MARLBORO—Disasters take many guises: the floods of Tropical Storm Irene, the flames that gutted the Brooks House, or the 2008 ice storm that left some homes in Windham County without electricity for two weeks.
People are used to seeing the professionals when disasters happen. Fire, police, and ambulance personnel, and state and federal agencies are trained, and funded, to know what to do when the world turns upside down. They quench the flames, bandage the wounded, bring comfort to the hurt, or maintain law and order during the chaos.
The response phase of a disaster is usually quick, concentrated, and short.
But what about recovery phase? That long drawn out period of filling in paperwork, mucking out basements, finding a new place to live, replacing lost belongings, and adjusting to a “new normal?”
Now, that’s a different beast — or rolls of red tape — with a much longer timeline.
For example, a handful of people are still going through the federal government’s buyout program after Irene in 2011. That timeline is going on four years.
“You’re going to be much stronger together,” said Anne Goodrich of Upper Valley Strong, a coalition of 50 organizations who help with recovery needs in the Upper Valley in Vermont and New Hampshire. “There’s a big gap between emergency management and recovery.”
Local organizations like the United Way of Windham County, Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA), and the Windham Regional Commission (WRC) want to build a team of community responders trained to coordinate disaster recovery in the Windham Region.
Called a Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD), volunteers involved in the collaborative would proactively build a network of neighbors, nonprofits, schools, churches, and businesses ready to activate when a community is reeling from a disaster.
Goodrich spoke to an audience of approximately 28 at an introductory meeting on forming a local COAD like Upper Valley Strong.
The meeting was attended by multiple local organizations and individuals at the Marlboro Elementary School on Oct. 8.
Goodrich told the audience to look at the role of a COAD as similar to a local travel guide. The guide who knows which restaurants, hotels, and sights to see when visiting a new country.
She said while visitors can figure out on their own where to stay and what to do, their trips go more smoothly when they partner with someone who knows the local community.
“Because, at the end of the day, this is about relationships,” she said.
Irene taught Vermont that it lacked the know-how of taking care of displaced people, said Windham Regional Commission executive director Chris Campany.
Vermont needs to establish a structure that goes beyond a short-term response to a tragedy, he continued. The state can’t rely on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to hang in for years after an event while people get back on their feet.
A COAD coordinates rather than does direct service. Its members know which local resources to call upon when the local community needs help. The collaboration is based on four principles: cooperation, collaboration, coordination, and communication.
Members help coordinate services like debris removal, emergency food, volunteer management, elder, child, or animal care, donations management, or transportation.
COAD members come from a variety of backgrounds and organizations including faith-based organizations, the American Red Cross, health and human service agencies, the Vermont Food Bank, amateur radio operators, civic organizations, and businesses.
The new COAD proposed for southern Windham County - SWCOAD - will serve Athens, Brattleboro, Brookline, Dover, Dummerston, Guilford, Halifax, Jamaica, Marlboro, Newfane, Putney, Townshend, Vernon, Wardsboro, Westminster, Whitingham, and Wilmington.
The SWCOAD can serve other WRC towns if requested.
An informal COAD spontaneously formed in Windham County after Irene when the United Way, SEVCA, WRC and other agencies stepped in to help people put their lives together.
Through grant funding, SEVCA hired disaster case managers tasked with helping people hit hard by the storm to fill in the gaps between federal and state funding.
This informal COAD — then known as the Long-term Recovery Committee — had practice with disasters prior to Irene.
The committee first formed after the Wilder Block Fire. The 2004 fire destroyed the top two floors of the building which housed apartments, office spaces, studios, and street-level retail spaces.
The recovery committee again convened for the Brooks House fire in 2011.
These organizations want to hand the COAD model over to the community. While the WRC will help provide technical assistance and SEVCA will be the group’s fiscal agent, the agencies aim for the COAD to become sustainable and self-sufficient.
Alyssa Sabetto, a WRC planner who has managed the SWCOAD up to this point, said the collaborative’s next step is to designate leadership roles and create bylaws.
”Most disasters will not be declared disasters [at the federal level],”said Goodrich. “If you’re waiting for FEMA to arrive, you’re wasting your time.”