Greater Philadelphia Long Term Recovery Committee

National VOAD sat down for a discussion with Julia Menzo from Lutheran Disaster Response, and Laura Olson, a Lecturer at Georgetown University's Emergency and Disaster Management Program, about their work with the Greater Philadelphia Long Term Recovery Committee. The GPLTRC is currently engaging with and providing services for, Hurricane Maria evacuees.

In addition, we discussed the involvement of National VOAD agencies, urgent needs, and what more your organizations can do to help support this important work. 

What is the mission of the Greater Philadelphia Long Term Recovery Committee?

Julia Menzo: We were formed in March 2018, and we formed out of a number of indicators that showed there was a need to talk about support for local communities, and in setting up long-term recovery committees. We engaged with Hispanic communities in cooperation with the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management. A coalition of Hispanic agencies had already been formed in order to support Puerto Rico in particular, but when it came time to support evacuees from Puerto Rico in state, that group and support system was in place. With the assistance of state local and federal authorities we decided to form an LTRC. We started as a group that would assist with the various urgent needs of these groups but it quickly became apparent that the most urgent need was housing.

Laura Olson: From a research perspective also, one way we think this LTRC is unique is it hasn't been formed in the area of impact of a disaster. GPLTRC is also a solution for the diaspora, for these evacuees. It is an adaptation of the LTRC model in the sense that it is providing solutions far away from where the disaster occurred. I think it is very unique in that way.

How have you gone about addressing the need for housing?

JM: Early on we asked our case managers their expectations of how many families would return home to Puerto Rico after the more severe effects of the hurricane had ended or been resolved. We were trying to figure out how to dedicate resources for the needs of an LTRC, and also to even establish what our goal was for housing. Is it a temporary shelter, or a year lease for families; what is the end goal of people coming here? Early on we didn't really know.

Certainly a lot of people coming want to return and still say they would want to return later but do not expect to do so soon because of the simple fact that even if they had very little in PR and had nothing that they were coming with, the opportunity is here. That is how many evacuees have been articulating it. So far, we have seen few families returning, or those who have set deadlines of several years, where they will wait for their kids to be done with school, for example.

We didn't have significant resources when we first started working within the VOAD network, so we looked at potential models from refugee resettlement communities and looked for housing solutions like short term stays until the family or individual found a permanent solution. Most of those fell through because every group wanted us to find a transition plan for the families before the group would get involved. There was a lot of anxiety around finding housing. Of course, there was the TSA program, but the anxiety of the program expiring was always a difficulty. The first deadline for TSA was on Valentines Day, I remember.

How has the VOAD movement helped your work?

JM: One of the members of Southeast Pennsylvania VOAD is the communications person for Pennsylvania VOAD so that was an immediate link. Pennsylvania is probably a lot different than Gulf Coast VOADs or California VOAD or New York VOAD even, in that we do not respond to many major, major events. In this case, VOAD members immediately made available resources and connections that they had. The Salvation Army provided refrigerators, and UMCOR provided mattresses, for example.

LO: The case statement provided by Center for Disaster Philanthropy really opened the door for funders. I had worked with CDP in Louisiana. We had them share it with their whole network, alerting a wide range of potential donors in that way. The members of the GPLTRC also spread that case statement within their network as well. The committee has flown beneath the radar a bit and this effort helped get us get the word out.

How did you engage with local communities to help aid evacuees?

JM: Early on, we tried to find ways to develop trust among partners who didn't typically work together. Our leadership for the LTRC is made up of 3 Hispanic agencies, plus LDR, and another rep from Salvation Army. The fact that Hispanic community leadership is so engaged is one of the things we are proud of about our LTRC. One of the things that was so helpful from National VOAD in that regard is that there were templates and resources available from the Long-Term Recovery Ad-Hoc Committee, and how to form them. Having something in place like that that, that shows a way to work together, a way that protects client confidentiality, a way that gives us ground rules for cooperating with each other, a way that reflects that the bottom line goal is to help evacuees, was critical in building trust with the communities we were trying to serve.

This disaster made it clear that we are not prepared to deal with people who do not speak English. So one of the things we have talked about is even if we can not have every document in Spanish, can we at least have taglines, or announcements, or as much messaging as possible directing people where they can go to help from FEMA, or where a resource fair is going to be. The resources are limited to support voluntary agencies to do that work.

However, the trust built between Hispanic agencies active in Philadelphia and voluntary agencies helped meet that gap. They were able to provide casework and translation services, even going to appointments with clients, so that evacuees could navigate the system better.

There are some key people from the Hispanic community who see the LTRC as a long term solution. They see the value of increasing resiliency for all Philadelphians and any other new evacuees who may come from future events, and they have been insistent on not calling it the Hurricane Maria recovery committee, but rather keep it generic so that we can change our mission statement as needed. Whether that event is in the Hispanic community or somewhere else.

What is your biggest challenge now? What are your needs?

JM: One of our challenges was figuring out what “local” was in this kind of event. This disaster event for us meant that “local” was NE Philadelphia and the heart of the Hispanic community. So that is where we focused efforts and cultivated leadership and listened to that leadership about needs. The VOAD agencies came in and brought their tools and best practices, and together, we were able to come up with solutions.

Since we have had success in trying to find resources and making resources with VOADs and the evacuee populations, our main goal now is to help local agencies continue on this work. We have had some comments about “why do we need LTR this far out”, but honestly, for a lot of people coming through this experience, this still feels like Week 1 to them. They are not in their homes where the disaster happened, and they are often not with their families or friends. Part of our wanting to get the word out about GPLTRC is that it is not time to celebrate yet; there are still people that need help.

One of the ways that the VOAD network can further assist the GPLTRC is in helping us strengthen our resource and revenue streams. With time passing and new events demanding attention, and traditional state resources needing to transition, some of those resources we had early on are waning. The fact that we still have evacuees coming to Philadelphia, and those already here still needing assistance for the long term, we are looking for funding for rental assistance, case management, program oversight, and emergency housing. Rental assistance and case management are the most critical needs for evacuees. We are on a campaign to raise funding for those essential support services.

LO: The operational costs of keeping LTRCs going is tough, as there is a need for staff positions, etc. Usually that funding is hard to find in the local philanthropic movement, and that is something that the VOAD movement could definitely help with. Keeping the long-term recovery effort together is our biggest challenge right now. I would also say that one thing I think is very important is this idea of climate migration that we are studying as well, in that, we are entering into a new world where disasters are not contained within the borders where they occur. Where the disasters spill over, and the responsibility of who is taking care of evacuees is shifting. We are seeing fewer resources outside of the area of impact. For Katrina we saw 44 host-state agreements and only saw 1 after Hurricane Maria. The costs are really falling on local governments and the non-profit sector. So in a way, what is very interesting about this case is that it is a harbinger of the future. How do we have to be prepared? What does preparedness mean in a place like Pennsylvania that does not have disasters on a large scale, like Julia talked about, but a disaster comes to them?

This is particularly interesting because the level of relationships amongst the different parties were so strong between the VOADs and the local government, but they also have the ability to overcome trust barriers to bring in new partners and form the types of bonds of trust that allows them to come together to pool resources and find solutions that we haven’t seen happening elsewhere. For me, these are key moments here. They have done something tremendous in Pennsylvania.

Disaster Recovery Specialist

Position Description (Eastern Regional)

TITLE: UCC Disaster Recovery Specialist (Eastern Regional)

(2 year position with possibility for extension)

REPORTS TO: Conference Minister, Southern Conference UCC

WORK SUPERVISOR: UCC Disaster Ministries Executive

GENERAL PURPOSE OF POSITION: The UCC Disaster Recovery Specialist (DRS) supports the efforts of UCC Disaster Ministries regionally and within conferences by taking a lead role following large scale disasters.

LOCATION: Remote with responsibility in FEMA Regions 1, 2, 3, 4 (Eastern Regional). See Appendix A


* Facilitate the work of UCC Disaster Ministries in planning for and responding to major disasters by providing information, expertise, energy, direction, resources, and referrals for UCC response/recovery efforts.

* Travel to disaster impacted communities and provide assessment, guidance, mentorship, accompaniment and support within the conference(s) to Conference Disaster Coordinators, Conference Ministers and local churches.

* Support clear communication between Conference Ministers, Conference Disaster Coordinators, UCC Disaster Ministries National staff, ecumenical and national partners via phone and e-mail communications before, during and after disasters.

* Adhere to the National VOAD Points of Consensus and ensure UCC response/recovery is supported and managed in accordance.

* Establish recovery sites in consultation with and according to guidelines provided by UCC Disaster Ministries.

* Identify unique opportunities for UCC Disaster Ministries to address issues of injustice in disaster recovery.

* Build strong relationships with local, state and national disaster response and faith-based networks in order to carry out UCC Disaster Ministries response/recovery.

* Support the development of local Long –Term Recovery Groups

* Educate UCC Congregations about Long – Term Recovery Groups (LTRG) and encourage their engagement in the LTRG

* Work closely with and in support of construction management, volunteer management and case management (and other recovery functions).

* Develop strategic partnerships (local, state and national) that leverage resources and support the overall mission of the United Church of Christ.

* Identify unique funding opportunities central to the mission of UCC Disaster Ministries in the Eastern Region.

*Note that the hiring of a Disaster Recovery Specialist (DRS) will decrease the burden on Conference Disaster Coordinators by shifting many of the response/recovery responsibilities to the DRS.

QUALIFICATIONS: The qualifications listed below are representative of knowledge, skills and abilities required to perform successfully in this position:

* A person of faith with a commitment to represent the United Church of Christ and its core values.

* Desire and sensitivity to working in diverse racial, ethnic, cultural and religious settings with commitment to diversity in the workplace as well as in one’s understanding of mission.

* Strong interpersonal skills that contribute to effective interaction & communication within diverse settings.

* Ability to work with a minimum supervision, self-starter, readily adaptable to change, able to physically work at a disaster recovery location

* Ability to work as part of a team and help a team function effectively

* Ability to quickly gain trust and respect of faith leaders, community leaders and others impacted by disaster.

* Problem solving skills

* Demonstrated written and oral English language skills.

* Computer literacy skills.

* Adaptable and flexible

* Ability to communicate effectively and work collaboratively with multiple agencies and constituencies, including federal, state, and local representatives of government, faith-based organizations, and social service and community agencies

* Experience or knowledge in conflict resolution

* Ability to manage self-care in a stressful situation

* Ability to travel extensively within the region and as requested by the Disaster Ministries Executive.

* Preferred prior disaster field experience in the USA and an understanding of and commitment to work with disaster response entities such as Church World Service (CWS); NVOAD, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), etc.

The Flood Insurance Advocate is Here to Help!

The Office of the Flood Insurance Advocate (OFIA) is an independent office within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The OFIA’s role is to be available to policyholders and property owners who have utilized existing available National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) resources and are frustrated, confused, or do not feel they have been treated fairly.

The OFIA assists in reducing the complexity of the NFIP by providing customers with education and guidance about flood insurance, flood hazard mapping, floodplain management, and financial assistance through hazard mitigation assistance grants.

Through the casework that comes into the office, the OFIA identifies trends and makes recommendations that present opportunities to improve the overall customer experience. In 2017, the OFIA resolved over 500 inquiries. Many of these cases were highly complex and required extensive research and collaboration across the various offices in the NFIP. The casework helped to inform the OFIA’s Annual Report.

The OFIA is in the process of enhancing its outreach to the public by attending community map change meetings, partnering with external stakeholders –including the VOAD community, and attending various events across the country.

To view the report, track progress of outreach efforts, or if you or someone you know are confused and frustrated with the NFIP, visit the OFIA’s website at:

Geospatial Visualization for the Greater Good: Hurricane Florence Response

Team Rubicon in partnership with corporate partners BAE Systems, DigitalGlobe, Slingshot Aerospace, and Planet, began conducting remote sensing damage assessments and imagery analysis post-disaster during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Between Hurricanes Harvey and Florence, Team Rubicon trained more than 75 volunteers to create six basic graphics to inform Team Rubicon and National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) members on location measurements, flooding levels, debris identification, and route analysis while synergizing social media-derived information and on-the-ground collections by Team Rubicon members.

During large-scale events, machine-learning solutions are deployed to conduct impact assessments, parking lot or building identifications by size as well as debris pile locating and measuring. This team of Team Rubicon volunteers and corporate partners were instrumental in informing which roadways were open during Team Rubicon’s Operation Shallow Draft, which allowed boat rescue teams to get to hard-to-reach locations provided by the Virtual Operations Support Team with less uncertainty and expedite rescues. Later, the Geospatial Visualization Team helped identify suitable Forward Operating Base locations for Team Rubicon’s greater response to Harvey; shortening the time needed for reconnaissance and setup before providing assistance to survivors.

During Hurricane Florence, the Geospatial Visualization Team identified damaged areas across North Carolina and parts of South Carolina – a tall order with such damage and destruction throughout over half of North Carolina. The team immediately stepped into the arena and found affected areas that mass media weren’t covering, allowing Team Rubicon to target underserved populations. The graphics were also made available to all NVOAD members via NVOAD’s Yammer platform and lines of communication to submit requests for information were also established to provide direct support to NVOAD members with their own responses and relief activities. Requests for information during any disaster may be submitted to [email protected] Due to limitations in satellite coverage, analysis on all areas for every disaster will not be possible.

The Summer of 4C’s: Public-Private Collaboration in Response

This summer brought several rounds of flash flooding to Pennsylvania, primarily in the central part of the commonwealth.  Schuylkill County had significant damage in both the first and second series of storms in July and August. The early August flash flooding was more widespread with homes affected from the Philadelphia area all the way to the northern tier counties bordering New York. The third flash flooding was primarily in York and Lancaster Counties with Mt. Joy Borough getting 8 inches of rain in less than four hours. Finally (so far!), Tioga County suffered a second round of flash flooding from the Florence remains.

PA VOAD began coordination calls right after the second set of flash floods. Two areas of Cooperation, Communication, Coordination and Collaboration developed. During one call, the request for unmet needs was answered, “Large capacity dehumidifiers.”  Mold prevention is just as an important part of the cleanup process as sanitizing.

We asked if any members could help.  We quickly received a response from our LDS member who obtained funding from Latter Day Saints Charities for 36 70 pint dehumidifiers.

PA VOAD works very closely with our partners at Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA).  When we shared the good news about the LDS funding, Molly Doughty, External Affairs Director, gave us the name of a person at Lowe’s who she thought could help with price and possibly also with donations.

The gentleman at Lowe’s Command Central listened to our request for a matching gift of an additional 36 dehumidifiers and asked for a couple of days to push the request through their corporate hierarchy.  He was successful, and a few days later he emailed that we could buy 36 at regular price - $249 each -, and Lowe’s would give us an additional 36. He then arranged to hall all 72 delivered to a Lowe’s in the Harrisburg area.

PEMA provided a truck and driver to pick them up and bring them to PEMA HQ.  Volunteers from PA Lions Disaster Relief, United Church of Christ and Episcopal Diocese of Central PA met at PEMA and labeled the dehumidifiers.  A Southern Baptist truck picked up thirty for use in the Northern Tier Counties where they were working. UMCOR picked up twelve the same day for a county where they were mucking out and cleaning up.  A few days later, twenty more went to another county where UMCOR was working. When the homes are dried out and the dehumidifiers are no longer needed, Mission Central, an UMCOR affiliate will store them in their warehouse until the next flood.

Pennsylvania VOADs efforts to utilize public-private partnerships should be an inspiration to other VOAD members looking to leverage limited resources throughout the disaster cycle. This is the vision of the VOAD movement, bringing all of these forces together to achieve a greater goal. 

Presbyterian Women Disaster Preparedness Program

Since 2014, through the Presbyterian Women Disaster Preparedness program, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) and Presbyterian Women (PW) have collaborated to assist congregations and presbyteries to create disaster preparedness plans. Today, there are more than 150 women from 68 presbyteries across the country, including 43 new trainers at the Churchwide Gathering of Presbyterian Women last month in Louisville, Kentucky.

Carolyn Thalman, a member of First Presbyterian Church in Winchester, Virginia and a PDA National Response Team (NRT) member, was part of the group that wrote the first training curriculum for Presbyterian Women. She’s currently the team lead for the PW disaster preparedness program.
“We want to create a culture of preparedness in our churches and communities across the country,” said Thalman. “Our goal is for churches to have disaster plans. Being prepared can’t eliminate the chaos of a disaster, but it can reduce the chaos and the suffering.”

Trainers must exhibit an interest in disaster preparedness and be comfortable presenting to groups. They commit to three years of service, actively seeking out and conducting disaster preparedness training sessions in congregations and presbyteries per year. The program is mutually beneficial to each ministry; PW gains increased membership and visibility in the church and community, and PDA gains a larger volunteer base to help communities affected by disaster.”

“We’ve seen firsthand how presbyteries and congregations with disaster preparedness training have benefited from disaster plans. We encourage all families, congregations and mid-councils to create or review their disaster plans now,” said Beth Snyder, PDA associate for Program Administration and Presbyterian Woman.

Several disaster-related resources are available at,  including knowing which types of disasters could affect the area you live in and making a plan in case your family is not together when a disaster strikes.  FEMA also emphasizes practicing your plan, assembling an emergency kit with water and non-perishable items for family and pets, and making sure your contact list is up-to-date for people that you need to reach during a disaster.