5 Ways to Prepare For When Disaster Strikes

Advocates from the country's Black Belt share their hard-learned lessons.

By Asraa Mustufa May 31, 2011

The death toll resulting from tornadoes that hit Joplin, Missouri, last weekend has reached 125. Meanwhile, relief and recovery efforts are ongoing in Alabama, after severe tornado outbreaks last month left over 200 people dead. The Black Belt Region, a historically poor area that stretches across several Southern states, was hit especially hard. While natural disasters can be devastating for anyone they impact, the long-term effects are especially severe for low income communities who may not have the personal resources to fully rebuild their lives. 

Both these disasters are instructive for the threats facing many communities, and the challenges that can often make recovery excruciatingly slow. "Alabama’s one of the poorest states in the country so we’re talking about folks who have very litte aid," said Rachel Raimist, a professor at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa who’s been involved with local recovery efforts. Advocates who are on-the-ground maintain that while immediate relief is crucial for many families, more must be done to impact the local and federal policies that can often make that relief excruciatingly slow.

"People are very very concerned for this not be addressed the same way that the development of housing after Katrina, repeating a lot of distrust and concern about the state being in control of these resources," said LaTosha Brown, director of the Gulf Coast Fund that emerged after Hurricane Katrina and has been coordinating with relief efforts in Alabama. "Historically, people of color and low income communities are always left out of the process."

Here are five ways you can respond when natural disaster strikes. 

Volunteer. Several organizations are recruiting volunteers, especially health care professionals or those who can provide psychiatric or social work services, to help out with tornado relief on a temporary basis. Racialicious has more information on volunteer opportunities, as does MSNBC.

Donate. While there are many charities collecting funds towards tornado relief, also consider donating directly to community organizations and local agencies long established on the ground. Temporary Emergency Services in Tuscaloosa is accepting needed items, gift cards, or monetary donations. The Ujima chapter of the National Association of Black Social Workers is also accepting applications for an Adopt a Family or Adopt a Person program,which is looking for qualified individuals willing to provide advice and emotional support to those severely impacted by the tornadoes as they navigate the rebuilding process, for at least the next four months.

Stay Informed. It’s important to know which agency is responsible for what in the case of an emergency. A good place to start is by looking at FEMA’s list of state emergency response agencies. There are also several local, regional, and non-profit disaster relief agencies.

Make policy a priority. Of course, part of the bigger picture in all of this is identifying which policies could make recovery easier for many low-income communities. Advocates say the Stafford Act, which gives FEMA responsibility for coordinating the federal response to emergencies and disasters, needs to be reformed to more effectively provide aid and relief, and work better with state and local government. The agency’s unclear policies, regulations, and bureaucratic inefficiencies have long been criticized. 

Prepare your community. Contact your local Emergency Management Agency to organize community awareness workshops. At the very least, every home should be equipped with an emergency evacuation plan. Advocates in communities recently hit by storms also stress that it’s important to gather personal documents. Many affected people did not have any form of ID, social security cards, or insurance information immediately needed to fill out forms and apply for assistance, or even to prove their identity when trying to recover items from their destroyed homes. Benjamin recommends keeping copies of all these crucial documents in a fireproof and waterproof package in your home, and to also have someone you trust keep a copy for you at a different location.