Preparing for disaster: Community Foundation of St. Clair County creates fund for catastrophes

While Michigan may be considered a “climate haven,” largely devoid of natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes and wildfires, at least one Michigan county is not taking any chances.

In the wake of a devastating tornado in Otsego County and mass flooding in Midland County, the Community Foundation of St. Clair County has established a proactive Disaster Response Fund to support its communities in the event of catastrophe. 

The fund opened with a $50,000 donation from the James C. Acheson Charitable Foundation, with a goal of adding an additional $50,000 to the fund from private donors by year’s end. 

Community Foundation of St. Clair County“These days wherever you look all over the country, there are disasters on a regular occurrence, either natural or man-made, you just really can’t escape them,” said Randy Maiers, the Community Foundation of St. Clair County’s president and CEO. “We just came to the realization that … you just can’t sit back and wait and hope it never happens and pretend it never will happen.”

The fund is applicable to natural, man-made or economic disasters which cause death or destruction “on a scale that overwhelms the ability of the community’s resources to maintain stability, save lives and preserve property.” Disasters could include floods, tornadoes, fires and mass shootings, with eligibility determined by the St. Clair community foundation, regardless of a county, state or federal declaration. 

Justin Westmiller, who is the director of the St. Clair County Homeland Security and Emergency Management, is responsible for working with local municipal leaders and being a point of contact for state and federal partners in the event of an emergency. He said the community foundation’s Disaster Response Fund is meant to meet the county’s immediate needs following a disaster and fill in gaps in state or federal funding -- assuming they are given at all. 

“That individual assistance [from state and federal agencies] is more for, ‘How do we get back to where we were before?’ Where this fund that we’re working on is, ‘How do we provide a safe place to stay for the next few days until we can figure out what else we need or what else is going on?’” he said.

In setting up the fund, the Community Foundation spoke with their counterparts in Otsego and Midland counties for guidance based on the experience of their own crises. They also looked at programs throughout the country, modeling theirs largely on the four-phase approach from a community foundation in Hawaii. 

Phase One focuses on readiness, securing funding and putting systems in place to prepare for disaster. Phase Two releases funds within the first days and weeks after a disaster, sending direct, unrestricted dollars to first responders to meet immediate needs like housing, food and medical care.

Phase Three allocates grants to partners working with individual families and communities for longer-range recovery and stabilization and happens after the first few months and years following the disaster. Phase Four is an ongoing aspect of the fund that supports preventative disaster measures, focusing on increasing social equity among impacted people in areas that include housing security, health and economic progress.

A principal component of the program is serving as a trusted central fund to receive and distribute outside donations in the wake of disaster, especially with a risk of fraudulent “fundraisers” and donors wanting transparency.

“[Our donors] don’t want to answer to a national charity about ‘Where’s the gift we made, where did our gifts go?’” Maiers said. “They want to know that locally their gifts are controlled.”

Midland is an example of the benefits of having a system in place before a disaster helps to mitigate the consequences. In 2017, the city suffered major flooding that washed out roads and bridges and affected hundreds of homes, businesses and other structures. The community had to work quickly to deal with a largely unprecedented emergency, supporting immediate needs like food, shelter and safety, plus establishing a long-term disaster recovery group and hiring case managers to help individual families in the aftermath.

When a second and more devastating flood hit in 2020 -- just months after the onset of the Pandemic – they were more prepared and able to act more quickly. 

“We had been through this before, and people knew, ‘Ok, here’s what I need to get busy doing,’” said Sharon Mortensen, president and CEO of the Midland Area Community Foundation.

Otsego Community FoundationOtsego County is also sharing lessons learned from Gaylord’s 2022 tornado that killed two people, injured 40 and damaged or destroyed more than 200 homes and businesses. When that disaster hit, the Otsego Community Foundation had limited funds to deal with the crisis and had to scramble to address immediate needs -- like housing for the displaced -- as well as establishing a fund and physical location to collect outside donations of both money and in-kind items. 

The generosity from private donors then allowed them to address longer-term needs like home repair and re-building. As the tornado approaches its second anniversary in May, the fund is winding down and the Otsego Community Foundation is now looking to transition it from response to preparedness. 

Dana Bensinger, the organization’s president and CEO, said that readiness was key to how she advised Maiers with St. Clair County’s Disaster Response Fund.

“We’re really emphasizing on making the most of blue skies,” she said. “When times are good, make the most of developing those strong relationships in your community, so when disaster strikes, you know who your partners are, who’s doing what, what your roles are, things like that.”

On a broader level, the Michigan Council of Community Foundations is researching Michigan disasters and recovery, and the role statewide community foundations play in them. The council partnered with Mandy Sharp Eizenger, program manager for the Johnson Center for Philanthropy, and Dr. Michael Layton, the W.K Kellogg Community Philanthropy Chair, to conduct a study, interviewing survivors, responders and others involved about their experiences, especially those in Otsego and Midland counties, as well as those impacted by the Flint and Benton Harbor water crises.

The study started in the fall and will conclude in June. One of the biggest findings so far is the impact inequity plays in both the severity of the disaster and the efficiency of the recovery, especially places that have been systematically disinvested in, like minority or isolated rural communities. 

“Even within the same community, it’s the areas that are wealthier and can rely on insurance claims and their own ability to pay for repairs versus those that have more crowded housing conditions,” Layton said. “That inequality of resources is just magnified in a time of disaster.”

Poor relationships and mistrust among recovery organizations and outside supporters was also a problem in some communities. Layton said the role of community foundations in supporting long-term recovery is not always understood or appreciated by first responders. In some cases - like in minority-majority cities like Flint - there is a mistrust of outside help, and Eizenger said it was important for the disaster response to be community-led. 

Layton said a strong connection among recovery organizations and continuity is crucial.  

“That’s what distinguishes a successful recovery, with the least harm, in terms of responding to disaster,” he said. 

Another observation from the study is the importance of approaching disaster response from a place of trauma-informed philanthropy. Eizenger said it was important to provide safe spaces for children in the aftermath and address mental health needs for individuals.

Looking ahead, Eizenger said preparing for disaster will be even more important if predictions are correct that Michigan’s population will increase as people seek refuge from natural disaster-prone areas due to climate change. In this case, the disaster risk is on the consequences of strained infrastructure, like the state’s water systems, roads and bridges.

In all cases, Eizenger said philanthropy is an important tool in preparedness and response.

“Philanthropy is really filling in the gap,” she said, “and that has to be done quickly and intentionally and with as few barriers as possible.”

Erica Hobbs is a writer based in Detroit with a passion for arts and culture and travel. She has reported for numerous news outlets including the Detroit News, Fodors, Business Insider, Reuters, WDET and (now the Ann Arbor News), among others.
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