"Sometimes we think physically doing something for someone is what's best for them. But sometimes they just want someone to hear their story… Sit back and listen. People want to be heard." -Christa López
SERIES: Role of the Public Sector Leader
There are so many layers to unpack in a disaster. Everything happens so quickly, people are anxious, supplies are running low, and people's lives and livelihoods are at risk. If you are a leader, you may be challenged with making sure you address the needs of each community in your jurisdiction and help them develop resiliency at the same time. This can be a demanding yet exciting task. In this episode, Jennifer interviews one of the strong leaders of today, Dr. Christa López. Dr. López is the Chief of Staff for Community Development and Revitalization for the Texas General Land Office. Listen in as they teach how you can obtain the best knowledge possible during a crisis, find trustworthy investments, get the most of your insurance, and prepare for necessities during the YOYO (You're On Your Own) period in a disaster. Dr. López also shares valuable insights for long-term recovery in terms of disaster housing, managing donations, and considering the culture of a community. Whether you are a leader or a community member, you can find ways to help- the right way. And sometimes, that help is simply becoming a friend who is ready to sit and listen to the victims.
- 02:52: Life Lessons About Real Life Disasters
- 09:10: The First Step- Investments
- 15:12: Taking Care of the Needs of Those in Your Jurisdiction
- 18:26: Considerations Before Making Donations
- 21:44: Respect for Community Culture
- 24:21: Sit and Listen
- 31:05: Where Can You Help
- 36:18: How to be Resilient
- 42:00: Always Document
- 46:15: Disaster Housing and Innovations
- 52:20: No One Should be Re-traumatized
08:56: "The number one rule is to always meet people where they're at. Use the tools that you have to adapt into that space." -Jennifer Thompson
13:49: "Everyone's a novice in disaster until you're not. And so it's just as important to know that the money is slow, the recovery is long, but it is possible." -Jennifer Thompson
27:21: "Sometimes we think physically doing something for someone is what's best for them. But sometimes they just want someone to hear their story… Sit back and listen. People want to be heard." -Christa López Ph.D.
30:30: "Don't be a hero, be a helper." -Jennifer Thompson
34:13: "When you pay individuals a fair salary, they will feel appreciated and they will give you valuable work in response. You have to pay for good services." -Christa López Ph.D.
37:05: "Resilience is about being able to have the tools to not have the impact be so devastating that you cannot rebound quickly." -Christa López Ph.D.
52:54: "No one should be re-traumatized." -Christa López Ph.D.
54:33: "If humanity sits at the core of what you do, it is rewarding." Jennifer Thompson
Christa López Ph.D., CEM is the Chief of Staff for Community Development and Revitalization for the Texas General Land Office, and she supervises Grant Operations. Dr. López is also overseeing FEMA Disaster Housing and HUD-funded CDBG-DR programs. Previously, she worked for the Texas Division of Emergency Management as the Section Administrator for Human Services and as the state Individual Assistance and Human Services Branch Director, and early on as a State and Federal Planner. Dr. López gained a unique set of skills from assisting her husband, Eduardo López in the operations of their crime, trauma, death, and gross filth cleaning business. She is a firm believer in being of service to others which is exhibited through her volunteer works. Dr. López earned her EMT license and two Master's degrees - one in Counseling and one in Emergency and Disaster Management. She also has earned a Ph.D. in Public Policy Administration - Emergency Management. Her past experience involves working in Higher Education for 18 years.
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Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to the podcast, How To Disaster. In this podcast, we try to help communities learn how to recover, rebuild and reimagine. My favorite part of this podcast is amplifying the really cool, smart, talented, innovative people that I have met in this space. Sometimes, they're local. Sometimes, they're public officials. Sometimes, they're in the private sector. Sometimes, they're emergent leaders.
Today, I'm really happy to have with us Dr. Christa Lopez. I met her about two and a half years ago at a conference in Washington DC hosted by Fannie Mae and the Institute for Sustainable Development. We got along right away, and she is one of the truly impressive just as bonus female leaders in this space. We have stayed connected and visited a few conferences now together, including one in her own home state of Texas. Currently, Dr. Lopez works for Texas General Land--
Christa Lopez: Office.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Office, just so obvious, the Texas General Land Office. Which for some reason has a plethora of really cool, powerful, smart women in this area, and they field on disaster. I asked Christa to come today to talk about her own background, because I'm really fascinated by the fact that she really started in this work by assisting her husband in their crime scene cleanup business. So that's very interesting. But I also wanted her to talk about her PhD, her thesis in how to be culturally competent and effective in a disaster. Her research in that area is of great interest to me, and I think it will be to you as well. I just wanted to get to know Dr. Lopez on a wider level and hear about all of her experience, her take on disaster, and what's needed, and where we're headed, especially in this age of really, people who are friendly accepting climate change in the face of huge climate disasters. So welcome to the podcast, Dr. Lopez.
Christa Lopez: Thank you, Jennifer. I am so glad to be here and to join you all. I did have a very different path to all of this, but I think everyone who works in disasters, in emergency management doesn't usually come into it off the ground or out of a college degree like, this is what I want to do. So I'll back up. I started my life career in horticulture. I was a plant science major in college. I studied biotechnology and really was involved in campus life and realized, wow, I could work on a college campus. And that really fascinated me so I shifted careers and went straight from undergrad to graduate school, and I ended up getting a master's degree in counseling. And I spent close to, I would say at least 19 years in higher education, each year in higher education. I kept getting assigned to these crisis roles. I kept getting drawn into the campus emergencies. I helped to develop policies around emergency management actually and evacuation policies for the residence halls on campus in the university I worked at. And in the background, I was volunteering as a firefighter, as an EMT, and then search and rescue for 15 years. I had a human remains detection dog. My very first search that I ever went on was the Space Shuttle Columbia crash in East Texas.
My first volunteer/assignment after I got my EMT license with the fire department was to go to New Orleans the day after [inaudible] during Katrina. So I've had some unique opportunities and really great lessons, a little bit drinking by the fire hose as we call it, because they were on the ground in real time, life lessons about real time disasters. I kept touching those things in my volunteer world, and really, really felt the calling to make a profession. So I saw a second master's degree in emergency management and a number of other trainings, and then moved in 2015 to Texas division of emergency management and was quickly promoted into a role overseeing the individual assistance program. That's the program. When folks think about FEMA funded programs, that's one that helps individual households. So that is perfect for my background counseling because I understood what the human need was, I understood the complexity and diversity of individuals and people, and also could apply that to the disaster world.
So from that experience, 2017 occurred here in Texas, and so did Hurricane Harvey. My knowledge in the individual assistance program, which includes housing, and then also having worked in higher ed housing for almost 13 years, it was a perfect pairing. FEMA approached the state of Texas, asking the state to run the first ever FEMA funded state led direct housing mission. You think of FEMA trailers, temporary housing and so forth. That's what we were asked to run. And so because the General Land Office is going to take on this mission, they were also informed they could borrow or take any staff from other state agencies to help implement this program. So I shifted from Texas Division of Emergency Management to the General Land Office, and here I am. So that program went on for three years. I now oversee all the great operation programs for the General Land Office, and also serve as the cheapest staff for our team. We have a staff of full time employees at about 200 plus, about another 300 vendors. So we have a large team. Our overall mission right now is implementing as well as administering all the community development block grant funds for disaster recovery, that's HUD-funds to the state of Texas. So we work a lot with individual households, as well as our individual communities.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Understand the complexities of individual assistance or block grants. Navigating each of those, navigating both together is monumental in the amount of attention to detail, understanding of the landscape, understanding of the field of disaster from, really, the people who are boots on the ground are most severely affected. The individual to the institution is no small feat.
Christa Lopez: Yeah, it is a lot. And as a disaster survivor as you mentioned, I completed my PhD work. I looked at disaster survivors' experiences with disaster volunteers from a lens of cultural competency. Because volunteers come into communities, there are different cultures than their own, they're different people, there's different ways that folks go about doing life. That being said, these are also folks who have experienced the complexities of disaster in itself. So there's so many layers to unpack when it comes to a disaster. There's that immediate experience identifying those quick basic needs of food, shelter, do I have connection to my family, those sort of things. And then it's okay, so where are we going to live? While we rebuild? Often, if the home was destroyed or majorly damaged, navigating those federal programs is absolutely a monumental task. You set it on par, because even those of us who have been in this field for a while, the rules change on us. It's not even the same from disaster to disaster. So we get why folks are confused by it because we too have to remind ourselves, oh, I'm working with somebody from this disaster.
"The number one rule is to always meet people where they're at. Use the tools that you have to adapt into that space." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Number one rule is always to meet people where they're at, use the tools that you have to adapt into that space. But I think unless you have a learning mind, this is impossible work unless you're open never, ever, ever, ever knowing at all.
Christa Lopez: Oh, absolutely. I like to say that insurance is absolutely the first step in the process. I also get that sometimes, you're having to make a decision between insurance and paying your electric bill or buying groceries. I know that that's a challenge for a lot of folks out there, but insurance truly is the first step. That is the step that will probably make any household as close to being complete and whole as anything else. The FEMA programs, they say upfront. Although it's not remembered often, they say their intention is not to make people whole, it's to help fill in a small gap.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: When people don't, tell you have undergone a disaster, there's this weird, natural we are human so there's a certain amount of magical thinking that's involved, which is, and I'm not talking about what happens with poverty or having to make that decision between your insurance and get renter's insurance though, like five bucks a month. So please do that. But it's that idea that you don't have it. These are skills you don't need until you need them. And I can make it very difficult to prepare for and then respond to. So I think there's an extra, as there's almost like a shock wave, a second shock wave after a disaster and people realize that FEMA's job is not to save you. That's not what they do. They might save you physically, they might have some services, they do the very best that they can, they are way over stressed at this point. Last year, at $20 billion over disasters, they counted all of our wildfires, just the worst season on record, 10 million acres, $16.5 billion as one of those. So FEMA is not going to, they're going to help you, they're not going to save you. I think people have to know that in advance.
Christa Lopez: Most definitely, most definitely. And it is complex, right? Because they tell you, registered disaster assistance. Then you have to figure out if your county is one of those counties that's eligible for the disaster. Not just did your state get a disaster declaration, but it's your county. I know that there are cities here in Texas that span three counties. I've seen where two of the counties have been declared, and the third hasn't. So if you live in the same city, you all may not be served. So that's how crazy this can get. If you want to register, they might refer you to SBA, which is a Small Business Administration. Oh, my gosh, a disaster loan. I'm already overwhelmed by this disaster, so how could I imagine taking a loan? But it's both standing the benefits of that loan.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So you can get it though. I love SBA. But in our case, 80% of people were denied. I think the SBA pulled off a miracle last year. So for all of our friends at SBA, I'm not knocking you so much as talking about how we can change the message, so it's more realistic at the outset. That's all.
Christa Lopez: Absolutely, it is alone, and you have to qualify for it. You have to show that you have an income and that you're able to repay that loan at the terms that are agreed upon. Especially last year, when so many individuals were unemployed, there was no way to prove that you'd be able to repay that loan. So that compounded those issues. Then a year or two later, these people, like my staff from the General Land Office come along and go, hey, we've got money from HUD, how about we rebuild you a house? And then it's like, wait, but that disaster happened a couple years ago, why are you coming now? Because it literally takes an act of Congress to give a federal appropriation, which just means getting money to bring money in for disaster recovery. Sometimes, it takes two years to implement, if not longer.
"Everyone's a novice in disaster until you're not. And so it's just as important to know that the money is slow, the recovery is long, but it is possible." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We just got money from 2017 that we had asked for was appropriated in 2018, like last week. It was long, and his memory is long. FEMA and federal agencies, they're trying to prevent fraud. So we totally understand that we think there's some ideas, though, that we can move it a little faster, that they could do it in trenches. And at the same time, do fraud protection. And you're also often dealing with, sometimes, you're dealing with counties or states that are not super well resourced, don't have the staff, don't have the knowledge, they don't know how to navigate. One of the reasons why we do advocacy in DC, but we do it with the public sector so that we can support their efforts. But everyone's a novice in disaster until you're not. It's just important to know that the money is slow, the recovery is long and it is possible.
Christa Lopez: Absolutely. 100%. It is definitely, as they say, a marathon and not a sprint, for sure.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So in Texas, you actually have a lot of rural counties. And one of our big concerns has been, as these climate disasters are increasing for a variety of reasons in wildfire, it's actually just for the climate change is meeting historical land mismanagement. All the things coming together at once. So rural counties are a very big concern of ours, like we are concerned that counties, if they're not well resourced, they don't have a staffer experience. It's very difficult to navigate, the FEMA process or even the state does a lot of the FEMA process. What do you run into in rural counties, it's different from say like, when Houston took place with Hurricane Harvey, Houston was actually super savvy in so many ways. Thought that it was perfect, but there are a lot of corporations there. There was about $220 million of donations came in, but how Houston's going to recover is not going to necessarily look the same at another much more rural county that didn't get that sort of attention, doesn't have those resources. Can you talk about how you navigate that from a state perspective?
Christa Lopez: Sure. We have to give equal attention to all of our jurisdictions, but we do know our rural jurisdictions do really have a huge challenge. They may have one building inspector, that one building inspector might be also on their public works team, maybe they're also their emergency manager, or their floodplain manager. So they're wearing multiple hats. They're not getting paid the same as a building inspector in another city. I bring that position up because when you think about a disaster, the first thing that has to be done is buildings have to be assessed for their stability. So who's that to go to, but your building inspectors to your public works staff. So jurisdictions have to think about rural areas and cities, are they involving those individuals in that disaster preparedness? Are they involving them in training? Are they involving them in their plans so that they can pay them emergency pay, so that they can work all those extra hours there going to be placed on them.
The world jurisdictions are now faced with what we call the social media news effect. The news media comes in and they highlight those cities, they highlight the big jurisdictions, and that's where the donor dollars and the volunteers flood into. But sometimes, those rural jurisdictions, not that they need it more, but it's just different. They do that, and they might need it more because maybe there are more resources within a larger jurisdiction. So they're now at a further disadvantage because they're not getting the same attention through news media and social media that some of the larger jurisdictions are. They may not have the resources or knowledge how to manage volunteers or donations. So when donations flood in, there's cash donations, there's in kind services, and then there are goods that are donated. Those unsolicited goods can sometimes be a disaster unto themselves. I've heard over the years, I've witnessed because I've done donations management for disasters, I've witnessed dirty mattresses being donated, I've witnessed cat costumes. One year, we had someone donate pickled sharks. I don't know why.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I interviewed Kelly Thompson and Mark Martin Bras from ViequesLove, and somebody sent ice skates. Vieques is off the coast of Puerto Rico.
Christa Lopez: Yeah, they don't need anything in Vieques related to ice skates.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Unless it's asked for, please don't send it no matter what, like your need to give has to be less than the need to receive, and it's very nice. There are things you can do to help, and one of them is don't create a secondary disaster. Like in paradise, I was in the Walmart parking lot that you all saw on the news, and I saw the biggest band I've ever seen in my life, like a 40 foot shipping container, 20 feet high overflowing with in kind physical donations all headed for the landfill. So that's another consideration, it has to go beyond that.
Christa Lopez: Absolutely. Yeah. And then there's cash donations, and a jurisdiction, a city or a county, they can't collect that. There's tax implications to that. Then they have to find someone who has an established 501C3 or nonprofit to manage that. And if they didn't think about that ahead of time, that takes time to implement. And you have to find someone you're willing to trust, will do right with those funds. And account for them, and be able to show what they're going towards. Then you have the resource donations, you have well intentioned folks showing up on heavy equipment machinery who may or may not be licensed to demolish houses, but they might say they know how, and do they create a secondary disaster in my dissertation.
I recounted the story of individuals following Hurricane Harvey, there were some folks operating heavy equipment machinery driving up and down the street. A couple had some down trees in their backyard and they said, oh, we can haul that out front for you. So they quickly jump on their machinery and they start pulling the trees out front to the curb. And they ran over the septic field in the backyard, not paying attention to what was in the backyard, and then caused $9,000 of damage to the septic tank. It's unintended consequences that come from really great intentions. So having a system in place for those who are jurisdictions to know how to manage all those things, because their first thought is to manage the disaster itself. But there's all these little things that come after it. It takes time and resources, being people as well as vehicles to drive FEMA around and show them all the damage in order to get the money to rebuild.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Anyway, it's so different, though. It's interesting that in a wildfire, there's really nothing to see. Nothing to see here. It's all like a bomb went off, you don't even recognize it. There's nothing to get, there's nothing to muck, there's no mold remediation. And that's another thing that both, wind, rain and wildfire have so many things that we can hold in common and share. But also like this learning curve, we're all on in the era of mega fires, which just didn't happen before with this frequency. So it's always so interesting for me to hear from a wind and rain based person, not even like wildfire in Texas, but yeah.
Christa Lopez: Yeah. 2011 was a rough wildfire year, for sure.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Volunteers, I love that. I love that. Okay, in your dissertation, Dr. Lopez, one of the things that I was really interested in was the idea of cultural competency. So it's not just a matter, well, let's assume everyone is well intentioned, we can talk about fraud, and a different part of this conversation, but cultural competency, like you in California, we have a significant population of Latinx community. And making sure that you, the first rule, which I know we've already talked about, if disasters serve the community, if that's in front of you, so talk about, I think it's such a powerful subject for your dissertation. Can you talk about your findings there and your advice?
Christa Lopez: Yeah. I interviewed disaster survivors in Rockport, Texas. That was the area that first experienced the landfall of Hurricane Harvey. I wanted to understand their experiences with volunteers and then dive deeper into, did the volunteers respect the culture of the community? Did the community even identify what their culture was before or after the disaster? And then, if they had that magic ball to train and advise future disaster volunteers, what would those considerations be?
So it is interesting, and I'll go to the culture of the community. First, I heard very clearly in that community, there's a case to have and have nots. So it's a coastal community. It's a small coastal town. And along the coastline magnet, like many coastlines, there's some very expensive homes and some pretty wealthy individuals. And as you move away from the coastline, you have the working class of the community, you have individuals who have lived in that community for years, you have folks that have worked on shore big boats for generations, fishing boats for generations. So they tended to have nots, they had their own sense of community, they had their own sense of purpose. But it was almost as if there were different pockets within just a very small town of different cultures based on class, some are based on race. But mostly, I saw a very large class division.
I have one couple interviewed who recounted the story that they were in line to register with FEMA and to talk to the SBA about assistance. They talked about how they came from, they were a working class family, and in line was a gentleman who was from a very wealthy portion of town and they said, I know if it was not for Harvey, this gentleman would have never talked to us. But we bridged a friendship with him because we had a common shared experience and we still have that same shared experience. They still have a relationship with him now, and had it not been for that disaster, they may have never had that opportunity to meet.
But then I heard from another individual who shared, things were great at the beginning of the disaster. Everyone's generous, people were kind. And as I spoke to him, he said: "I was in church one day and the preacher said, well, things are getting back to normal, everybody's crabby and cutting everybody off, and they're not being kind anymore." And it made me laugh because it's like, when groups form, you go through those phases of storming, norming and so forth. You go back to normal at some point, or what somewhat normal as that can be. I met with three individuals who opened my eyes to a pocket in that community I hadn't even considered. We talk about religious diversity, we talk about race diversity, we talk about social class. Those are the main ones that usually come up.
I met with widows, and I did exactly that. These were individuals who led up to the storm somewhere within the previous five years. Two had been widowed, and one was of the same age group, but had been divorced. Kind of widow/divorcee, but these are individuals who made life decisions with their partner. So imagine going through one of the most challenging life experiences without that person you used to depend on to make those decisions with. So now, they're looking at their home that they've lived in for, however many years, and a group of people are standing in their line going, oh, we need to cut down that tree for you. We need to move this, we need to do this. How about if we do this for you? How can we do that? And whoa, whoa, I need some time to think about this. But didn't even know if they had the voice to say so, right? Didn't even feel like they had the control to say so. And so they really opened my eyes to those other parts of the community that we don't always consider when we think about the diversity of the community. My overall takeaway was we have to, each individual community really has to learn what are the pocket groups within your community. Because what I learned from one woman was that almost that entire street were widows, and they all had the same experience. Most of them had lost their husbands over the past three or four years. They all kind of supported each other, but they felt overwhelmed by the volunteers because they felt like someone was trying to tell them what to do. As if they had to have caretakers, that they couldn't make decisions on their own, that someone had to educate them about what they needed.
"Sometimes we think physically doing something for someone is what's best for them. But sometimes they just want someone to hear their story… Sit back and listen. People want to be heard." -Christa López Ph.D.
I even had a couple who share the story about how some of the disaster volunteers were just very, almost forceful, I guess, in how they say that, well, we have to do this for your property, you need to have this done versus stepping back and asking people, what would you like us to help you with? And several times, I would end each conversation with, if he, if you had to tell disaster volunteers, weren't two things where if you had to train them, what would you like for them to know? And a resounding response was just, listen, I just want somebody to sit down and hear my story. And again, sometimes we think physically doing something for someone is what's best for them. But sometimes, they just want someone to hear their story, and that's all. And that is as important as cutting down a tree or sifting through ashes to find the remaining belongings. They need somebody to talk to because this is emotionally exhausting.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It's a mental health issue too. And they don't want to feel like we just took the lessons we learned during our disasters and applied them to the organization which we asked which we need, how can we help. And we don't do things to you, we do things for you which means that we have to ask. If you can't listen, then, I was recently in another wildfire zone and I was talking to, we love an emerging leader who has that learning mind and a natural talent for it. But this person specifically told me that their desire was to help design a recovery that did not include wildfire survivors, and that he didn't want to talk to them. And I was like, well, then I can't work with you at all, like, can't do it. If you could, this is exactly the wrong approach. I'm not what we do like, that is a thing. I was so appreciative. Also just like, how would you ever know that there was this lane of widows who needed that listening? Being told that they could, they were empowered to make decisions. Community led design and design recovery is actually key to test for recovery. I got goosebumps over that. Thank you.
Christa Lopez: Yeah. It's still to this day. There were certainly other takeaways. And overall, they love the volunteers. They were fantastic. They wish they could have saved forever. They develop lifelong friends. One couple I spoke to had Mennonite Disaster Services rebuild their home for them. And they've gone to the Mennonite community now up in Michigan and Ohio, and visited them in their hometowns. They were like, now, we have friends across the country. Now, we have people we call our family. So by no means, do I want to dismiss what volunteers do? I spent my years doing volunteer work in disasters as well so I know that there's an absolute value for it. But I think that if we can take anything away from it, it truly is. Sit back and listen, have a way to organize yourselves, train people. Make sure there aren't those unintended consequences like running over a septic tank and causing more damage, or having a tree fall on a house that was almost salvageable. And now, it really is not those types of things. But really, sit back and listen, people want to be heard.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: They do. And look for the helpers, beware of the heroes.
Christa Lopez: Yes, yes.
"Don't be a hero, be a helper." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: There's a certain adrenaline rush that comes from showing up and being of service. And even for some people, a bit of an addiction at a certain point, you're like, your intentions are not wrong at all. However, don't be a hero, be a helper. Or when somebody says to us like, oh, so will you do that for us? I am always like, no, because I can help you, I can help you do it. That's my superpower. Let me teach you how, what was done before you adapt it, make it better for you. But you can do this. We are not saviors, and we are not heroes. And I think that's really critically important.
Christa Lopez: Absolutely. Yeah.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So what's your advice on how to assess, where to send your cash donations?
Christa Lopez: That's a difficult one. Who do you trust? I think, understanding organizations that have been in the disaster world for a while, that have a track record in history. If they're operating 501c3, if they're operating a non-governmental organization, they should have records that are transparent about how they spend their funds. There are organizations out there that have done it for a long time, and maybe aren't as transparent. So you have to think about who you want to share your money with, what type of mission they provide, because there's a lot of voluntary organizations out there that have a specific role in the mission. Some might be those that we talked about earlier such as people doing the chainsaw work, or the muck and gut work, or taking away debris. But there might be some that do case management, they're out there providing individual one to one case work with the disaster survivors. Or maybe you're passionate about the folks that help the animals out. There's Animal Rescue groups out there doing some amazing work. There are animal groups out there, they're taking service animals to help support the disaster volunteers or first responders in their own emotional recovery.
I mean, there's layer after layer. And it's almost like, find what you're passionate about. And I bet you, there's a group that could use your monetary donations. I'm the type of person that when I give someone funds, I give them unrestricted too. I'm not giving it to you with a caveat that has to be used in this realm, or a caveat that has to only go to Hurricane Harvey. If you're a group that operates in disasters, I want you to be able to use it on any disaster because Harvey might be big right now, but maybe you have a lot of money in the Harvey bucket. And if it's just called Harvey, those organizations are only allowed to spend it on a Harvey. But if I tell you that it's on determined funds, then you can spend on anything that you want any disaster. I also have an understanding that non governmental organizations don't mean that they can't pay their staff.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Thank you.
Christa Lopez: So much hard work. These are exhausted people. They deserve a good salary. They don't deserve to get paid $27,000 a year to work 80 hours a week helping other people recover from disasters when they themselves might also be a victim or survivor of a disaster.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Talent costs money. If you're in the nonprofit sector, you're not going to ever become a millionaire doing this. Not going to happen. But the idea that in the nonprofit world, that you should pay people so low that they can become your own client, especially if social equity or like, I don't subscribe to that. Even in our organization, we make sure that we pay for our talent, but we expect them to use every bit of it as if we were in the public or private sector.
"When you pay individuals a fair salary, they will feel appreciated and they will give you valuable work in response. You have to pay for good services." -Christa López Ph.D.
Christa Lopez: Most definitely, most definitely. I think that when you pay an individual an honest salary, a solid fair salary, they will feel appreciated, and they will give you good work because you're showing them that you trust them and that you value them. And they give you valuable work in response so I absolutely agree with that. I think you have to pay for good services.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah, yeah. You don't want to give them a really stressful job and then make them super stressed at home, whether or not they can feed their children.
Christa Lopez: Absolutely. But yeah, when it comes to donations overall, I think back to your original question, find a group that aligns with your values, what you love, what you're passionate about, and consider truly giving them unrestricted funds so that they are not hamstrung by how they have to spend those funds. Please take that into consideration, for sure.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I appreciate that so much. I just do. So can you talk to us about how you see the field of disasters changing as more funds are put into the climate crisis. We're starting to see a lot of people who are popping up and we love an emergent leader. We believe that we should certainly support and foster their development and want to be there for them, especially when they arise from a local community. We don't really live in an emergent leader who tries to inflict themselves on a community they don't understand. I'm both happy for all of the attention coming in the funds and sort of this shift in the philanthropic focus in this area. And I'm also a little nervous because the first rule has to be do no harm. There's a lot of fraud in a disaster, and there's plenty of stuff for disaster victims to worry about. The first three types of people to show up are those who will defraud you, those who want to help you and those who want to sell you something. So it's critically important, but can you talk about that? How do you see the future of the climate crisis, or climate-related disasters, or what you're seeing happening right now?
"Resilience is about being able to have the tools to not have the impact be so devastating that you cannot rebound quickly." -Christa López Ph.D.
Christa Lopez: Sure. I'm seeing things at the federal level, because a lot of the funding I work with comes from the federal level. I'm seeing a lot of focus on resilience and mitigation. So resilience is that word that people keep throwing out there, and I've actually been annoyed by it for a while because I don't feel like anyone's defining it right. But I appreciate the word too. So resilience is really, how do you firm up? How do you steady in the wake of an event? Is that a cyber attack? Is that a financial crisis? Is it a pandemic? Is that a natural disaster? How are you able to bounce back? And at what time? And that's really, well, resilience, it's about being able to have the tools to not have the impact be so devastating that you cannot rebound or you can't rebound quickly. So I do love resilience. Again, the terms being used a lot, but I do hear that--
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Christa, I always say, how do you do equity? How do you do sustainability? And how do you do resiliency? Don't just give me those words, like show me how you do too. I may also become better at my own job in life, like we just share the how of it and exactly what that means.
Christa Lopez: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think when we think about it, I'm gonna nail it down to natural disasters because that's my specialty. But when we think about resilience towards natural disasters, are we giving people the tools to know ahead of time? If there's a disaster, these are the types of documents I might need to register with FEMA so that I can get back on my feet. Or are we giving them tools on how to find the right insurance company, and to get those policies in place? Things we give out in our office that we've made are just plastic dry bags, and they have a checklist of important documents you might need in the wake of a disaster. Now, that's not gonna help you in a wildfire. I'm sorry.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Because negative evacuations happen all the time. And they're only funny, like, we've waited. If it's not you, it's awful for those poor human beings. We don't have a lot of, we're lucky if you have two hours notice. Sometimes, you have five minutes. And then when you run for your life, a fire monster is real. That would work too. The plastic bag part wouldn't matter as much, but the list matters. So that's one of the things that we can share.
Christa Lopez: Right. Right. Having a list knowing what to prepare. Texas experienced a winter storm of unbelievable strength in February, and everyone that I know was without power and water for some period of time. I was without it for a week. My husband walked around the house going, I am so lucky to be married to a woman who has a PhD in emergency management. And all those crazy little things I used to do aren't so crazy anymore. Like, they make lids for Home Depot, or Lowe's, or whatever type of buckets. That becomes a toilet. You might not think you need one. But let me tell you, it comes in handy. You put a trash bag in a bucket, you stick that [inaudible]. Because let me tell you, sitting on the bucket by itself hurts.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Also, you ask your husband if he will take care of the disposal of it.
Christa Lopez: Oh, of course. Of course. Yeah. Yeah. I even bought some of that absorbent stuff that they sell if you're, like doing an oil change or something you still paid. I sprinkle some of that, or cat litter in the bottom of the bag so it absorbs some, you're not reusing a bunch of bags, right?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Okay. Everyone at home, though is now saying to themselves, I now know how to make an emergency toilet. So this alone was worth it.
Christa Lopez: Yes. I keep five cases of water in my garage stocked at all times. Because you will have water shut off at your house in a fire, you will have water shut off at your house if there is an accidental leak into the water supply system. If there is a shortage of water, if there's a winter storm, you name it, water will be not potable so you need to have a clean drinking supply of water. If you have pets, your emergency has to include your pets. I know there are folks who are like, I can't pack up my entire horse barn, all of our critters in five minutes when that wildfire or that monster is coming towards me. I get that. But thinking about ways to minimize the impact because it's devastating to watch someone who returns to their home and finds their pets have perished. It really is a heart wrenching.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. And my cousin Gary and his wife Jean in the Woolsey Fire, because they've been on that land for 30 years and had never seen it. They'd been through plenty of fires, but had never had these kinds of mega fire incidents. He was there alone, he didn't worry about it too much. And then all of a sudden, it roared past like it's a football field every three seconds. And they lost their dogs, and they have mastiffs like I do. And it still is probably the most hurtful thing outside of their house, and even more so, even in many ways. just briefly look up and say, who can help me in the event of a disaster?
Christa Lopez: Absolutely.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Go for the horse, whatever it would take to you know.
Christa Lopez: Most definitely. I had a woman come speak to our team when I was working for the Texas division of emergency management. She works for another state agency, she experienced the Bastrop wildfires that we had in 2011, and she was in her swimming pool hanging out in the backyard. Somebody comes knocking at the gate, and she has a game cam on her front gate so you can see the footage from the game cam of this individual getting their attention, honking the horn and everything. So she and a friend that was with her piled everything into one car, they got all the dogs, they got the neighbor's dogs and they got out. And she said, you can watch on the tape, and she played it for us. You can watch on the tape as the straps burnt, and the game camera shifted from her front gate to her house. She has footage of the darkness. And then all of a sudden, her house just erupted into a fireball and it was gone. And she said: "If that person didn't come to the gate, that fast, those things would happen. She said: "But there were two of us, why don't we take two cars? We could have fit more dogs or stuff?" She's like, hindsight is 50/50.
But that whole perspective of, think about what more she could have grabbed maybe if she had taken two vehicles. So she kind of went through this whole thing. And my thought was, well, what a lesson to learn about how quick from this footage that that happens. Now, I have to say, the curious mind also wanted to know who made the game camera.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Me too. That's so funny.
Christa Lopez: How does it survive? That event that has noted everything else around the camera, of course, was not in great shape. But the [inaudible] itself that recorded the video was, but that was a valuable piece as well because she literally pulled that video out and showed her insurance company. They were like, okay, done. Like, there's no argument there. I'm not saying that folks have to go out and get a game camera.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: But we tell them, videotape your home every year.
Christa Lopez: Yes, yes.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Like 10 minutes a week. I just did. We just had our first red flag warning which you've already had like a month ago, whatever. Fire season lasts forever. Now, I was like, okay, so I'll take that 10 minutes.
Christa Lopez: So real quick on that, tornadoes are the same thing. Your house is gone when a tornado hits. I met with a couple whose house was completely gone and their insurance company was like, well, how do we know this is what you had in your house? And I met with them and I said after the event, somebody in the family was standing around the grandkids and they were like, we were just here last weekend, we were just having a big old family celebration, blah, blah, blah. I was like, wait, did anybody post pictures on Facebook? And they were like, yes. I was like, pull those pictures up, you have photos of the house, your photos of the contents. So it's not always lost. Think about what you did leading up to that. Social media can be really powerful in that sense, because how many of us take selfies, or do videos, or whatever have you and you might have that video. But you're absolutely right, Jennifer.
Every time I go on vacation, I use that as my mark. Or even if I travel for work, I use my reminder before I leave the house, I take a videotape of my house. If my house was robbed while I'm gone, I have proof. But then, I'm always updating what's in my house and what my house looks like for insurance purposes. Most people have a smartphone, so you can do it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And it goes right up into clubs. So we talked about a number of things I would like to ask you, because we're always, we love to reimagine space. We love the idea that we work in, we want to prevent, recover, rebuild, but also reimagine queens innovation. What's your single greatest hope of an area of innovation in disaster that you think would have a direct positive impact on communities that are disaster affected or disaster vulnerable?
Christa Lopez: I've spent a lot of time in the world of disaster housing. And my wish is that we can identify ways to provide temporary housing that can then be turned into permanent housing. And we are in our office or doing some studies and some research on that right now. So we have some ideas of what that might be. And I truly do feel like it's achievable. But we need the federal government and our partners who fund some of these efforts to also get on board. Because sometimes, there's a challenge between one funding source and the other, and duplication of benefits. We certainly don't want to go against federal rules or to over provide to one household that is at risk of under providing to someone else. But if we can, let's say take a temporary housing unit, and then in the long term recovery efforts, add on to it and make it a more sustainable home. And not just provide these structures that are flimsy, that can float, away or fly away, or burn to the ground quickly, but ones that are resilient.
So every time we have to rebuild after a disaster, we should be thinking about resilience, we should be thinking about what materials, what's the architecture of the home looking like, there are limiting factors though. HOA have lots of rules around how things can, and shouldn't be rebuilt, and what the look of the neighborhood is. So we probably need to start to get them involved and on board with things that might not always look the same. Because we're doing better with it. But if I had one wish and I could wave my wand, there would be better ways to make that transition from temporary housing into a permanent, resilient structure actually work. And I think the other piece of it, honestly, for me, for communities would be a better way to describe how to create mitigation strategies that work. When I hear folks talk about mitigation, when it comes to flooding, I hear about drainage, there's more to mitigation than drain it. There's environmental ways that we can use natural resources to create natural barriers.
I was in Indonesia several years back speaking about emergency management, and we were replanting the mangroves around the islands to create that natural barrier. So there are ways that we can reduce impacts of storms, surge, or so forth. Or in wildfire circumstances, that urban wildfire interface that we can use other resources. So on the housing side, it's how do we make that transition happen? On the infrastructure side, it's how do we make that feel achievable? And not this lofty idea, like we talked about resilience, it's not just this lofty concept, but it's something we can truly do, make happen and see a difference.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Bravo to that. I actually loved that about the conference that I attended 18 months ago, that you all put on. And it was like innovation, resilience and disaster, you had even female people there talking about how we innovate in a way for housing for exactly, like you highlighted, amplified and showed us, show them off to everybody. It was the first conference, though, that I've been to where that was featured as a desire of FEMA. And I think that there should be opportunities for innovation in partnerships with NGOs, public, private nonprofit sectors, most amazed by how much of the technology and the ideas exist. But bringing those all together in one place and actually doing it in a pilot, I really love the term pilot, like you want to pilot something. Let's talk about that. We can make mistakes, and share our mistakes, and make things scalable. And really, that piece of housing post disaster and doing it so much better because of cost. Most of the houses rebuilt where I live in Sonoma County were about 75% rebuilt, which is kind of a miracle.
Quite frankly, only three and a half years post disaster, but it's a very well resourced county with high land values. So that absolutely plays into it. But that piece of, how do you build back in a way where your house will survive another wildfire? My mom just happened to build this house deep into the movie about a decade ago. She was like, I think I'm just gonna build it with all the best practices for no reason. I had never been through it. She was just like, what was she gonna do? During the Glass Fire 2020, that's how she came into the, but it burned down all of her neighbor's homes. Everything around her and her house, you could walk in and flip the lights on. There's five ways that you can do a, how do you make it even financially accessible, which means innovation scale delay.
Christa Lopez: There's a documentary out, I'm pretty sure you probably heard the last house standing. That came out recently.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Was that about Panama beach?
Christa Lopez: Yep, Panama beach.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I was like, for no reason, Tim Carpenter took me to that house. We were at that conference and I was like, why do I speak on anything I haven't seen? So you have to drag me around for six hours a day before. So he did. At a high rate of speed, I kept telling you, I'm like, so I was having that person. Stop here. He's a doctor of some kind. Like to a different--
Christa Lopez: Absolutely. And I think it's just important to kind of go through some of that. Learning from others, and maybe you can't do all those pieces, but some of the pieces you can do. And that's about resilience. Those added layers you can put in there that make it just a little bit less time to bounce back later.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah, better pieces, whatever. Well, I could talk to you all day, but I do want to know one thing. Does your husband still have a crime scene cleanup business?
"No one should be re-traumatized." -Christa López Ph.D.
Christa Lopez: Yes. So we started that in 2007. We started together, as I mentioned, I did search and rescue, I have a human remains detection dog for a little bit. And really, it was kind of a merge of both of our minds and our passions. And mostly, it's about helping families in some of their darkest times. It's horrible to say, but it's actually rewarding to be able to be of service to others in their most challenged times, and being there for them when they feel like there's no one else who can do that type of work. No one should be re-traumatized in the sense that they now have to clean up after a loved one, that is just a horrible experience. Their last thought of that person should be a cherished thought, not whatever scene came after their passing.
So we've been doing that here in the Central Texas community since 2007, and really love the work that we get to do to help others. We also work with individuals who are in a hoarding situation or have some challenges around cleaning their house. And maybe, it's gotten to an extent where a typical cleaning service would not provide those services. And again, that's a really difficult position because someone feels very vulnerable when they're reaching out to us, oftentimes embarrassed about the circumstances that have led to their home being in that situation. But we're not here to judge, we're just here to help. We're just here to provide a service to help them live in a safe, healthy and happy home. And so to see the look on their face when they're able to return to their home in a hoarding situation or an extreme cleaning situation, just to be able to think I can breathe, I can be in here without hazards, that's really rewarding. So yeah, we love it. We were glad that we got to do that.
"If humanity sits at the core of what you do, it is rewarding." Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It strikes me, I'm going to sort of end where we began, which is, it's not that I like what happened here or how I entered into this field. But I swear, I meet these people who hold humanity at the core of every single thing that they do. It could be that they professionalize their services to humanity, but that's the deal. If humanity sits at the core of what you do, then it is rewarding. I feel so grateful to know you, and to know that there are people like you in this field who are excelling and pushing it forward, and always holding humanity at the core, and never forgetting that that's ultimately what it's about.
Christa Lopez: Thank you so much. My purpose in life, and I've told people for decades, my purpose in life is to be of service to others. Whether I get to do that in our business, or whether I get to do that in the disaster world, or working with other colleagues who we can share ideas with and bounce ideas off of each other and learn from each other. I think that's why I probably have so many degrees too, as I feel like I'm forever learning. And I thrive to learn, because I can only help people when I have the best knowledge possible where I can serve others, and it really just helps me fulfill my life's mission. Thank you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, gosh, thank you. This is a good place to end. And thank you again, Dr. Lopez, for being on the podcast, How To Disaster.
Christa Lopez: Appreciate it. Thank you so much.