Convening Helps Alabama Leaders Build Relationships to Aid Tornado Recovery


TUSCALOOSA, Alabama (August 2, 2011) –Ninety days after 67 tornadoes devastated half of Alabama, local residents still face a long road to recovery, particularly as the state seeks to rebuild its housing stock. Now, in addition to the challenge of rebuilding, the state faces the challenge of maintaining the momentum of recovery, as donations slow and national attention wanes.

Those efforts received a boost last week as the Jessie Ball duPont Fund and Alabama Giving jointly sponsored a day-long conference designed to establish long-term relationships between local leaders and regional and national experts on disaster recovery and housing.

Leaders from 35 non-profit, philanthropic, governmental and business organizations gathered at the Bryant Conference Center at the University of Alabama July 29 to share information and consider collaborative efforts to promote safe, accessible and affordable housing in the wake of the storms, which cut a path 1,149 miles long and 20 miles wide, causing $1.1 billion in property damage across the state.

Participants included representatives from the Federal Reserve Bank, the FDIC, Habitat for Humanity, Housing Assistance Council, Neighborworks America, Mercy Housing and Human Development, and Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises, Inc., as well a local and regional organizations. Alabama’s community foundations, private foundations, businesses and financial institutions, nonprofits, the architectural community, higher education, and the state’s economic development office all were represented.

Experts not only offered technical advice to those engaged in the business of rebuilding, but invited representatives of Alabama-based organizations to visit projects in other locales to learn more.

The meeting, which was hosted by The Community Foundation of West Alabama, was a continuation of collaborative efforts that began almost immediately after the storms subsided. The Jessie Ball duPont Fund and Alabama Giving launched weekly conference calls among funders and other key parties to share information, identify needs and coordinate responses.

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.

In the wake of the storms, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund established an advised fund at The Community Foundation in Jacksonville targeting long-term recovery in Alabama. Through the weekly conference calls, the Fund’s staff learned of the need for legal services to help homeowners produce legal documents on damaged or destroyed property, assist renters in negotiations with landlords and help storm victims deal with the sometimes complex process of obtaining federal emergency assistance. As a result, the advised fund awarded $250,000 to Legal Services Alabama, the largest nonprofit law firm in Alabama.

Staff then reached out to national housing experts to bring a rich array of resources to the July convening.

At the meeting, participants stressed the importance of recognizing the unique needs of urban and rural areas and taking diverse approaches to disaster response. They also addressed the need to develop leaders and build their capacity, particularly in isolated and thinly populated areas.

Other lessons shared included the need to:

  • Explore the viability of a statewide community development financial institution to increase the supply of capital that can be used to support rebuilding efforts;
  • Provide inventories of expert resources, both organizations ad individuals;
  • Convene inclusive groups of stakeholders for planning;
  • Promote equitable approaches to recovery.

Sherry Magill, president of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, encouraged local leaders, noting that many from outside the state were impressed with the progress already made. “You are the glue that helps hold people together in a civilized fashion,” challenging them to capitalize on their local knowledge and the web of networks that both exist and are emerging in response to the disaster.