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Nonprofits and Disaster Response: 5 Questions for Gary Bagley, Executive Director, New York Cares

November 26, 2012

(Laura Cronin is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. Recently, she asked Gary Bagley, executive director of New York Cares, the city's largest volunteer organization, about the organization's work with local nonprofit partners in response to Superstorm Sandy.)

Gary_bagley-headshotLaura Cronin: City workers -- first responders, firefighters, transit workers, sanitation workers -- labored around the clock to restore critical systems in New York City that were overwhelmed by the storm surge created by Sandy. Alongside them were thousands of residents who provided volunteer support to victims of the storm and chipped in to clean up affected areas. Creative responses such as Occupy Sandy's  online registry and local groups like the Red Hook Initiative were part of a rapid, largely decentralized nonprofit response to the storm. Your organization has a long history of rallying volunteers and partnering with the leading nonprofits in the city, in ordinary times as well as in times of crisis. What did your Sandy response look like?

Gary Bagley: New York Cares has a Memorandum of Understanding with the New York City Office of Emergency Management through which we are responsible for mobilizing volunteers in response to disasters. So beyond the eight thousand volunteers who signed up to help, we had three full-time staff members stationed at the OEM as well as other staff fielding calls and e-mails from organizations and individuals that needed assistance. But because many nonprofits, schools, and faith-based organizations were as hard hit as residents of low-lying areas, we had to go beyond our traditional collaborative program delivery model. In the hardest-hit locations in Staten Island and Queens, we had teams of New York Cares staffers assessing -- on foot and by car -- local needs. At the same time, our volunteers canvassed neighborhoods, distributed food, and started on the debris cleanup. Now, a few weeks into the recovery, we see that much of the work will be about providing social services, from reading programs at libraries to adult education programs, in the most heavily impacted areas. Helping neighborhoods thrive again will be about much more than cleanup efforts.

LC: Many nonprofits in the city moved downtown in recent years in pursuit of lower rents and/or to take advantage of various incentives and rebates put in place by the city after 9-11. Indeed, New York Cares has an office near Wall Street. What was the effect of the power, heat, and Internet outages that hit lower Manhattan following the storm on your operations and on the operations of your partners?

GB: We never wanted to test our disaster-response plan, but we sure were glad we had one! The Thursday and Friday before Sandy came ashore, we reviewed our disaster-response procedures, from backup e-mail systems to phone trees to remote meeting locations. So, luckily, we were able to work remotely while we waited for power to be restored to our offices at 65 Broadway. But even after the electricity came back on, we were without phones for another two weeks. Our on-call phone service -- a cell number that our main line was forwarded to -- received a hundred and fifty calls a day in the immediate aftermath of the storm. We also have three staff members responding to e-mails submitted to our general information address (info@newyorkcares.org), and on any given day in the last few weeks they've had a queue of more than two hundred e-mails waiting to be answered.

LC: What do you think New York City nonprofits will need as we move past the immediate relief effort and really get into the hard work of recovery and rebuilding? And what role can volunteers play?

GB: The hard truth is that, post-Sandy, nonprofits will need what they've always needed: resources, both financial and human. And they'll need more of them. The recovery effort will extend far beyond physical rebuilding; the need for social services in the hardest-hit areas is already apparent, and volunteers will be key to helping organizations that were severely compromised by the storm ramp up their efforts. It's also important to note that nonprofits that were fortunate to escape the storm's wrath are feeling the impact. I've heard, to give you an example, that a lot of food banks in Manhattan are running short of supplies because so much food has been redirected to neighborhoods in Queens and on Staten Island.

LC: The storm made landfall early Monday evening. Two days later, I found myself in a church basement responding to a New York Cares/City Meals on Wheels tweet for volunteers. I don't regularly volunteer with either group, but through Twitter I found one of your projects. What role did social media play in mobilizing volunteers?

GB: As a tool for filling projects, social media was a pleasant surprise to me. We had some of our tweets mentioned in real time on a local newscast, filled projects like yours in record time, and even helped get four hundred blankets to a housing development that had lost heat and electricity within four hours of the initial tweet. Social media worked in a situation where there wasn't the type of lead time that day-to-day programming requires, and I'm already asking myself how we might use that kind of rapid response capability in our non-disaster programming.

LC: Governor Cuomo made headlines when, in one of his many press conferences in the days after the storm, he quipped, "We have a hundred-year flood every two years now." What kind of resilience planning are your nonprofit partners doing? And how can funders and volunteers help?

GB: At a recent meeting of nonprofits convened by the Staten Island Foundation, the number-one concern mentioned was "planning for the next disaster." As you know, it's tremendously difficult to raise money for infrastructure improvements and the development of disaster-preparedness plans and backup systems. During this disaster we've seen how critical it is that frontline nonprofits get back on their feet as quickly as possible in order to serve the additional clients created by the disaster as well as those who needed assistance before the event. Beyond the capital needed to develop these plans as well as repair damage to buildings, nonprofits may require skills and expertise that don't exist in-house. In both instances, volunteers can help fill the gap. Our volunteers have provided everything from translation services to IT consulting. Volunteers are not a substitute for full-time staff members, but they are a wonderful means of extending the reach of an organization. And a dedicated volunteer with skills, for example in the HR or IT area, can help build the systems for managing the additional and rapidly changing workload after a disaster.

-- Laura Cronin

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