Looking Beyond Relief to Recovery In Aftermath of Alabama Tornadoes

An uprooted tree lies in front of a hous

JACKSONVILLE, Florida (July 25, 2011) — When tornadoes ravaged Alabama and other southern states in late April, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund trustees responded, authorizing distribution of disaster relief grant dollars to assist the victims.

The trustees’ generosity was not unusual; they had responded in similar fashion to numerous other disasters, from hurricanes to tsunamis to acts of violence on college campuses. But the experience in Alabama has been different.

Staff has engaged more directly in the disaster response work and learned a great deal about the challenges and needs that come in the wake of a natural disaster. As a result, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund has taken a more strategic approach to its grantmaking, focusing on long-term recovery as well as immediate relief.

The Jessie Ball duPont Fund has invested in legal assistance not only for victims but for municipalities. And the Fund is preparing for a major convening of funders, lenders and housing experts this month to address the long-term need for housing, particularly for those of low-to-moderate income.

“Our engagement in this work has helped us think more deeply about what effective post-disaster grantmaking looks like,” said Jessie Ball duPont Fund President Sherry Magill. “We fund extensively in numerous coastal communities where the potential for natural disaster is great. The lessons we are learning in Alabama may prove critical in the months and years ahead.”

Typically, Alabama is not at the forefront of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund’s work. The Fund makes grants to 330 organizations identified by Mrs. duPont in her will; only one of those is in Alabama — Auburn University. But through Auburn, the Fund has been introduced to, and supported, an array of projects benefitting those in poor, marginalized or rural communities throughout Alabama. In recent years, the Fund has invested roughly $1 million in Alabama, supporting housing and education in poor rural areas and serving as a major start-up funder of the Black Belt Community Foundation, which serves some of Alabama’s poorest communities.

Those experiences gave staff perspective on the impact of the April tornadoes, particularly in rural areas, where disaster victims may have difficulty accessing benefits due to confusing forms and limited availability of computers to facilitate online applications. Sparse housing can create challenges for victims whose homes have been destroyed. And there are few philanthropic or nonprofit organizations to provide interim support.

Staff also learned that many municipalities in rural areas are led by part-time mayors who have other employment and may not have the time or expertise to take the steps municipalities must take to ensure benefits for the community and its residents.

With this in mind, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund awarded $250,000 to Legal Services Alabama, the largest nonprofit law firm in Alabama, to provide free legal help to tornado victims and to municipalities applying for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (The grant was made through an advised fund that the Jessie Ball duPont Fund established at The Community Foundation in Jacksonville.) The grant supported creation of a Tornado Response Team of six attorneys and paralegals who travelled the state helping individuals and municipalities identify and access assistance.

Looking beyond the need for immediate assistance, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund and others are concerned that rebuilding efforts be structured to include affordable housing options for low- and moderate-income residents. To that end, the Fund is partnering with Alabama Giving and the Community Foundation of Western Alabama to host a July 29 meeting that will bring together representatives of 10 Alabama-based community foundations and numerous housing experts to discuss the state’s rebuilding efforts and ways in which philanthropy can be of help. Expected to participate are representatives of the Federal Reserve, Habitat for Humanity, Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises, the Housing Assistance Council, NeighborWorks America, Mercy Housing, Placemakers, the Council on Foundations, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the HUD disaster response staff and the Alabama business community.

The discussion will include a current assessment of housing in the affected rural areas; an overview of responses to date; consideration of how other communities have responded to similar situations; and national resources available to inspire and assist with the Alabama recovery efforts.

“We are extremely pleased that so many of our colleagues have agreed to join us in this conversation and look forward to benefitting from their expertise,” Magill said. “We are excited about the potential outcomes of partnering national experts with funders who are local and closely connected to their communities. And we are encouraged by the willingness of all to learn and work with one another.”