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A Conversation With Dee Baecher-Brown, President, Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands

September 18, 2018

Scenes of catastrophic flooding caused by Hurricane Florence are a painful reminder of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, one of the deadliest and most destructive on record. After an earlier-than-usual start, the season took a turn for the worst in August when Harvey became the first major hurricane since 2005 to make landfall in the U.S., submerging large swaths of the Houston metro area and southeastern Texas. Then, in September, Irma became the first Category 5 hurricane to impact the northern Leeward Islands, including the U.S. Virgin Islands and Barbuda, which was flattened, before making landfall in the Florida keys with sustained winds of 130 mph. A few weeks later, Maria became the first Category 5 hurricane on record to strike the island of Dominica, causing catastrophic damage there, before striking Puerto Rico and leaving that U.S. territory a shambles.

Recently, PND spoke with Dee Baecher-Brown, president of the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, about the progress made in the year since Irma and Maria pummeled the islands and what donors in a disaster situation can do to balance the urgency of immediate needs with longer-term recovery goals and objectives. A full accounting of the donors who stepped up to help the Virgin Islands in the wake of the hurricanes will be included in CFVI's year-end report.

Headshot_dee_beacher-brownPhilanthropy News Digest: It's been a year since Hurricanes Irma and Maria pummeled the Virgin Islands. Now we’re watching as Florence, another powerful Atlantic hurricane, brings catastrophic flooding to the Carolinas. What are your thoughts as you watch footage of the destruction and displacement caused by Florence?

Dee Baecher-Brown: My first thought is concern. Many of our friends and family are in harm's way, and we're hoping for the best. We don't want anyone to have to experience what the Virgin Islands experienced with Irma and Maria. As the extent of the damage caused by the storm becomes clearer, we just want the folks in the Carolinas to know that we are there for them, because we know firsthand what a difference the outpouring of concern and support in the days immediately following those storms meant to us.

PND: Take us back to weeks just before Irma and Maria hit the Virgin Islands. Was your community as prepared as it could have been?

DBB: You know, that's something we've discussed many times over the course of the last twelve months. Obviously, two category 5 storms in a two-week period was unprecedented, and even though we got a little tired of that word, it does capture something people sometimes forget — namely, that it's hard to prepare for something that hasn't happened before. And the fact that we are small, fairly remote islands in the Caribbean didn't help matters.

That said, I felt CFVI was as prepared as we could have been. We had spent the last twenty-five years supporting the thoughtful, gradual growth of our community, and in terms of our own capacity we had arrived at a point where we had solid financial systems in place and were working with an amazing network of community organizations — organizations that, in my opinion, were key to our being able to help after the storms hit. In September, for example, just days after Maria hit, we were already making grants to our partners, and we were able to do that because we knew who was out there, we knew the kind of work they would be doing, and we knew they needed our support. So, yes, I felt we were as ready as we could be for something that had never happened before.

PND: What were the most acute, immediate needs in your community?

DBB: I would say the most critical immediate need was shelter. Tropical storms aren't always followed by sunny days. After Irma, there were days of rain, and people whose homes had been damaged or destroyed needed to find safe places to shelter. They needed potable water. They needed food. Many people needed health care. Our three major healthcare facilities, one on each of our islands, were severely damaged. Reestablishing communications also was critical. Reestablishing cellphone service made a huge difference in enabling first responders to get to people who needed help.

It was also important to be mindful of the trauma that individuals had just suffered, particularly children. Let me just say that we were honored to be part of a community where there was so much caring for others. It restores your faith in humanity.

PND: Were you satisfied with the response of the federal government and private philanthropy?

DBB: Well, we certainly had a lot of support. The response from the philanthropic community was pretty great. Philanthropies that had worked with us in the past, foundations like the Annie E. Casey Foundation with KIDS COUNT and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which had been a major supporter of our ongoing work in the territory, were there for us immediately. And we had some new partners, philanthropies that had not been involved in the Virgin Islands before but did outreach to CFVI to find out how they could help. The New York Federal Reserve also did major outreach to us immediately after the storms, getting in touch with the territorial government and asking how it could help. Then it flew teams of experts down to help us think through the recovery.

Again, I go back to my description of what happened as "unprecedented," and what we could rightfully expect from our partners. In most cases people did the best they could, and our community was deeply appreciative.

PND: What advice would you give to foundations, corporations, and generous Americans who want to help people who have been affected by a disaster like Irma or Maria or Florence?

DBB: One thing I would say is look to the local community foundation. Most communities have one, and in most cases no one knows a community better than its community foundation. One of the reasons CFVI was so successful in our fundraising was that other community foundations across the country were telling their donors to give to us because we were the ones with partners on the ground who would be able to act quickly and get help to those who needed it most.

Second, while I would encourage people to reach out immediately, because help is needed immediately, I would also advise them to be patient, because in most cases a community that has been affected by a disaster needs time to assess how the help it receives from outside can best be used. So it's a combination of rushing to meet immediate needs, and waiting and being patient so that you're offering help in a way that can be used to greatest effect.

PND: In addition to the timing of support, how important is the nature of the support? In other words, Is cash always the best thing to give?

DBB: You know, I don't believe cash is always best. In our situation, for example, we had neighbors on St. Croix who were actually up and running after the first storm and were able to get critically needed supplies to St. Thomas and to St. John — things like water, food, and generators. That was critical. But as time passed, it became less clear what the immediate needs were. And at that point, having donors who were willing to either give money directly or take a step back and listen to the community to understand where the gaps were made it much easier to be effective. The last thing you want is to have donations given out of the kindness of people’s hearts not be used in the best way possible. That's really the challenge for people who want to help: knowing what's actually needed at any given point in time.

— Mitch Nauffts

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