Upper Valley Strong: Strengthening the Upper Valley

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Climate scientists have been warning for decades that a warmer atmosphere will hold more moisture.  One of the predictions based on that science is that, when it rains, the rainfall will be heavier, perhaps “extreme”. In 2011, residents in Vermont and parts of western New Hampshire experienced an example of that, courtesy of tropical storm Irene. Record rainfall, in the double-digits of inches in a day, was common for that event, causing enormous damage from flooding and erosion.

For residents in the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River region in New Hampshire and Vermont, Irene was a kind of call to arms.  The answer to the call turned out to be a new kind of nonprofit organization, Upper Valley Strong, whose mission is to assist communities, especially individuals and local organizations, in dealing with immediate needs in disasters.  

The chaos and destruction of Irene was the catalyst. With roads and bridges and homes and businesses washed away; a state of emergency was declared by the governors of the two states; the damage was extensive and wide spread, remembers Anne Duncan Cooley, Executive Director of the Upper Valley Housing Coalition. 

“It was unbelievable, the damage that was done; I still can’t even really talk about it. I’m on the select board of my little town of 1,000 persons, and we had a million dollars in bridge damage,” she says.  “The news reports started coming in about the damage to roads and buildings and people, and it was awful.”

“The community was kind of in shock.  We would run into each other in a little coffee shop in White River Junction, and we were all wondering how this would be solved, what was the mechanism, because there were a lot of people who were homeless and we didn’t even know how bad it was; people weren’t coming to work, people were camping in garages… it was appalling,” she recalls.

“I think we all thought FEMA would come in, you know, wearing a white hat and fix it, because we’d never had anything like this up here,” she adds.  Emergency services and social service agencies, hampered by flooding and damage, were struggling to keep up, but local residents pitched in right away to help one another with food and shelter and transportation.  

“People wanted to help their neighbors and they didn’t wait to be asked,” Anne says, adding that “in many cases, they did things that, honestly, they shouldn’t have been doing, with the best of intentions.  They were in hazardous situations. They got rashes, they were injured, it was not a safe situation, but it did show that there is this power within the community to act and help people recover that blossomed in these disasters.”

Awareness of that blossoming would be important once FEMA did arrive, Anne says.  “About a month into this, an email went around from one of the social service people saying FEMA is coming and they told us we’d have to form this thing called a ‘Long-term Recovery Committee’ (LTRC) and if you’re interested, please come and help.”  

When she got to that initial meeting, Anne found 60 or 70 people “from different agencies and churches and community organizations and schools and municipalities—everybody showed up and said what are we going to do and nobody knew.  And there was no structure for organizing all this interest in helping.”  So she called a contact at the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation to ask for help.

“He called me back the next day and said ‘We’ve discovered you’re the person that needs to do this.’  So I learned a lesson there. Don’t raise your hand unless you’re ready to volunteer!”   She also discovered, she says, that one of the tenets of disaster relief and recovery is that “the best people to help are the people who have not themselves been affected.

“I was not coming home to a house that had been damaged or had mold growing in it,” Anne says, and her agency, the Upper Valley Housing Coalition, “does not do direct service.  But, in the course of our work, we are in contact with the municipalities and the nonprofits and just a lot of the community leaders.”  With a long list of contacts and resources, Anne and the other members of the LTRC “pulled together a lot of people and resources and set up subcommittees” to deal with the various needs of their friends and neighbors.

“We had over 500 people, even two months into the recovery, that had serious major housing issues just in our region.  We had people who had been just getting by, but getting by alright, and suddenly they go from that to just losing everything—their homes, their businesses, and to be just thrown into this financial and emotional chaos, that was really terrible, and some people were able to cope with it and some people weren’t.   So to help those people was how Upper Valley Strong came to be.”

Today, Upper Valley Strong (UVS) comprises a 10-person board of directors from social service agencies, cities and towns, and churches and civic groups and some 50 supporting organizations and communities in a “service area” including more than two dozen cities and towns on either side of the Connecticut River, north, south, east and west from Hanover and Lebanon, NH and White River Junction, VT.  The niche the group fills locally is one of immediate disaster recovery, based on what they learned from Irene.

Lesson number one was that local people were willing to jump in and help their neighbors in an emergency, but they were not necessarily ready to do so.  “If we could find a way to get ahead of it and get people trained,” Anne says, “so we could take advantage of that outpouring of willingness to help, that we would be in a much better position to direct the effort where it was needed and keep people safe.”

Another important realization for the group, according to Anne, was that the FEMA model for response was developed in the South following Katrina, in a part of the country where, unlike rural New England, county government is strong and faith-based organizations play a big role in mounting relief efforts.

“We don’t really have county government, so that meant there would be a different model here that we need to developed,” Anne explains.   The FEMA model also takes advantage of “large faith groups that have things like trucks full of tools and folks who get in their cars and drive 600 miles to work on rebuilding things.  We don’t have that dynamic here,” Anne says, “but we have other resources and so we needed to develop a model that drew upon our local resources.”

The model that evolved in the aftermath of Irene included, under the UVS coordinating umbrella, organizations provided teams of local people. Those teams, working with shared resources and expertise, oversaw volunteers and equipment to help with cleanup, repairs, rebuilding, food, counseling, housing, as well as case management and financial support.  They helped victims with grant application processes to ensure support dollars are used in the most efficient and effective manner possible.  And, over the following two years, UVS worked with and helped hundreds of families put their lives back together literally, financially, and emotionally, Anne says.

And then they got a test.

“Two years after Irene, we were still doing Irene cases,” Anne says. “We still had case managers, we were still meeting every week to try to finish the last, really tough cases.   

“Fourth of July weekend, Friday afternoon, I was sitting in my office looking out the window and I thought ‘Wow, it’s really raining out there” and when I looked at the Mascoma River, I saw a culvert floating down the river and I thought ‘Oh, this can’t be good; I’m going home’.”

That night she got a call that a local low-income housing project had been inundated following a mudslide.  “They had just opened this brand-new facility for low income people on Slayton Hill, and Slayton Hill had basically had a landslide, and there was mud flowing into these beautiful new units that had just been opened and there were houses affected as well, and they were evacuating people and it was just a mess,” Anne recalls.   

Fourth of July weekend or not, Anne says, UVS went into action, calling on “every contact they had, and the local volunteers showed up.  Some did transportation, taking affected residents to a local hotel that had been set up to receive victims.  Some teams “mucked out” the apartment complex and then some 30 private homes; some raised money “to replace furnaces and things like that and we were done in about a month.

“When you have a local mechanism in place—you know, we weren’t trying to get people from Georgia to come up and help us—people were coming from Canaan, from the Canaan Rotary Club, they knew where to call and say ‘We’ve got four guys.’   So that really encouraged us because, if that mechanism worked, then it would work even better if we had volunteers who already had their masks and gloves and boots and were already organized in teams and had a team leader and you could call the team leader and say bring your people to 10 Maple Street at 8 tomorrow morning.”

UVS also discovered is that if a professional— a contractor or somebody with building experience “can be the first person to contact a homeowner and check the situation out and see what volunteers can do safely, then it’s even more effective,” Anne says, because they can have the materials and tools ready for the volunteers to do what’s needed at that site.  “That’s much better then having people wandering up and down the street doing things in a haphazard manner, which is much less effective and more dangerous,” Anne notes.  

In 2015, UVS applied to the Grassroots Fund for help with their training program, and received a $2,000 Grow grant.  UVS received a New Hampshire Charitable Foundation Grant to purchase boots, dust masks, shovels, wheelbarrows and other cleanup equipment, but they needed additional funding for the local employer-based trainings.  

“This is a wonderful example of people helping people, communities coming together to create their own preparedness and resilience,” says Grassroots Fund Executive Director Julia Dundorf.  “It’s not only about disaster response, but also, and perhaps mainly, about weaving a stronger fabric of community and society.”

And UVS has involved all levels of those communities, Anne points out.  “The employers are excited about this, because they love to do team building and create stronger employment connections between the workers. 

“We have one very innovative employer here, Hypertherm, and they were willing to pilot this with us. We had 26 people come to our first training and they stayed the whole time and everybody signed up, so it was really exciting. It’s an hour out of their time that day and they’re on the list.”

UVS has two important additional goals, Anne says.  One is to train the construction coordinators, “the people with building knowledge who go in first and line up the sites for the volunteers.  They are a crucial element in all of this,” Anne notes, “because they direct the teams, and they can manage up to five different sites, depending on the degree of damage. 

“Right now we’ve got a grant from State Farm Insurance, so we are recruiting local construction people,” she says, “who are willing to donate a day or two—and they get that this is for their local friends and neighbors—and we will pre-train them about how this whole process works.” 
 
The other goal, Anne describes as “leveraging the financial professional network. One of the things we learned is that disaster recovery is very different from your normal social-service kind of work; we need people who can coach people through financial challenges.

“We had people,” Anne says, “who decimated their retirement funds and their kids’ education funds; the first thing people do is they go out and max out every credit card and try to do it themselves.  There were a lot of very bad financial decisions made for very good and reasonable reasons,” she adds, “but they’re going to have, long term, very detrimental effects on a lot of people’s lives.  

“We need to get local professionals in there to say ‘FEMA is going to give you $35,000 if you’ll fill out this form, why don’t you do that first?  And then let’s see what it’s going to cost and where other pots of money are going to come from’.” 

She notes that the State of Vermont set up an independent disaster relief fund, “a nonprofit that statewide leaders put together, and they gave a maximum of $20,000 to each person who went through our local process.  That’s huge, if you add that to the $30-plus thousand that FEMA gives you, you start to get some real money to help people recover,” she says, noting that the money is paid directly to contractors doing rehab and reconstruction work.

“So that’s our next phase,” Anne says. “If we can get these three elements, the trained construction coordinators, response teams, and the financial advisors, working in concert, we will really be able to address needs quickly.  And that’s another important part of this: it needs to be quick; people slide down hill fast after being really heavily impacted emotionally and financially and everything else,” she says.  “If we can get that in place for the next time … and there will be a next time.”

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