Hurricane Harvey Disaster Survivor’s Experiences with Disaster Volunteers

Date: 11/8/2019

Author: Ashley Sanders

On Tuesday, November 5, Christa López, Deputy Director and Chief of Staff for Community Development and Revitalization for the Texas General Land Office, gave a talk at our bi-weekly IfSC Distinguished Speakers Series. Mrs. López oversees FEMA Disaster Housing and HUD-funded CDBG-DR and her research focuses on disaster survivors and their experiences with disaster volunteers. Volunteers are essential in disaster recovery and responses. Not only are volunteers essential, but the significant role that they play as it pertains to the aid in individual households is immeasurable. López makes this known in her research and emphasizes their important function throughout history.

          Lopez’s research was to inquire whether the survivors of these monumental disasters are the main focus for all communities and jurisdictions following these unfortunate events. She also explores whether volunteers actually aided following a disaster. Lastly, López wanted to explore the emotional impact survivors experienced working with volunteers and the disasters effect on their lives and the community.

          López asserts that most of the questions she was asking hadn’t been researched, thus providing a sizable gap in the literature. Due to this gap, López decided to start from the “why” from the volunteers prospective. When she did this, she was able to come up with some substantial reasons regarding as to what motivates volunteers to do what they do. These motivations include receiving personal benefits, a sincere wish to help, a religious/faith-based motivation, having experienced disasters, personal benefits, they are being asked to participate, and they are rendered a court-ordered community service. López analyzed what the literature made of these rationalities and was able to establish how imperative emergency management was to history and ensuring that communities are aided in stabilization after tremendous disasters.

          López also exhibits the many financial ways in which volunteers play in rejuvenating communities they are aiding. These financial benefits include the cost match, communities may be left without the infrastructure to support employment which creates a significant need for volunteer efforts, and the overall of volunteer efforts make a huge difference in the livelihood of the entire community. Not only are the communities benefiting from the efforts of volunteers, but people who volunteer also gain rewards too. Volunteers gain self-awareness, enriched life’s purpose, new friendships, and an expanded world view. Although volunteering produces benefits for both the survivors and volunteers, there are challenges that come into play quite often. These challenges for volunteers involve time away from family, friends and work, out of pocket costs, austere work environments, the need for mental health support due to the work they are conducting, and workplace safety.

          According to López, there are ways in which organizations can confront these challenges, therefore enriching the volunteer environment and ensuring the satisfaction of the survivors. These suggestions include communication, listening, safety education, preparedness for the climate, training for skills based, training for cultural awareness, and having experienced volunteers training emergent volunteers. Regarding the impact disasters have on the people who’ve had to endure them López makes it clear that disasters cause a disruption in emotional and physical needs, the social dynamics in communities, and the economic health of communities. With all of this in mind, she emphasizes the immediate needs of the survivor are the reconnecting with loved ones, taking backing back their own control, finding time to rest as well as regaining their hope and confidence.  

          López closed with future recommendations for further exploration of widows, the “haves and have-nots”, urban areas, rural areas, and replication of the study in different geographical areas. The institute will continue to follow this important work and hopes to work more with Christa in the future.