Lending support & critical information for hurricane recovery

Indigenous disaster resilience case management program 

Laura Olson, Jacksonville State University Department of Emergency Management


Innovation and Description: Indigenous Resilience Disaster Case Management Program

On August 29, 2021, Hurricane Ida made landfall over South Louisiana parishes as a Category 4 hurricane. Ida brought catastrophic damage to the Indigenous Nations of the First Peoples Conservation Council: • The Pointe-Au-Chien Indian Tribe, • Jean Charles Choctaw Nation, • Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe, • Bayou Lafourche Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe (Lafourche Parish), • The Atakapa-Ishak Chawasha of Grand Bayou Indian Village (Plaquemines Parish).

Twenty months later, the hard-hit, multi-racial and Indigenous working-class communities are still in a dire situation due to the extent of damage they had sustained, the sluggish governmental response and slow delivery of federal /state disaster assistance, and the high percentage of denials from FEMA’s Individual Assistance program.

Based on the level of need we saw, we decided to create an alternative disaster case management model (non-FEMA-funded), which features leaders of Indigenous groups caring for and case managing members of their own communities and working hand-in-hand with students and external experts from Jacksonville State University, the Disaster Justice Network, The Lowlander Center, other local nonprofits and VOAD groups. Our Disaster Case Management program was launched on September 6, 2022 with a one-week Disaster Case Management Training Workshop that was held in Houma, Louisiana.

Our program currently employs 11 Indigenous case managers from five tribes, a Disaster Case Management Supervisor, a Program Director, a Project Manager, and an expert consultant from Louisiana VOAD.

The disaster case management model we employ is different for two reasons:

1) A long history of broken promises and breached agreements characterizes the relationship between government institutions and Indigenous groups in Louisiana. Mistrust and a lack of equitable treatment permeate these relationships, making past injustices a considerable barrier to reaching some of these hardest-hit communities.

2) We are invested in building local capacity in underserved and under-resourced communities and leaving behind knowledge about how successful recovery outcomes can be negotiated, which traditional disaster case management models fail to do. If we are to make American communities resilient, we must give them the tools to access resources from disaster assistance systems that are hard for well-trained experts to understand.

The well-known FEMA-funded DCMP model allows an organization awarded such a contract to hire disaster case managers that are rarely members of affected communities, and oftentimes when the programs close, expertise on how to navigate bureaucratic systems is lost and does not remain available to local peoples. It is our intent to build and leave behind the capacity to understand government disaster assistance systems and the know-how to access nonprofit resources to support recovery trajectories for local Indigenous people now and in the future. A major foundation of our approach is trust-building, which can be nurtured when disaster recovery institutions (government and nonprofits) invest in building relationships with tribal communities and acknowledge the distinctiveness and unique needs of these collective cultures that do not see themselves as separate, individual households, but as a closely-knit, tightly-connected social units. Without trust from tribal communities that have long been marginalized or who have simply gone unseen by potential partners, recovery efforts have been shown to be ineffective, especially in communities that are difficult to reach, underserved, and often most at risk.

Our Indigenous disaster case managers are elders, chiefs, and respected members of their Tribes who already have trusting relationships with others in their communities. They work with and are supported by non-Indigenous case managers and each helps the other to navigate cultural divides, bringing external agencies into shared spaces where culturally-sensitive relationships can help build support for local recovery goals. For members of marginalized groups to place their trust in a recovery process, it often takes a representative of that group working together with external institutions to raise awareness about the needs in the community they are trying to serve.

Ongoing trust is reinforced when representatives of external institutions show awareness of the larger social predicaments facing these Tribes, which extends beyond the disaster into climate change adaptation, where traditional ecological knowledge is the basis for transformative solutions to common problems.

Other Participants:

This project features a consortium of partners: students and external experts from Jacksonville State University, the Disaster Justice Network, The Lowlander Center, other local nonprofits and VOAD groups (The Salvation Army, The United Way of SE & South Louisiana, HandsOn New Orleans, Rebuilding Together, YMCA New Orleans, Catholic Charities) are all partners that have supported this effort. We have another set of donors (nonprofits and philanthropy) that have helped us fund our work.

Primary Disaster Justice Benefits:

Our disaster recovery mission is to marshal the collective resources of disaster response and recovery agencies (nonprofit and government) to address the unmet needs of five tribes and specific marginalized communities across South Louisiana that were hard-hit by Hurricane Ida in Terrebonne, Lafourche, and Plaquemines parish. Our services are hyper local and geared towards economically and socially underserved populations, such as tribal nations that would be unable to recover from the effects of this significant hurricane disaster without strong collaborative partnerships that are intended to lift their voices in an arena where they might otherwise go unseen and unheard. Working in solidarity with these groups, we have a strong bottom-up philosophy and our organizational principles require us to privilege their viewpoints, ensure they are granted the agency to make decisions about their own recovery, and recognize they live as tribal and cultural collectives and not as individual households. Learning from the past, using rich traditional, ecological, and historied knowledge, and making technical support and resources available, our network explores new pathways that allow local Indigenous groups to solve their disaster recovery and climate adaptation problems. The goal of our joint efforts is to generate promising alternatives to status quo recovery and resilience options that have long been falling short of what is needed in underserved communities and to create new models that elevate the goals of equity and social justice as we confront the challenges of a changing coast and climate.

Secondary Disaster Justice Benefits:

Today, as climate change, community adaptation, and equity loom as the greatest problems facing human society, the notion of resilience suggests we must manage and reduce risk, and develop the ability to prepare, plan for, absorb, recover from, and adapt to actual and potential adverse events. In order to do this successfully, we must understand how the world around us is changing and how to generate innovative adaptation and resilience strategies that move local aspirations into concrete and actionable plans. We see our proposed disaster case management and self-help, community rebuilding model as one such strategy that is critical to building future resilience in coastal communities.

Would you recommend others (disaster survivors, disaster-impacted communities) learn more about the activity, project or program to consider adoption of a similar one?

We will be writing this up to share widely with other communities facing similar challenges. This is a challenging project, but highly replicable. We are learning lessons and have processes to optimize to help the approach be more successful if it is used elsewhere in the future.

What refinements additional to the ones you have implemented would you recommend others consider if they wish to adopt the activity, project or program?

The idea to have local case managers work only 20 hours a week diluted our efforts and needs to be abandoned. Case managers must be hired to work 40 hours a week or more and need to be solely focused on disaster recovery efforts. Having local people from hard-hit communities who are pulled in many different directions is not a successful model. In retrospect, I think we hired the wrong people as case managers as they were mostly in tribal leadership roles and had many other hats and roles pulling them in other directions. This greatly diminished our productivity. We are learning lessons as we develop this model. These people must be the champions of the project, but should not be the actual case managers. We now know what needs to be done next time and have begun hiring people that do not have so many leadership commitments that make it difficult, if not impossible, to focus on case management activities.