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Coping with Mother Nature: Emergency Relief & Readiness

Cornelia Carey

Nearly a month has passed since Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene blew up the East Coast affecting 17 states and territories from the Virgin Islands to Maine.

The deep river valleys of New York and Vermont were among the most severely impacted. And just as those communities were beginning to dig out, Hurricane Lee caused another round of flooding in parts of Pennsylvania and New York.

Further, drought fueled wildfires had homeowners, businesses, and firefighters scrambling for control earlier this month in Texas. In Bastrop County, TX, alone 34,068 acres burned with 1,553 homes destroyed.

Needless to say, it’s been a busy time for those of us who work as emergency responders. While Montpelier, VT, where the CERF+ office is located, narrowly missed devastation, experiencing the disaster from the front lines has been a humbling and heartbreaking experience for our staff.

Recently, Laura Scanlan, director of state and regional partnerships at the National Endowment for the Arts organized a conference call for all of the states and territories affected by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene. The news coming out of the states and territories, with the exception of Vermont and Puerto Rico (and with a few states not on the phone) is that arts organizations fared relatively well.

On the other hand, Alex Aldrich, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council, reported heavy economic fallout for Vermont’s cultural organizations with an early estimate of $3 million in losses. While the information is largely in on the cultural organizations, news is still trickling in about individual artists as many of them are still dealing with first response issues such as housing, insurance, and transportation.

Because these disasters largely bypassed major metropolitan areas, individuals and small businesses took the largest hit. In our sector, that’s artists.

To date, CERF+ has heard from or about 55 artists in seven states who suffered significant losses. We are encouraging all of our colleagues in the storm and wildfire affected areas to reach out to their artist constituents and make sure that they are aware of the financial assistance and recovery resources available to them.

As the front page news turns away from these stories, it’s more important than ever to reach out to them now. As Sian Poeschl, cultural arts manager for the City of Laguna Beach, CA, said (as she offered to lend us a hand with outreach): “One of the things artists said here (after the devastating floods last December) in Laguna, was after a couple of weeks, no one really wanted to hear their story. People had moved on, and they felt left behind.”

The goods news (and there is good news!) is the arts sector is getting much better organized about how it responds in times of crises. Through the efforts of the National Coalition for Arts Preparedness and Emergency Response, there exists a proactive network of organizations ready to reach out to their colleagues in affected communities and offer advice and valuable recovery resources.

For example, within a few days of Tropical Storm Irene, Malcolm White, the executive director at the Mississippi Arts Commission was on the phone with Alex Aldrich advising him on navigating emergency response as a state arts council.The coalition is currently in the planning stages of formalizing that network of arts responders by creating a model arts responder network in southern California.

Further, if you were on the call last week with our colleagues from South Arts, you are aware that there is a fantastic new business continuity tool, ArtsReady, that’s just been launched, which will help all of us plan for “what if” instead of “why me?”

Regardless of whether you believe in climate change, our experiences with these recent disasters convince us about the importance of preparing ourselves as a sector.

As Dr. Marc Cohen, senior researcher with Oxfam America and co-author of the recent report, An Ounce of Prevention, said: “building resilience and reducing vulnerabilities are key and cost-effective ways to lower future resource demands.”

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