In July 2013, the rural Arizona town of Yarnell became the site of the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history and the greatest loss of firefighter life since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The fire claimed the lives of 19 firefighters and destroyed 127 structures.
It also prompted on outpouring of support from donors. On the day that news of the fire broke, the Arizona Community Foundation quickly established a disaster relief fund and put up a matching grant to encourage contributions. Donations came pouring in online and by phone, at a pace of about one every five minutes. The following days were no different. Gifts came from individuals, donor advised funds, private foundations, corporate grant makers, businesses, sports teams, and community groups. All told, donors contributed more than $1.25 million to the foundation’s Yarnell Hill Disaster Relief Fund and the Yarnell Hill Memorial Scholarship Endowment, which will provide college scholarships to the children of the fallen firefighters and the one surviving firefighter.
When disasters strike, Americans rally quickly and give generously — volunteering time and donating money to help those in need. National relief organizations rush in, often doing remarkable work meeting urgent needs. But, in most cases, the story doesn’t end when the news cameras leave. In fact, it is just beginning.
Community foundations often play a central and unsung role at times of disaster — helping those who have been affected recover and rebuild for the long term. We are there to help disaster-response charities provide shelter and food for those who are displaced after events like fires, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes. We’re also there months and years later — coordinating with government and nonprofits to provide mental-health services, rebuild homes and schools, and ensure that our communities are better prepared for the next disaster.
Community foundations often play a central and unsung role at times of disaster — helping those who have been affected recover and rebuild for the long term.
Our respective foundations — the Arizona Community Foundation, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, and the Community Foundation for Monterey County — have seen firsthand the devastating toll disasters took in our own communities. We are proud to have played a key role in ensuring that those who have been affected are getting the services they need to rebuild their lives. And we think it’s important to share our stories to underscore the role community foundations across the nation play in disaster relief and recovery efforts. In every case, our donors, volunteers, and staff have joined forces not only to respond, but also to ensure that our communities are more resilient in the future.
The Arizona response is a case in point. The Arizona Community Foundation wanted to ensure that donations would meet immediate needs of families touched by this tragedy, but could also create solutions to help our communities and residents for years to come. We play a unique role in that we can steward and manage the gifts we receive over a period of time and then allocate the funding in strategic ways to help put the community back together.
We have worked closely with leaders in Yavapai County’s business, nonprofit, public and faith-based sectors to deploy the funds in three phases:
Wildfires and Floods in California
On July 22, 2016, an illegal campfire triggered what would become the Soberanes Fire — the most expensive wildfire in U.S. history. The fire was devastating — burning more than 132,000 acres and destroying 57 homes.
As more than 5,000 firefighters battled the blaze, the Community Foundation for Monterey County recognized the need would extend months — even years — after the final hotspot was extinguished. It also knew that donors would want to respond quickly. In response, the foundation immediately started the Soberanes Fire Fund.
The community’s response was swift and impressive — donors contributed more than $950,000 to the fund, which was set up to assist families in need and aid in special infrastructure projects.
When we established the fire fund we knew we would need to set aside resources in the event of another disaster of a different kind — namely, heavy rains. Many of the areas affected by fires were susceptible to this second disaster, as they were located on steep hillsides with no underbrush. What we couldn’t anticipate was the historic rainfall that would follow — and the extensive damage it would cause not just in the fire-affected areas, but also in other communities in our region.
Winter rains produced massive mudslides, shifting ground that led to the closure of a major bridge and a number of iconic businesses — creating isolation and financial risk for nearly 1,000 people who make their living in Big Sur.
The rains prompted yet another generous response from our donors, who banded together to create the Big Sur Relief Fund — the fourth disaster fund our community has created in just the past three years.
We’ve learned quite a bit about disaster grant making during this process — most notably that it’s not easy. Emotions are high. Families are in distress. And donors have high expectations that all monies will be granted responsibly.
We not only accept these responsibilities; we embrace them. That’s why we take great care to form knowledgeable grant committees, create clear grant guidelines, and develop partnerships with nonprofits that are deeply embedded in the affected communities.
We also work to ensure that we aren’t just there to provide for the immediate needs, but can look ahead to provide help for the long term.
Tornadoes in Oklahoma
Oklahoma City is no stranger to disaster.
Our community must regularly deal with the damage and trauma that comes with massive tornadoes. We’ve also had to confront man-made tragedies such as the terrorist bombing of a federal building in 1995.
Along the way, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation has learned just how important our foundation is in helping our community recover from these traumatic events. While we are not equipped to deploy resources for rapid response, we are there for the long haul — helping people through the recovery and providing mental-health and other support for months and years after these events.
Following a fierce tornado in 2013 that destroyed two schools and roughly 10,000 homes, we focused much of our activity on helping the children in the affected schools get the counseling and support they needed to move on. This process took years — and it was necessary to help those who experienced this trauma to lead healthy and productive lives.
We’ve learned that disaster recovery isn’t a short-term process. Disasters have a prolonged and far-reaching impact on survivors and on the families of victims. For this reason, we take the long-term approach to recovery instead of spending all of the money donated during the immediate aftermath and moving on.
Community Foundations: Playing the Long Game
Because community foundations like ours are deeply invested in our communities, we are positioned to play the long game in the wake of disasters. We have learned how to coordinate with the first responders and crucial disaster response organizations like the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army to provide needed short-term aid. But our real value comes later, as we partner with government, faith-based organizations, and nonprofits to identify solutions that help our communities rebuild and heal. That work may not often make headlines. But, over time, it makes our communities whole again.
Nancy Anthony is president and CEO of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation; Dan Baldwin is president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Monterey County; and Steve Seleznow is president and CEO of the Arizona Community Foundation.
Post-disaster community rebuilding
Arizona Community Foundation, Community Foundation for Monterey County and Oklahoma City Community Foundation