Alabama Tornadoes remind us of importance of volunteer assistance after a disaster

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Aerial shot of truck hauling away debris from tornado damaged homes.

Pleasant Grove, Alabama, USA – June 14, 2011: A truck hauls away debris left by the April 2011 tornado that struck Pleasant Grove, Alabama. As destroyed homes are cleared away, a swimming pool is all that remains to show where a home once stood.

Over the weekend, a deadly tornado swept through rural Alabama, resulting in multiple fatalities and injuries, and hundreds of destroyed homes. Volunteers from Arkansas to Minnesota are deploying to assist the impacted communities as they remove debris and provide assistance for displaced residents.

To recover from fast-moving events that come up with little notice like tornadoes, local volunteers and the faith-based community are essential and oftentimes the first recovery assistance available. Although volunteers can be a saving grace after a natural disaster, harnessing their efforts requires front-end planning to ensure good intentions don’t exacerbate the post-disaster chaos.

As part of disaster planning, local governments should develop a volunteer management plan that includes a designated volunteer coordinator and a volunteer database of pre-registered volunteers. The plan should also include a mechanism for tracking volunteer efforts and hours, which can be reimbursed by FEMA if properly documented. Get started with this template for tracking volunteer efforts, provided by the Glade Hill, VA, Volunteer Fire Department.

It’s also important to identify and engage faith-based organizations as part of the planning process. Not only are faith-based organizations already a trusted resource within the community, but often they can quickly reach citizens through their pre-established networks.

“Faith-based communities are incredible in their capacity to meet immediate post-disaster needs,” says IBTS Planning and Economic Development Program Director Ryan Griffith, who worked with residents in North Carolina after Hurricane Matthew.

“They can mobilize and get the message out quickly as to where residents can find food and shelter,” she adds. “The trust is already in place, and they can work with the local government to send important messages.”

Tornadoes can level an entire community in just a few minutes, while leaving the neighboring town untouched. In this case, local resources can be unavailable or quickly become exhausted. As part of your disaster plan, you may want to consider implementing mutual or automatic aid agreements with surrounding communities and faith-based organizations to allow for an easy flow of resources and assistance. Learn more about how Joplin, MO, engaged volunteers from across the country and even the globe to recover from an EF-5 tornado that struck the City in 2011.

For larger, more widespread disasters, using a volunteer reception center (VRC) can also come in handy. These provide a centralized location where volunteers can gather to receive information and assignments. Having a few possible VRC locations picked out ahead of time, such as a church or school gymnasium, can streamline VRC setup after a disaster.

As part of our disaster planning services, IBTS offers assistance with developing volunteer management plans. Drawing on our years of disaster management expertise, we help communities develop plans account for the unexpected. Visit www.IBTS.org for more information, or leave us a message to request services.

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