations at multiple levels, and/or lead in the activation of components of the framework in their own work.

Q: Can people contribute to the NDRF if they have ideas?

A: Absolutely! We hope YOU continue to shape the framework and how we put these recommendations into practice. If we haven’t engaged with you, please get in touch with me for an introductory meeting at emorales@connectivetx.org.

Thank you to all of the NDRF contributors that are committed to improving the delivery of social services in the Houston area:

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