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5 Questions for...Robert G. Ottenhoff, President and CEO, Center for Disaster Philanthropy

August 11, 2015

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, leaving 80 percent of New Orleans underwater, killing more than eighteen hundred people, and displacing hundreds of thousands of others, important questions remain unanswered. Are we better prepared to help communities of all kinds respond to and rebuild from extreme weather events and natural disasters? Has greater media scrutiny of relief organizations improved the efficiency and effectiveness of their efforts? If not, why not? And what can or should philanthropy do to improve its performance and responsiveness in the wake of a major disaster?

With the tenth anniversary of Katrina just weeks away, PND asked Robert G. Ottenhoff, president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy — an organization founded in the aftermath of the storm — how the philanthropic response to major disasters has evolved over the last decade and what his organization is doing to ensure that the philanthropic community is an integral and effective part of the response to major disasters in the future.

Robert_ottenhoff_for_PhilanTopicPhilanthropy News Digest: You’ve written that Hurricane Katrina "forever changed the way our nation thinks, reacts, and plans for massive natural disasters." How so? And what were the key lessons learned by philanthropy in the aftermath of that disaster?

Robert G. Ottenhoff: Katrina was a traumatic experience for our nation and brought the realization that our conventional ways of responding to disasters were insufficient and unsustainable. We learned three big lessons: the need for comprehensive advance planning and preparation for disasters; the critical importance of building communities that are resilient to disaster and better able to respond and bounce back; and the need for funders to support disaster recovery needs before and after disaster strikes, as well as during the immediate humanitarian crisis.

Nonprofit organizations need a plan themselves, too. How will they respond when a disaster strikes? How will they handle an influx of donations or volunteers? If they are a service provider in a stricken city, how will they make sure any interruption of service is as limited as possible? How will their staffs continue to provide vital services?

CDP has been working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Rockefeller Foundation on the National Disaster Resilience Competition. Forty communities that have experienced natural disasters are competing for $1 billion in funds to help them rebuild and increase their resilience to future disasters. Our staff contributed to Rockefeller's Resilience Academies in Chicago and Denver with jurisdiction finalists and are working with them to develop initiatives and outreach plans that will better prepare them for future disasters — and, we hope, lead to better partnerships with foundations and corporations.

CDP also is working to ensure that the philanthropic community understands the importance of supporting long- and mid-term recovery needs in disaster areas. This fall, we will begin the process of awarding grants from our Nepal Earthquake Recovery Fund to community organizations in Nepal. Now that much of the immediate crisis has passed, these funds, raised from more than two hundred and sixty institutional and individual donors, will focus on long-term recovery and rebuilding of devastated areas.

PND: The American Red Cross was widely criticized for its response to Katrina, as well as for its efforts in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake in that country and for its response to Superstorm Sandy. Do you think the Red Cross has been unfairly singled out by the media for its response to those and other recent natural disasters? And what should the organization do to improve its response to disasters in the future?

RGO: The reports of Red Cross activities in Haiti and other disaster areas have been disappointing and disturbing. For those of us working in disaster philanthropy, the news coverage underscores several critical issues — including gaps and flaws in our current system — that deserve consideration and national attention. If properly addressed, we could see more effective disaster response in the future.

First, our country needs a structure for responding to the humanitarian needs caused by natural disasters that is both well funded and well organized. The current system of relying on voluntary contributions in support of multiple voluntary organizations does not adequately address the needs of either the survivors or the organizations providing support.

Second, the public needs to better understand the arc of disasters and why the rush to respond immediately tends to create future problems. On one hand, the immediate outpouring of donations in the days after disaster often puts the Red Cross and other service organizations in the awkward position of receiving too much money for some activities and not enough for others. In addition, the outsized nature of the immediate response makes it harder to raise needed funds later on for recovery and rebuilding efforts that can take years. We suggest consideration be given to finding national solutions that result in better coordination and balance in disaster giving and that reflect the full cycle of disasters.

Third, we urge the American Red Cross to use these reports as an opportunity to reassess its strategies and priorities. Its world-class brand has long been known for its work in immediate relief following disasters, and during this time of reflection it can use that asset as a touchstone for an examination of its future.

PND: Two years ago you wrote that extreme weather events have become the "new normal," requiring all foundations, including those that had not previously thought of themselves as disaster relief funders, to develop strategies to respond to future disasters and collaborate with other funders to maximize the impact of their dollars. Has there been any progress on that front?

RGO: I believe that foundations have begun to take this issue more seriously, as we have seen more and more large-scale disasters taking place, from Superstorm Sandy to the California drought. Foundations are now seeing the direct impact and scale of these disasters in their own backyards.

Supporting disaster-related activities is an infrequent occurrence for most foundations so there is a tendency to not think about the implications of disasters in a strategic way. We're slowly seeing foundations begin to realize that disasters have an impact on their grantees and their work and, therefore, require systematic and regular attention — not just an occasional reactionary contribution. In a sense, we're all disaster philanthropists.

PND: Is the disaster response system in this country too fragmented to ever be truly effective?

RGO: It is too important for us to not try to make it better. It needs to be done. Disaster response is a highly complicated process. Between immediate humanitarian needs, infrastructure and support systems disrupted, multiple levels of government all involved, insurance claim issues, and a nonprofit response, the immediate aftermath of a disaster can be highly confusing and chaotic.

Certainly, even ten years after Katrina, disaster response is not perfect. However, we saw a much improved response in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. There are a lot of reasons for this improvement: FEMA is better organized, state and municipal governments are better prepared for emergencies, the nonprofit community is improving its communications and coordination efforts, and the philanthropic community is beginning to better understand its unique role in relief and recovery efforts.

PND: What kinds of communities are most at risk from unchecked climate change? And what can foundations do to help build the resilience of those communities?

RGO: Those who are most vulnerable before disaster strikes are the ones most adversely affected by disasters. In particular, the vulnerable populations hardest hit by disasters include children, senior citizens, those with handicaps, and the under- and unemployed.

Many communities face higher risk of disaster, regardless of climate change: coastal communities, cities and towns located in flood-prone areas or along fault lines, and cities with large populations.

Foundations, whether global, national, or community in scope, can play a large role by encouraging community leaders to take these risks seriously and working with them to make sure that a community's physical infrastructure and support systems, such as civic and faith organizations, can withstand or bounce back from a disaster and be used in the recovery process.

Foundations also need to make themselves more resilient, ensuring that their physical structures and functional systems can be of maximum help during disaster recovery.

As I noted, this is a process, and we're making progress. But we still have a ways to go.

— Kyoko Uchida

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