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How the Red Cross is Expanding Disaster Recovery Assistance in a Changing Climate: A Chat with Jennifer Pipa, VP of Disaster Programs
2023 was a record-breaking year for billion-dollar disasters in the U.S. These extreme weather events ravaged communities and forced thousands of people from their homes, resulting in a significant need for emergency sheltering and recovery resources.
This is why at the American Red Cross, we’re adapting our disaster services and growing our capacity to help families and communities recover from increasing and more frequent disasters. In a recent live chat, Jennifer Pipa, Red Cross vice president of Disaster Programs, explained more about this vital work and how we’ve transformed our disaster recovery programs to address people’s most urgent needs in a changing climate.What are the basic things people need within the first few days after a disaster? How does the Red Cross help people start to recover? “Every disaster starts locally. We rely on those local volunteers to support the community after a disaster strikes.
The first thing we want to be able to do is give people a safe place to stay and some food because people get comfort from that. I think a lot of times when people think about the Red Cross, they do think about shelters. They think about gymnasiums or community centers and the cots and Red Cross blankets, and that’s where their image of what the Red Cross does stops. However, we do so much more inside of those four walls than just a safe place to stay and a warm meal.
Sometimes it’s just talking to somebody. It’s a compassionate ear to listen to your experience because if you and your whole family have gone through it together, your family probably isn’t able to process and listen to your story, but we can. We’re a compassionate listener. We’re a shoulder to cry on. We’re a warm hug if that’s what a family needs.
Beyond that, it’s making sure that the family is okay and understanding that families need more than just a safe place to stay and a warm meal, especially in instances when they don’t know when they’ll return home.
People rely on life-sustaining medications, and they may leave without those. People may have medical assistive devices, things like a cane, wheelchair or walker, and they may not have access to those. We have professionals who volunteer their time and sit inside those shelters to connect with people and help replace the medical items they lost.”How has Red Cross recovery support evolved as the climate crisis has worsened?
“There are a couple of new tools that we’ve introduced when we have these large-scale disaster relief operations. One of them is our shelters; Four or five years ago, our shelters may have opened for three, maybe four weeks. Now, what we’re seeing is sheltering operations that run months and months at a time. What we needed to do was understand what was preventing people from transitioning from a shelter to something more sustainable. How do we help you make that first step in your recovery? For a lot of people when we talked to them, it was simple things like, “I can find an apartment to rent, but I can’t afford the first month’s rent and a security deposit,” or “My car was damaged, and I can’t afford the deductible on my car insurance so that I can return to work.”
We saw this universe of need that was keeping people from being able to make that first major step in recovery, which is moving from a shelter to something more sustainable and stable for their family. We acknowledged that, and said that while we want to open our Red Cross shelters and be welcoming to everybody, we also know that those are not ideal places for you to recover. The sooner we can get you into more stable housing, the better off your recovery is going to be. Hence, why we started a program called ‘shelter resident transition.’ This gives us the ability to provide financial resources to families to help defray those costs and help them be able to make that next step in their recovery journey.
The other thing that we introduced just in the last year, which we had done for a long time in some of our long-term recovery programs, is our bridge assistance program.
I was a regional executive in Georgia, and we had this tornado that came through the south of Atlanta. It was a small town and community, not a large tornado, but it devastated that town. We were helping them move on to their next step, but it was one of these, what we call ‘in-between disasters.’ It was so large that the community was devastated and couldn’t help itself recover, but it wasn’t quite large enough to bring in some of the large partners that could help compensate for the community’s inability.
As we transitioned people, I realized as a humanitarian and representative of our organization, there was a gap, and these families were going to struggle because what they needed for their recovery wasn’t a program we offered at the time. That’s when we came up with our bridge assistance program. We provide this support about three to six months after those ‘in-between’ disasters.When we call these families back three or four months after a disaster, the first thing we hear is not, “Thank you for some additional financial assistance that will help.” But it’s, “Thank you for remembering that we’re still here and that this is a long, long complicated road to recovery.”
What are some of the first types of assistance we may provide to people after a devastating disaster?
“Our recovery starts the moment a disaster happens because we want to make sure people have access to critical medication or medical devices. We want to make sure that they have access to mental health care because we know that those are immediate problems that need to be addressed on day one of a disaster. We tailor how we offer that help based on what a family and community need and how they would most feel respected in receiving that kind of assistance.
We have people who stay in our shelters, and we know that it’s not their first choice. It’s usually because they’re out of any other option. So, we make sure that those families have access to financial resources to help them begin their recovery. Sometimes it’s a security deposit or a first month’s rent, and sometimes people aren’t ready to make those decisions. We talk to families and ask them, “What does help look like to you?”
We then tailor our program so that we can do that in a respectful and transparent way. After about 14 to 21 days, depending on the scale of the disaster, we make what we call immediate financial assistance available. This helps people overcome that first hurdle. Nowadays, we hear that a lot of families have less than $400 in savings, which means that they don’t have access to financial resources to help them navigate through those first recovery barriers. We play a critical role in getting cash into the hands of families right away after that first week or two, to make sure that they can make good choices for their families and start their recovery journey with us. Then, we follow up with bridge financial assistance, which is about three to six months afterward.
That’s where we go back to families that we’ve helped before, we check in on them, we see how they’re doing and how their recovery is going. We connect them with other resources. A lot of times there’s a wealth of nonprofits that are out there that families just may not even understand or have access to. We can share that information and we can also provide additional financial resources.
We also have a new program that we’ve just started in the last couple of years called expanded recovery assistance and that happens at about a year after a disaster. In some communities, we see people who are stalled in their recovery journey, and they need another influx of investment to help them continue to move forward.
Now, we have a robust way to help families and understand what their needs are at that moment in time and have a tool that’s there to help them recover to their next step in the journey.”What types of financial assistance are we providing families and how are they helping them recover?
“There was a family in Kentucky that had lost their vehicle. They had a new place to stay, but it was going to be further away from the kid’s school and from the parent’s employment. But their car had been absolutely devastated in the tornadoes and they had almost enough money saved up to buy a used vehicle so that they could get back. They already knew where they were going to live. There was just this small gap in financial resources to get them just that little bit over that barrier and buy a used vehicle to help them get back to their normal day-to-day life.
Coincidently, this happened exactly when we were offering bridge assistance — right at the four-month mark. When we called them, we asked them what kind of barriers they were still having, and they articulated this. We knew that bridge was the right answer for this family at this moment in time. So, we explained to them the bridge program and that this was a gift on behalf of the generosity of the American public, who was generous enough to us and trusted us as an organization to invest in us so that we could invest in families to help themselves recover. We said, “We’re able to provide this money to you, will that make a difference?” And the dad who was on the phone broke into tears, and he was so thankful.
He said, “Before this disaster, I just thought you guys collected blood. I had no idea you did anything else.” And he said, “And now here I am and you’re helping me help my family so that we can get back to whatever this new normal is.” Those are the kinds of stories that we hear, that’s that moment in time when we know we have honored our promise to that community to take care of them after a disaster.
We’re also able to say to the American public, “We’re being responsible with the money that you’ve entrusted us with.
It’s an amazing thing to be able to see that not only did you take care of a family in the first couple of days after a disaster, but even four or five, six months after a disaster, we’re still walking alongside that family and we’re still taking good care of them. There is nothing better than being able to call a family a couple of months after a disaster and help them navigate what is a very complicated journey and be there for them as you continue to help them move forward.”Learn more
Did you know Pipa started her Red Cross journey as a disaster volunteer? Learn all about it and more on our disaster recovery programs in this LinkedIn live conversation.
You can also read more about it in this LinkedIn article penned by Pipa herself.Error happened.
How the Red Cross is Reducing Its Environmental Footprint as Disasters Increase: A Chat with Chief Sustainability Officer Noel Anderson
Every day, American Red Cross volunteers work tirelessly to help families and communities recover as they struggle with the growing frequency and intensity of disasters. Now more than ever, the way we deliver our mission matters not only for those we serve and our workforce — but also for the planet.
Since launching our ambitious climate crisis plan, we’ve been on a mission to shed light on the devastating impacts of increasing disasters and how we’re taking steps to reduce our environmental impact on the planet and build a more sustainable future for generations to follow.
In a recent live chat with Red Cross Chief Sustainability Officer Noel Anderson, he shared why sustainability is important to the Red Cross and revealed the various ways we’re currently reducing our waste, water usage and emissions across the country.How is the Red Cross reducing its impact on the planet?
“Five billion people, around two-thirds of the world’s population, will face at least one month of water shortage by 2050. The bottom line is that we want to do our part here at the Red Cross to address this crisis to prevent the suffering that we know will result if we don’t all take action. It’s not just about delivering our mission. It’s about delivering our mission in a way that doesn’t contribute to environmental harm. So, what are we doing about it?
“We’re focused on three things: reducing our carbon emissions, reducing our water, and reducing our waste. When we reduce our carbon emissions, right now, we’re increasing our energy efficiencies. And over the next several years, we’re transitioning more than 80% of our facilities across the country to use renewable energy sources. We’re going to reduce our waste by 30% and we’re going to increase our rate of recycling by 50%, and we’re going to lower our water consumption by at least 20%.”In what ways is the Red Cross looking at reducing its carbon footprint?
“We’re focused in really three major areas for reducing our carbon footprint: our facilities, fleet and supplies.
“When you think about our facilities’ emissions, our focus there is investing in energy efficiency improvements, such as efficient HVAC systems, smart thermostats or other equipment that helps us minimize our energy usage. We conducted sustainability assessments at 28 of our largest facilities and it helped us identify hundreds of efficiency improvements that we can make. One great example is a Biomedical facility in North Carolina, where we installed building automation systems that will help reduce our energy consumption and our carbon emissions by at least 15%.
“Another area is renewable energy. We’ve been able to purchase renewable energy in 169 of our facilities across 16 states already. And in the upcoming fiscal years, our goal is to have over 80% of our facilities using renewable energy.
“To reduce our fleet emissions, we’re focused on replacing gas-powered vehicles with hybrids and embracing electric vehicles (EV). Right now, we’re piloting electric vehicles to identify the opportunities where EVs will work for us in our operations without compromising our ability to deliver our services. We’re also making significant investments to expand our use of hybrid vehicles. Last year, we had 16 hybrid vehicles across our entire fleet, and now, we’re up to 135 hybrid vehicles. Our goal is to add more than that next year.
“The third part of our carbon reduction involves estimating the scale of carbon emissions associated with our supply chain and addressing our waste by doing things like reducing our use of plastic water bottles and replacing Styrofoam feeding supplies with compostable items. Because of those efforts, we’ve already reduced our emissions by 24% since 2019. And that was the baseline year that we started tracking our carbon footprint.”What are some ways you’re reducing waste as an organization and how have these reduction efforts affected operations and the environment?
“We’re trying to address these efforts in two different directions — one is by focusing on reducing the waste we’re contributing to our planet and the second is by focusing on how we’re managing that waste by responsibly recycling what we can.
“On the supply side of things, we’ve worked with team members in supply management to make our supply chain more sustainable. For example, we tested new packaging for wipes we use in blood collections that could reduce our plastic consumption in that product line by 80%. We’ve also invested in sustainable and compostable feeding supplies for disaster relief operations, so our teams could eliminate Styrofoam and plastic from our feeding distribution efforts.
“We’ve installed water refill stations in our facilities to cut down on single-use plastic water bottles and plastic waste. In addition, we’ve identified sustainable alternatives for some of the most popular products in our Red Cross store that our employees and volunteers use to buy supplies. There are now T-shirts in our Red Cross store made from recycled plastic water bottles!
“On the waste management side, we’ve completed waste audits at several of our facilities and are working on developing a consistent recycling infrastructure that will help us implement proper waste disposal and recycling procedures at Red Cross facilities across the country.”Water conservation is critical, especially in areas at high risk for water shortages and droughts. What actions is the Red Cross taking to reduce its water usage?
“We knew the absolute least about water when we first began. So, we started by focusing on the top sites that used the most water at the Red Cross based on gallons per square foot. After providing usage data to the teams managing those facilities and calling their attention to the usage and asking for voluntary reductions, we saw a reduction in the past six months of over a million gallons of water compared to the same period the previous year.
“There was a 42% reduction across those eight sites. And in most cases, it was just a matter of checking for leaks or reducing irrigation plants that they had.
“Going forward, we’re focused on implementing xeriscaping solutions in water-stressed areas. Xeriscaping is going to replace landscaping plants with more drought-tolerant species so that we can reduce or eliminate irrigation. We’re also upgrading older fixtures and restrooms and kitchens in favor of low-flow fixtures or aerators that are going to identify the facilities that use the most water to identify and implement interventions such as installing leak detectors or rain sensors. And all those efforts are going to get us to that overall goal of reducing our water consumption by 20% by 2027.”Learn more
We also recently released our 2023 Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) report that outlines our progress and highlights areas where we aim to make a positive impact on our planet.
November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to recognize and celebrate the work and compassion of our Red Cross community. We could not make a lifesaving difference in the communities we serve without dedicated volunteers like John Navarro of the American Red Cross Central California Region.
As an Army veteran who faced combat during the Vietnam War, John Navarro from the Yakama Nation of Washington knows the meaning of service and sacrifice. After returning home from the battlefield, John committed the rest of his life to giving back and supporting fellow veterans in impactful ways.
John’s journey of service began in his early twenties when he took on the role of a coach for various sports, including soccer, football, baseball, softball and basketball. For over 50 years, he passionately coached both adults and children, emphasizing the values of fair play, honesty and camaraderie. John’s commitment to instilling these principles through sports has left a lasting impact on countless individuals across Central California.
Leading the American Indian Veterans Association
For over 15 admirable years, John has been an instrumental leader driving the mission of the American Indian Veterans Association (AIVA) forward.
Throughout his tenure, John served as AIVA President, setting a vision and strategy to better support Native veterans across the region. Currently as vice president, John continues to support the veteran community. Under John’s passionate leadership, the AIVA has grown into a major force for good. He helped evolve the organization into one that uplifts Native veterans through community, camaraderie and healing support.
“I have a goal to improve with where we’re at the moment,” John said. “I want to do a lot more for our veterans, for the Association. To go out and do more community service and be more involved.”?
Helping Neighbors Impacted by Disasters Big and Small
John also dedicates his time to disaster relief, helping community members recover from catastrophic events beyond their control. As a member of the Red Cross Disaster Action Team, he actively participates in disaster response efforts, offering crucial assistance to families affected by unforeseen events. John’s involvement ensures that families receive the support they need in times of crisis, from shelter and clothing to emotional and spiritual guidance.
“That is the beat of the Red Cross – being able to help others in time of need and I love that. I love that about the Red Cross and that I can do that,” said John. “I can help a family of six kids and mom and dad, and that’s good. It’s a good feeling.”
When wildfires ravaged California communities, John was there on the frontlines to offer shelter, food, clothing and comfort to devastated victims who lost everything. After flash floods destroyed homes, John rushed to the scene to provide emotional support and critical supplies so families could begin their recovery. During home fires, John helps coordinate emergency assistance for those who need it most. On top of that, he even installs smoke alarms across the community to prevent those tragic home fires from happening.
A Lifelong Volunteer
John’s compassion and eagerness to help those facing challenges are limitless. He has volunteered on funeral honor guards across the Valley to ensure fallen veterans receive proper memorial services. When the pandemic struck, John made wellness check-in calls to isolated senior veterans.
For over a decade, John has coordinated the Fresno Veterans Treatment Court mentorship program with passion and purpose. He works diligently to match mentors with veteran participants to provide guidance critical for getting their lives back on track. John draws on his personal experience to offer counsel and encouragement during this sensitive time.
Today at 75 years old, John continues spearheading local food drives to ensure families do not go hungry. He spends his weekends building wheelchair ramps for community members lacking mobility access. There is seemingly no limit to John’s will to give back at every moment possible.
John’s 50 tireless years of volunteer service demonstrate the monumental impact one deeply committed person can have to catalyze positive change. His unrelenting dedication has uplifted veterans, disaster victims and his broader community for decades. John exemplifies how consistent volunteering of one’s time and skills can transform lives for the better. His profound commitment to serving others before himself represents the pinnacle of human compassion.
“That’s just it, I can’t wait for the next for the next day to see what else I can do.”
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