Debris piles line both sides of the road, waiting for removal from an excavator that's in the far background.

As a kid, I had a jigsaw puzzle based on one of my favorite books. It wasn’t a standard puzzle at all. It was unique, my favorite, and thinking about it now, it most closely relates to my day-to-day job.

Billed as a “family puzzle,” it was designed with larger pieces for kids and smaller pieces for adults—to keep it easy for younger kids and provide somewhat of a challenge for the adults. All of the pieces, a community of them, fit together and connect in the middle to make this big picture.  

I’ve been thinking about this puzzle a lot as of late. Not solely because jigsaw puzzles are fantastic. But rather, as it and other jigsaw puzzles might relate to disaster recovery.

Now that I’m an adult with more puzzle-building experience under my belt, I imagine that some pieces would be easier to put together than others if I were to try and construct it now. There would be some that were more difficult—like the smaller ones that look nearly identical and could potentially fit in a multitude of places.

Disaster recovery could be considered similar to that puzzle—with some things that are easier to piece back together than others. Some things that might be partially askew, like those puzzle pieces that are partially connected because they didn’t quite come apart when poured into the box during manufacturing or after the last time it was constructed, might be easier to deal with than the things that were severely damaged.

And that particular puzzle? It requires teamwork and collaboration—things that are critical to disaster recovery.

After a disaster, with its array of mismatched items and debris, it might feel like you’re trying to put a million-piece jigsaw puzzle together. It can be overwhelming and distressing. There may seem to be no definitive place to start.

With puzzles, as adults know, the general consensus is that you start with edge pieces and work your way inward. Get the basic framework set up and then focus on the smaller, more nuanced things. To me, this works for recovery as well, where you get the simple things, the framework together and then work from there to put everything else back together.

Recovery is full of a lot of different moving pieces and many different challenges. Of course, there’s short-term recovery and long-term recovery. Short-term recovery includes things like temporary housing and debris removal, getting back to the basics, trying to find some semblance of “normal” or a new version of it. Long-term recovery includes more permanent housing solutions, whether rebuilding homes or relocating families, and rebuilding infrastructure.

Recovery is many things, piecing things back together: putting together the right teams, rebuilding impacted communities, and fixing damaged infrastructure.

Our role in recovery starts when a disaster gets declared. Declarations are requested by impacted states and tribes and submitted to the president, through FEMA, for consideration. The Stafford Act funds various disaster-related programs—including much of what we do. Prior to submitting the request, damage assessments are made to determine if impacts meet certain criteria and if the disaster has exceeded the state, tribal, and local capacity to respond, along with a few other criteria.

Disaster declarations open the door to federal funding for both individuals and households and the communities they live in through programs known as individual assistance and public assistance. Some disasters get both and some get only one, depending on the scope and severity of damage.

Public assistance can cover an array of things, like fixing damaged roads and bridges or removing debris in affected communities. The way to remember the difference between these programs is that public assistance is for things like public works projects or community buildings like schools and libraries, rather than for individuals and their homes.

Individuals and households apply for assistance by documenting the damage they received. There are several different ways to apply: online, over the phone, or in person, either via a disaster survivor assistance team member or at a disaster recovery center. The staff on these teams and behind the tables at disaster recovery centers have specific training to answer questions and help survivors through their application process.

Individual assistance can cover a multitude of different needs—from transitional housing to debris clean-up to medical expenses—depending on what is needed.

In recovery, it’s not just about what happens here at FEMA, it’s also about the other federal agencies and voluntary and community organizations that work together to make it happen. These groups are often the first ones to reach out and provide their assistance and they’re often some of the last to leave. Their hard work and selflessness are to be admired and appreciated.

There’s an entire network of voluntary agencies that are active in disasters—providing different skills and expertise in different topics. They are comprised of a variety of different groups, from faith-based to veterans to young people, encompassing a wide variety of people looking to donate their time to neighbors and communities in need.

These groups of skilled volunteers provide an array of services—from mucking and gutting houses like I did when I was in AmeriCorps, to providing mental health care and counseling. All of these things piece together and make recovery just a little bit easier—like having an extra set of hands helping to complete a puzzle.

Disaster recovery is more than just picking up and rebuilding homes. It takes more than one day or one week. It takes a great deal of teamwork. It takes a community. And as part of that community, we work to help affected areas build back better and stronger… 


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