Guest commentary: SBP here to help Fla. hurricane victims recover more quickly
Twelve years ago, Edward Lee’s home was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Lee is a 96-year-old, proud World War II veteran who built his house on his own upon returning from the war. After Katrina, this American hero suffered contractor fraud, and, with nowhere else to go, ended up living in his damaged home in untenable conditions for years.
When I met Lee, he told me it took a lot to bring him to the point to ask for help. As a veteran, a carpenter and a father, he was usually the one helping those around him, not the other way around. The question was not "Can we help him?" but rather "How quickly can we help him?" Long story short, Lee moved into his newly built home within four months of our first encounter.
While it felt great for us and the hundreds of volunteers and donors involved in his project to rebuild for Lee, our joy was predicated on his years of suffering. It was this realization that led to SBP’s shift from being just a rebuilding organization to a group committed to doing everything we can to achieve our new mission: shrink the time between disaster and recovery.
SBP is a national nonprofit organization committed to helping residents and communities recover from disaster in a prompt, efficient and predictable way. We are driven by the idea that there is a human toll to a delayed recovery, one that can bring victims to their breaking point. We’ve seen it time-and-time again; people die, suffer health problems, turn to alcohol, break relationships and give up because they stare into an abyss, not knowing how they will return to their pre-storm life.
Sharing in our mission are partners like Toyota, Zurich, UPS and Farmers Insurance who support long-term disaster recovery by providing skill-based, volunteer and financial support. These organizations truly believe in helping families beyond the time when their stories are in the news.
Each one of SBP’s interventions, from rebuilding homes to homeowner education to advising government leaders, is crucial to driving scalable impact for disaster-torn communities.
While the cameras and national news crews are no longer flocking to Florida and Texas to cover the devastation of hurricanes Irma and Harvey, residents are just beginning their recovery journey. After 11 years of helping eight different disaster-impacted communities to recover, SBP has learned some lessons that I’d like to share in the hopes that it will help homeowners:
I met a woman whose husband deployed to Iraq two weeks after Hurricane Isaac ravaged Slidell, La. Trying to ensure his wife and two young children would be safe in his absence, he wanted to do whatever he could before he left. That led to paying a company his entire FEMA payment of $8,000 to remediate mold and provide a “certificate” of proof.
- Mold remediation should not cost thousands of dollars.
- Mold certificates may be required by your builder for liability reasons, but you can remediate mold yourself (or with volunteers) and then get a certificate later
- Follow SBP’s guide to DIY mold remediation and supplies needed (don’t use bleach.)
FEMA and SBA
The FEMA/SBA application process is confusing and frustrating, especially for many of our clients who are hesitant to ask for help in the first place. FEMA typically gives an initial payout to help with immediate needs, then points you to apply for an SBA loan for long-term rebuilding (you do not have to be a business owner to apply).
- You are your own best advocate; be as detailed as possible about disaster losses. You can’t get assistance for losses and needs your insurance, SBA or FEMA don’t know about.
- You can/should appeal decisions if you are denied, or offered insufficient amounts for FEMA/SBA.
- Document everything: take pictures of damages and keep copies of all forms and communications.
SBP is still rebuilding homes in New Orleans, 12 years after Katrina. Eighty percent of our clients today suffered some sort of contractor fraud when they tried to rebuild. Proving fraud can be challenging because oftentimes crooked contractors force cash payments and do not leave a paper trail.
- Only hire experienced contractors; ask for references.
- Always insist on written bids and estimates.
- Read your contract and ask questions before signing.
- Never pay in full or up front; pay in increments.
The first action SBP takes in any disaster-impacted community is to share recovery guides on these and other topics to help homeowners avoid common recovery pitfalls. These guides can be found at sbpusa.org/start-here.
Through the devastation of these disasters, there are many reasons to have faith that a complete recovery is possible. As Lee, the WWII Katrina survivor, told me: “The worst part is the uncertainty. Your whole world is turned upside down. But there are people who care, so don’t give up. There is a way to get your home and your life back.”
Zack Rosenburg is co-founder and CEO of SBP. Visit us at sbpusa.org or call 504-277-6831.