Volunteering & Giving
September 14, 2015

From disaster to comeback: Nonprofits boost devastated communities

After working to find housing for people faced with natural catastrophes, nonprofit housing counselors discuss lessons they learned from Hurricane Katrina and other disasters.

Nonprofit housing counselors talk about lessons learned as they have work to find housing for disaster victims
Muse on the porch of her new home.

A decade ago, Diane Muse was left homeless, jobless, and struggling in devastated New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Now she has a new home, job, and money in the bank — thanks to a local community development nonprofit.

“Once I got this house, everything else just fell into place,” she says. “I got the house first and then more blessings came along.”

Diane’s comeback story is one of many that has helped New Orleans regain its footing after the 2005 disaster that claimed more than 1,800 lives and destroyed or damaged more than a million homes, says Terri North, CEO of Providence Community Housing, the nonprofit that worked with Diane and developed the housing where she now lives.

Terri North, CEO of Providence Community Housing
Terri North, CEO of Providence Community Housing

New Orleans has progressed, in part, because of the resilience of long-time residents such as Diane and an influx of new residents into the Gulf region, Terri says.

And while that combination of old and new has restored a general sense of hope to much of the region, there are still many people in desperate need whom the recovery hasn’t reached, she says.

“Looking back at the past 10 years, we can definitely see the progress that has been made, and we can celebrate that,” Terri says. “But there’s still so much displacement and people who’ve been destroyed by this. There’s still much left to do.”

Comeback Communities Summit

Terri and other nonprofit leaders shared their insights earlier this summer at the Comeback Communities Summit, a gathering in New Orleans of nonprofits from across the U.S. that have dealt with their own communities’ disasters.

Summit attendees also discussed the lessons they have learned in finding housing for disaster victims and helping their communities recover.

With a donation from the Wells Fargo Housing Foundation, 60 housing counselors attended the summit hosted by NeighborWorks America, the company’s nonprofit ally on NeighborhoodLIFT® and other community revitalization programs, which have assisted regions affected by natural disasters. The summit participants and Wells Fargo team members also joined volunteers from Rebuilding Together and Habitat for Humanity to repair several homes as part of the event.

Perry Hilzendeger, head of Wells Fargo Home Lending Default Servicing
Perry Hilzendeger, head of Wells Fargo Home Lending Default Servicing

Over the past decade, the company has assisted more than 240,000 mortgage customers affected by disasters ranging from Katrina and Hurricane Sandy to the recent flooding in Houston, says Perry Hilzendeger, head of Wells Fargo Home Lending Default Servicing.

After Katrina, the company provided disaster relief to nearly 56,000 customers in the Gulf region, he says.

“During the years, we’ve seen how critically important it is for our team members to be on the ground working with our customers as they begin to recover and rebuild their lives from what can sometimes only be seen as an insurmountable challenge,” he says.

Working together

Some of the Comeback Communities housing counselors shared their perspectives on disaster recovery:

One of the main lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina was how to work together, says Amy Batiste, CEO of Neighborhood Housing Services of New Orleans. Tragedy and adversity unified the nonprofits and forged a bond that continues to this day, she says.

“Prior to Katrina, all of us were so mission driven, having little to do with each other,” Amy says. “Because of Katrina, now you see nonprofits collaborating to address the needs in the most effective way.”

Gabriela Hernandez, supervisor of housing counseling for the Tejano Center for Community Concerns Inc.
Gabriela Hernandez, supervisor of housing counseling for the Tejano Center for Community Concerns Inc.

Although it escaped Katrina’s devastation, the Houston-Galveston area was not as fortunate when Hurricane Ike hit in 2008, says Gabriela Hernandez, supervisor of housing counseling for the Tejano Center for Community Concerns Inc. Ike left thousands with damaged homes and without power, creating a new emergency-response role for the Tejano Center, she says.

“Our agency became a point of distribution for things like food, water, and infant formula,” she says. “Ever since then, we’ve operated a food pantry that serves an average of 180 families a month.”

During and after the disaster, the Tejano Center stayed focused on its primary mission of increasing homeownership through housing counseling, financial coaching, credit counseling, and down payment assistance for low- and moderate-income residents, Gabriela says.

Committed help

Jesse Ergott, CEO of NeighborWorks Northeastern Pennsylvania, says his group learned a key lesson about the value of long-term follow-up after Tropical Storm Lee caused historic flooding across his region in 2011.

A year after the disaster — which destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of homes — most of the emergency services groups had left the area, but many people still weren’t back in their homes, he says.

“They were living in FEMA trailers or apartments, unable to scrape together enough money to fix their homes,” Jesse says. “We focused our efforts on helping them. Sometimes it was as little as $500 to install flooring; sometimes it was $5,000 to fix a roof.

Jesse Ergott, CEO of NeighborWorks Northeastern Pennsylvania
Jesse Ergott, CEO of NeighborWorks Northeastern Pennsylvania

“Those folks had been through so much, yet had shown so much resilience,” he says. “It was a very gratifying experience to help them find their way back into their homes and recover from such a traumatizing event.”

The most effective help for victims of disaster comes from organizations that are committed for the long haul, says Terri, of Providence Community Housing. Financial institutions like Wells Fargo, for example, have played a big role in the Gulf states’ recovery, but not all of them had staying power, she says.

“Some institutions came to town and were gone once they got Katrina fatigue and the hype was over,” she says. “But Wells Fargo stayed, and NeighborWorks stayed. They’ve had an ongoing engagement here that has made a huge impact.”