How Data and GIS Helps FEMA Equitably Allocate Resources with Heather Milton
“If your community has a disaster, help with the planning. Help figure out what you want to happen next because if you don’t play, you can’t win.” -Heather Milton
Disasters can devastate communities greatly. When this happens, the focus of those affected is on survival, but after the immediate danger has been thwarted, many then turn their attention to longer-term issues of survival and recovery. For them, the most important thing is to get their lives back to normal.
In this event, disaster management is one of the most important public services that governments are responsible for. However, this statement immediately presents a challenge: How can we design a system to equitably distribute the limited resources so that as many people as possible are helped in the wake of a disaster?
Tune in as Jennifer interviews Heather Milton, a member of FEMA‘s Interagency Recovery Coordination team on the role of FEMA and GISCorps in ensuring that certain measures are observed to allow the underprivileged to access the same resources as the rest of the population. They also talk about how valuable data is for the government, where planning for allocation starts, the limitations of FEMA, how to design recovery programs, how to lead and redesign your community, and how individual members can contribute to the recovery of the community.
The system isn’t perfect, but when the government, organizations, and communities work together, quick disaster recovery is possible.
- 01:05: What is GISCorps?
- 08:57: The Limits of FEMA
- 16:41: Factors to Consider in Resource Allocation
- 21:01: Lead and Design Your Community
- 29:39: Creative Ways Communities Recover
- 36:20: Resources are Not Unlimited
- 42:45: Underserved Communities
- 52:04 The Housing Issue
- 56:17 Misconceptions and Myths to Debunk
- 01:00:06 If You Don’t Play, You Don’t Win
07:09: “When things are damaged, that’s a sign that they maybe could have been built better. We all know that the climate is changing so we’re going to have to build differently than we did before.” -Heather Milton
07:47: “One of the biggest struggles for people who experience a disaster is trauma response.” -Jennifer Thompson
10:04: “When the state and that group don’t have the best relationship, that’s really hard… It’s the state and the tribe that have to come to those agreements. ” -Heather Milton
22:02: “Have your comprehensive Master Plan always at hand and incorporate your disaster plan into it… You should ready that list of the direction your community wants to go well before disaster hits.” -Heather Milton
24:40: “It does take a city and county of a certain size to move forward on plans, and the state really needs to encourage it and enable it.” -Heather Milton
28:28: “We have to change the system because we have at least a decade ahead of us of a very rough time. This systemic change can be changed, and it’s another opportunity for equity.” -Jennifer Thompson
31:09: “As long as we have people that are making so little money, this is a great way to help support them. But we definitely need to fix our systems.” -Heather Milton
33:14: “Instead of throwing something away that you no longer need, find someone who can use it.” -Heather Milton
36:41: “FEMA is supposed to come in and help you and build the structures in the system; the community has to carry itself across the line.” -Jennifer Thompson
38:20: “We can lend each other our proficiency and our expertise and benefit from there. That’s how the work happens. Nobody can know it and do it all.” -Heather Milton
41:18: “It’s okay if the system isn’t perfect, as long as we are moving towards making it progress.” -Jennifer Thompson
44:40: “If it’s a language people don’t understand, they’re going to give up.” -Heather Milton
53:01: “The number one issue, not just in the US, but worldwide is how can we provide safe, sanitary housing for everyone, so that people don’t have to live on the streets or in shelters.” -Heather Milton
55:26 “It’s an opportunity for equity if we help protect naturally occurring, affordable housing.” -Jennifer Thompson
01:00:19: “If your community has a disaster, help with the planning. Help figure out what you want to happen next because if you don’t play, you can’t win.” -Heather Milton
Currently part of FEMA’s Interagency Recovery Coordination team, Heather Milton provides expertise in translating recovery questions to analysis projects as Manager of the Geospatial & Data Analysis Cell (GDAC).
Heather is active in diverse areas such as social entrepreneurship, human centered design, mobile data collection, workflow development, GIS/geospatial data development and mapping, Virtual Technical Communities, non-profit management, and grant writing. She is a member of the 2016 cohort of the Taylor Center’s Changemakers Institute, a recipient of the Taylor Center’s Catalyst grant, and a 2016 Clinton Global Initiative U Fellow. At the completion of her MS, she received her department’s Student Award for Significant Contributions to Global Research in Disaster Resilience for her work with the City of New Orleans Resilience Office.
Prior to pursuing her Master’s at Tulane, Heather worked in the fields of GIS, technical training, and disaster response for over 15 years, where she provided services to various actors including federal, state and local government, nonprofits, NGOs, and private clients.
Connect with GISCorps:
Jennifer Gray Thompson: My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, and I am the CEO of After the Fire. Welcome to the podcast, How to Disaster, recover, rebuild and reimagine. In this podcast, we bring you the very best practices, best hearts and great ideas from other disaster affected communities. Thank you for joining us.
Okay, so Heather, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the podcast today.
Heather Milton: Thanks. I’m really excited to be here. I’ve been watching all the amazing stuff you’ve been doing, and it’s really impressive.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, thank you. That’s really kind. I was excited today, because one of the things I said in the intro is you have this very specific skill set. It is one of those things where people will say, somebody should do something or something should be executed. And it turns out that you are that someone who does something that really makes a lot of other work entirely possible. So I want you to get into that in just a moment. But what I would really like to start with is how did you even get into the field of disaster?
Heather Milton: Well, that’s always an interesting question. And unlike a lot of folks who work for FEMA and other disaster groups, I am not a disaster survivor. I actually came in a completely different way. I started learning GIS in college and had a GIS career, Geospatial Mapping Work and Analysis, and I got involved with a volunteer group called GISCorps. And what GISCorps does is supply GIS professionals, people that work in the field to work with low capacity groups, or sometimes international humanitarian work, or disaster response work and collaborate with groups like FEMA and the UN to provide some much needed technical skills when they are really needed. So we do a lot of disaster work to analyze all that location information that happens during disasters, not just where the disasters, but where are the responders, and how do we get from A to B. So there’s lots of geospatial work that goes on in disasters. I’m sure a lot of people are aware. And I was lucky enough to get sent to Indonesia for the Indian Ocean tsunami to help work with the World Food Program and the UN over there in the longer term response. So when we took their GIS database of all the response activities and cleaned it up, and cataloged it, and create a product that would help them analyze that response, and think about how could they make it better because that was a huge, huge event as you hopefully remember.
And then right after that, Katrina happened. So I moved companies from Esri, the GIS software company to URS, which was the technical assistance contractor for FEMA. And I went and worked Katrina for three years down on the Gulf Coast mostly doing GIS work for historic preservation, which is super interesting in New Orleans. And so after that, I just stuck with it, I became part of the Digital Humanitarian Network which has a lot of online and remotely working technical professional groups, everything from translators without borders and statisticians without borders to GIS groups, to web scraping groups, to anything that can help do intelligence gathering and information, gathering and information dissemination. So that was really, really interesting. And I finally was inspired to go back to school. I went back to Tulane in New Orleans and got a second master’s degree, this time in Disaster Resilience Leadership because I was really interested in getting further into how to help communities recover better, and be more resilient afterwards from disasters. So that’s kind of how I wound up here.
Now, I work for famous Interagency Recovery Coordination Group. We come in with FEMA during the recovery phase, which is not right after the disaster that’s response, but a little bit later. We work with the communities in the state to think through recovery planning, and we try to find all those gaps in the disaster funding and plug them with other federal and philanthropic resources. So a lot goes on there, and my job is to help me out with the group that helps make maps and do data analysis as we think through those problems.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That’s a big job.
Heather Milton: Specific, but yeah, I’m hoping to keep growing within FEMA.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that. There’s so many ways that we can, so can you actually, how about this, take us through when you arrive on the ground in, let’s start with wind and rain, and like after Irma, for example, and you arrive in phase two recovery. How does it start? Who do you start interfacing with, I know that’s probably changed under COVID to some extent, but take us through what does that look like? Because some of our audience is going to know exactly what you’re talking about. And some of our audience is going to be bringing new to disaster and they’re looking, and they don’t even know that you exist in the way that you do and perform this really critically important function.
Heather Milton: So when responders arrive at a disaster, they’re not only just responding, they’re also gathering information and sharing it with each other so that everyone has better awareness of the entire situation. So if you think about firefighters that are constantly sharing information on which way the fire is going, the wind has changed, it’s just intelligence. And so we try to capture that as best we can and understand what conditions were like before in this community, before the disaster. And in all aspects, in housing, in economics and in demography, characteristics of the people in the community, what was their health care and education system like? We really tried to understand the community and what it was like before this disaster just decimated, so many things. Then we look at the impacts of the disaster. What did that disaster, that hurricane, what did it take out? What did it destroy? What parts of the infrastructure are now gone? Our roads and bridges gone? Are our hospitals damaged? Lots of different ways to look at that. So that impacts all those systems that help people.
“When things are damaged, that’s a sign that they maybe could have been built better. We all know that the climate is changing so we’re going to have to build differently than we did before.” -Heather Milton
So we have to think through not only what buildings are damaged, but what does that mean for whatever social assistance was in that building. So every public building is going to affect the community around it, because that building is no longer able to support the community the way it did before. So one of the things that responders do when they come in is stabilize that situation. They make sure that health care is available if the current healthcare system is damaged. They try to find ways to get kids back into schools as quickly as possible. They make sure that people in nursing homes that are damaged or moved to nursing homes that are not damaged, so on and so forth. So they stabilize that situation. As part of the response phase, our job in recovery is to try and return that community back to prior conditions, or hopefully even better. When things are damaged, that’s a sign that they maybe could have been built better. We all know that the climate is changing, storms are getting bigger, sea levels rising, so we’re going to have to build differently than we did before. So a lot of our recovery dollars, a lot of our recovery thinking is around creating a more resilient community. Sometimes, I might even say moving the community, they are really in the path of danger. But we work with the state, and we work with that community to really think through those problems involving the community, and making decisions, and understanding what they want, and then moving forward with what money we can find to help make it happen.
“One of the biggest struggles for people who experience a disaster is trauma response.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think one of the biggest struggles for people who experience a disaster is it’s a trauma response. You are also dealing with communities that are heavily in trauma, and you are measuring both their soft and hard infrastructure and trying to figure out a way to get them back. But one of the things that’s hard for people to understand because they are traumatized is FEMA is not there, though, to make you whole. That’s not actually their function, but they can, they’re there to carry in support, and the policies, and a lot of the systems are actually made for it to serve over 300 million people in the event of. And so that can be very different in wind and rain than it is in wildfire. Can be very different in an urban area rather than a suburban area, which is different from a rural area, which is different from a frontier area. So if you could tell us a story or elaborate on how some of that like you have to, you feel this major issue, and at the same time, have to contend with the fact that there are limits to what the federal government can do and how much of that has to come from the community.
“When the state and that group don’t have the best relationship, that’s really hard… It’s the state and the tribe that have to come to those agreements. ” -Heather Milton
Heather Milton: Absolutely. Right now we’re working on hurricane Ida down in Louisiana, and there are four Native American tribal groups there that are not federally recognised. So that complicates our relationship with them. They are state recognised by the state of Louisiana. So they actually get complicated because like every parish and community in Louisiana, they also have to run all of their disaster assistance through the state. So they’re really clients of the state and the state is our main client at FEMA. So it’s very complicated to think through this because at least one of the tribes is already working on relocation, because their whole island is just sinking. It’s lost 90% of its landmass over the last, I don’t know, 30 years, and there just won’t be an island soon. And so they’ve been working with the state. Somewhat contentiously because it’s hard to come to agreement on these really important things about how to keep your community together, even though the community, the entire community is moving.
I’m trying to work with this group through the state, when maybe the state and that group doesn’t have the best relationship, that’s really hard. And it’s hard to know, I’m not in the role of trying to make these things happen. We have tribal advisors and our leadership works with the State and the Tribes to try and help broker agreements around these things. But at the same time, it’s the state and the tribe that have to come to those agreements. All we can do is make suggestions and recommendations and try to do our best to make sure they’re aware of all the resources that are available, and to make sure that their entire community is considered. And so that speaks to one of the famous, really strong guiding principles right now from President Biden’s recent executive order, our executive directive on equity, and how all federal money must be spent with a lens on equitable resource allocation. So we’re doing a lot within FEMA to recognise where our systems historically have been very inequitable. A lot of systems are written that way. Not obviously, but it’s there. And so FEMA is doing a lot to rectify where our systems for both individual assistance and public assistance have historically not been done equitably. They’re not written equitably, and trying to explore where we can change us programm to correct those things. So those are kind of two examples where we have a lot of thinking to do, and a lot of working with the community, and understanding the community better.
And for the work that I do with the data, trying to paint those pictures of what things could be, what things were what happened, we use that data also to help understand what communities have historically been marginalized and make sure that our entire team is aware of that so that they can take that into consideration. Understanding what the obstacles are for different vulnerable communities, so that we can design recovery programs for those. So that’s part of returning a community, not just back to where it was, hopefully a little bit better. Hopefully, it’s hard to say, but that’s always our goal. And right now with equity in mind has become very, very pronounced the emphasis on equity within FEMA, all the groups are really taking a hard look, and really trying to reexamine and redesign as much as possible how our Federal dollars are spent.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that is one of the things that we’re witnessing, and we’ve been in an organization for four years and three months, and I forgot how many days. So that’s a relatively short period of time. I recognise that, but a long period of disaster for this. Doing equity is really what you guys with FEMA is diving into is like, how do you actually do it? And where are the systemic barriers to access? And so we are very pleased to see that emphasis from the Biden administration in, but in the USDA as well, which is a natural partner to FEMA especially for rural communities. And so we definitely commented on the RFI that was on the Federal Register on FEMA and equity. We think there are amazing opportunities there to really lean all the way in and commend that work. And I love the fact that you’re like that. You’re polling the numbers and looking at how that happens. I’m hoping that it allows for people throughout FEMA to have a certain measure of creativity. Obviously, you always have to keep fraud in mind, but there’s a lot of people with amazing brains who work at FEMA who do understand the communities in front of them, and they’re more hampered by the systemic rules or guidelines that are usually put in because of fraud.
Heather Milton: I remember when you and I met in Florida. And one of our big issues in Florida, you came down to speak at our housing thing, which was amazing. It was so cool seeing the power team of you and Gladys, and wasn’t Melissa from South Florida, anyway. But I was learning a lot at that time around housing, and housing is such a huge equity issue. And understanding that so many African American families have what’s called heirs property, heirs as in an heir or heiress, only its heirs as in plural, as many people own as property that’s been handed down and as a point of pride within that family, but it’s not been documented well in a legal sense. So it’s very, very hard to receive money from FEMA if that property is damaged, and who’s going to make the application? And can they prove their actual ownership? Because it’s actually uncommon with a large group of relatives. That’s one of the equity issues that FEMA has done, I think, made a lot of progress and addressed because they are now accepting several other forms of ownership documentation. Things like utility bills over a number of years. Ways to say, yes, I am responsible for this property even though it’s owned by a group of us. And that’s helping to create a little bit easier path for some groups to get the assistance that they really need.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that. I love that. We’re seeing this a lot in wildfires too. We have a lot of rural communities that are right in the path of wildfire. So one of the things we see in wildfires all the time, and I’m sure this has to be the same in any disaster, not only the issue of ad hoc housing, like they had a lot in Puerto Rico. I think it was like almost half the houses that were damaged, if not half, were maybe not on the books, not permitted. So it was hard. It’s a hard thing to document. We’re seeing that in a lot of rural communities, and we’re also seeing multi generational homes that have been handed down that don’t have insurance. And it with the California Fair Plan just in California, we see a lot of people who are non itinerant residents who are in very rural areas who cannot afford the premiums and they can be getting by because it’s naturally occurring affordable housing in the rural communities on 20, $25,000 a year, disaster rolls through, there’s nothing left to muck, there’s nothing left. There’s nothing left. And all of a sudden, it’s exposing these chasms of inequity and poverty. And so can you talk about your experience, or how you see that play out in a similar thing for both wind, rain and wildfire? Because they’re not totally similar disasters in every way.
Heather Milton: A really good example of the opposite of this is probably going to be this Denver wildfire that just happened, which rolled through some probably fairly affluent new suburbs. Those people have plenty of insurance. There is a federally declared disaster for the area. But I guarantee you, we’re not going to be spending quite as much money there because those folks have the money already and they’re well insured, and they’ve got the resources. A lot of folks that we deal with in the rural areas, rural Louisiana is another good example. Rural Kansas where I live is another good example. Those resources don’t exist in the same way, so it is a big challenge. And in the rural, in really rural areas, there’s really not other available housing even if it’s affordable. In fact, there’s a lot of abandoned houses, but they’re so old, you couldn’t use them. It’s interesting in rural areas, no, I’m from Kansas, I grew up here. I moved away for 30 years, now I’m back and I’m starting to get really interested in issues around rural areas, and how they have a different setting when it comes to disasters, the resources are already very scarce. Think about health care a lot. There’s so few hospitals in rural counties and so they’re already in a very resource scarce environment. And disaster rolls through, and it’s just all gone. And the setting for a lot of out migration and you lose your tax base, and your county becomes insolvent. So a lot of what one has to think about is how do we keep, I hate to say taxpayers, but how do we keep residents where they are if we can.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And then how do you begin to rebuild? Actually in Kansas, you have, I believe it’s Greensburg which was devastated, decimated in like 2007 in a tornado. And then actually, the people of some, three of the leaders from the Dixie Fire in Plumas County in Greenville traveled to Greensburg to actually meet them to figure out how do you rebuild a super rural area in a relatively short period of time in a very green manner. So the other thing that we see a lot in rural communities is Plumas County where the Dixie fire happened, that’s 15,000 people total in the county. Sonoma County where I reside is 500,000 people. Tax base is totally different. I’m actually taking a delegation of fire survivors from here to Boulder County in three weeks, in order to do that sort of peer to peer coaching on how to organize your community, and these were all people who had insurance, but under insurance is rampant. And how to organize your community after a disaster, one was a renter, so we’re bringing them. That’s a little easier when it’s not the same group that I would actually bring to say Greenville or have brought to Greenville, because they have super, super, super talented people in Greenville. There’s just not a lot of people. And then they’re looking at how do you rebuild a town and get people to reinvest here? And who’s going to be first out the gate? That has to be something that you’re looking at. Do you have any like, what are the best practices, because we’re watching them with a chicken and egg discussion. What level, if we rebuild a business, who’s going to go to the business?
So we need to build the houses, but then the houses are one on one businesses. Good example, and then I want you to ask, I just get very excited because you’re like a wealth of knowledge and I just want it all. But what are the things we saw in, we work in Central Oregon and Santiam Canyon, and for that fire in Detroit, this really interesting thing. They had volunteers who built this community center out of an old high school. And I was talking to like the mayor and some of the people in this little town and they’re incorporated, which is a whole different thing, and they said that just having that visual deliverable of hope and progress and like a resiliency center, also gave them momentum, and they had a town. So can you just address, like in a rural area that’s decimated by a disaster, where do you chicken egg first, how do you balance that out? Very long question, I apologize.
Heather Milton: Yeah, no, that’s what I mean. I really have the answer, but I do have some observations.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that, I’ll take it.
“Have your comprehensive Master Plan always at hand and incorporate your disaster plan into it… You should ready that list of the direction your community wants to go well before disaster hits.” -Heather Milton
Heather Milton: So going back to Greensburg, Kansas, I wasn’t with FEMA at that time. I wasn’t living in Kansas at the time, but I have heard a lot about it. It’s definitely one of the case studies for rebuilding in a green manner, and trying to become a more sustainable community in the long run. And that’s amazing. I love that happened in Kansas. And now, when you drive to Kansas, there’s wind farms everywhere. And that’s a really cool development. What the bad thing I heard about Greensburg, I should say the negative thing. The problem that I heard out of Greensburg is that almost all the older folks, retired seniors wound up moving away. And the challenge there is that the community made some decisions. And I think I do believe that the community worked as a community and made these community decisions, I don’t think it was just the town government saying that this is what we’re going to do. But I do think that they went through a very extensive planning process after the tornado, and thought through very carefully what they wanted to do.
Now, my advice to small cities, counties all over the country would be, have your comprehensive master plan always at hand. Incorporate your disaster plan into it. The things you want in your master plan, you will have the money for if a disaster hits your city, your town. So you may as well have that ready to go with your big list of things that you want to improve your community. Because if a disaster does hit your community, that’s a great time to get it done. But you don’t want to have to write that plan after the disaster. You don’t want to have to drum up your list of things that you want. You’re going to have your list of things that were hurt by the tornado or the storm, but you should also have to ready that list of the direction your community wants to go before that disaster hits.
“It does take a city and county of a certain size to move forward on plans, and the state really needs to encourage it and enable it.” -Heather Milton
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That’s really great advice, but how do you do it? How you do that, though. That’s what people are asking, like, I may know because, I had to go to graduate school, and you undergraduates, to me, how do you do that? Where did you find the money to do it? And I always say, having become a community lead and designed recovery is the best. And be very wary of people from outside of your community, like coming in and trying to lead and design your community. We like to be backup go go dancers for leadership, as opposed to trying to be saviors or whatever because it’s bullshit anyway, pardon my language. I mean, how do they access those funds? It’s a very expensive thing to hire a consultant to do your master plan in advance. How do they even do that? I can just hear somebody wondering like, how does one even begin to do that?
Heather Milton: I remember looking back at Katrina, and then I’m not sure when that started, but it was starting to be enforced after Katrina, that every parish in Louisiana needed to submit a disaster plan, as well as a comprehensive master plan. And those were made, I don’t know, maybe every five years or maybe every 10 years, not that often. But they did have to be made. And it was funny because there’d be like two or three parishes in a row on the map, and they’d all have had the same consultant, and the plan would read almost exactly word for word the same, which makes it more affordable as a way to do it. And there are a lot of commonalities. And as long as that consultant understands your uniqueness to your community, then that’s probably an okay way to go. So sometimes, that can work. Working with a regional planning group where our Council of Governments, which is a group of counties, that’s another way that it can really be done, and they should have planning expertise. So those are two approaches that can be used. But it is true, it does take a city and county of a certain size to do that movement forward on plans. And I think that’s the hard part. And part of it is the state really needs to encourage it and enable it not just say that this has to happen, but also say that we’re going to help fund that.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Maybe it is an equity opportunity when people are like, okay, I love equity. But then you’re like, well, how are you doing it, though? And one way to do it is to fund these sorts of things. Because one of the things that we see too is after a disaster, FEMA just in 2020 had to do this, you guys responded to over $20 billion over disasters according to NOA. Did you notice anything about that map for 2020? They counted all of our wildfires, the worst season on record. No, it does not FEMA. Across California, Oregon and Washington, $16.4 billion, just for our wildfires just in 2020. And that’s one of the things that we’re trying to highlight is, how do we partner? How do we help move that across the line in this way that allows FEMA to actually be able to count instead of noticing it’s one, you asked all the FEMA people assign can’t feel like one because it was across three states, and it was horrific. I just think there’s a learning curve in wildfire.
Heather Milton: I think after the Oregon fires that I worked last year and the year before 2020 that you’re referring to, they had grouped the 10 largest fires into one single federal disaster declaration, even though they were all over the state. I think they’re rethinking that approach.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We’re actually actively asking them to rethink it. We would like pre-declarations for FEMA to make it much easier for them, it should not be. And we believe, and we know that all of the markers exist for this because what ends up happening is that you have really small communities, like in Lake County, which has been just 70% burnt, the poorest county in the state of California. Really smart, great local leadership, but they’re not magical. I mean, they need help. And the cash fire happened last summer. And it was 56 homes, I think 80 homes total burned in a very short period of time. But we were under Red Flag Warning, and it was during the Dixie Fire, like it’s all fire weather. So we’re actually trying to partner in that sensing, how can we support a change in the system? So we have pre declarations of wildfire, conditions, so that you can wrap in because then we had to, it was just very difficult for a really tiny town to even try to begin to recover despite the talent, and the leadership, and the experience that they had because we don’t declare, we don’t do any pre declarations for wildfire like they do for wind and rain events. So you get counted differently.
Heather Milton: Yeah, we’re able to even stage all kinds of resources ahead of time.
“We have to change the system because we have at least a decade ahead of us of a very rough time. This systemic change can be changed, and it’s another opportunity for equity.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s not because people don’t care, it’s because we’re just brand new in the era of mega fires. So we have to just change the system because we have at least a decade ahead of us of a very rough time. The Dixie fire was not federally declared until it that 750,000 acres choking smoke. And it’s not because people did not care people cared, it’s a matter of how this, to systemic change that can be changed, and it’s another opportunity for equity. So that’s my soapbox, and I have dismounted now. Can you tell us what’s one of the most surprising things that’s happened in your service when you go into a disaster place and you’re looking around like, I always love the concept of emergent leadership of people you don’t expect like this woman, Vera, who owned a community bookstore in New Orleans. So she is famous. You probably know Vera, we’ve all probably met Vera. That was like she was the hub of resiliency and communication, why sort of moving forward. So what has surprised you the most about how disasters, or how communities recover?
“It’s an opportunity for equity if we help protect naturally occurring, affordable housing.” -Jennifer Thompson
Heather Milton: I’ll tell you that the pandemic really brought this out. But if it wasn’t for earlier disasters, like even the New York City electrical outage, but people are so adaptable. They’re so good at adapting tools. And so we’ve known for years that everyone who talks about the DC Moms Facebook group has been one of the early mutual aid types of groups because they would just share information, and then they would start sharing resources. You could ask, see if someone had something you needed, or you could offer something if you didn’t need it. So from that idea, which happened all over the country, of course, came lots of neighborhood groups. And even next door, which is basically hyperlocal social media, it’s just based in your geographical neighborhood. And then the pandemic, right. So mutual aid just went off just into outer space, it just blew up. And I made a point of watching it because it’s a phenomenon that I absolutely want to study somehow. This whole idea that you are your own first responder, your neighbor’s first responder, you are their resource and they are yours. And we should be leveraging all the tools available to do that.
“As long as we have people that are making so little money, this is a great way to help support them. But we definitely need to fix our systems.” -Heather Milton
And even though the pandemic died down a little bit, people can get out and get what they need and jobs are starting to come back, you still see these asks for help and offers of help. And I don’t think it’s going to go away. I mean, as long as we have people that are making so little money, this is a great way to help support them. Now, should it be the only way? Absolutely not. We definitely need to fix our systems and start having a more equitable socio economic. But in the meantime, the mutual aid systems that have just blossomed on Facebook next door and lots of reddit, probably lots of other platforms. In libraries, libraries have social workers now setting up clinics to repair appliances. I mean, there’s just so many really creative things that are going on. Even things in Kansas. One of my favorites is to shop at Kansas farms which grew up as a way, we knew the pandemic was starting to sort of endanger these large meat packing processing plants. If a COVID case was at a meat packing plant, the whole plant had to shut down. Thousands of cows could not be processed, or pigs, and those workers were out for a couple of weeks. And it really decimated the meat supply in some parts of the country.
“Instead of throwing something away that you no longer need, find someone who can use it.” -Heather Milton
I’m from a meatpacking country, so this really hit me. But this guy here in Kansas set up a Facebook group for starters so that people can buy directly from ranchers. And the rancher would work with a small processing plant to get that cow processed end to the consumer. They started setting up ways that you could go visit the farms, you can buy all kinds of products from these farmers. So this is just another more advanced mutual aid system. That is the backup. It’s kind of funny because it’s a more traditional system really. Our food supply used to be more local or regional. And now, we don’t even know where our food comes from. It’s a way of drawing it back to the traditional system because our current system of just in time supply and demand and the very fragile logistics of giant corporations is very fragile.
I mean, it’s just prone to breakdowns when we have these large disasters. So I’m looking around at these examples of how we can do local and regional support for each other in lots of different ways. Whether it’s just making sure you buy local when you go buy a gift, to try to buy local produce instead of throwing something away that you no longer need, finding someone on Facebook who can use it. So to me, that’s the outgrowth of the surprising thing. Not surprising, but kind of surprising at how much it took over our activity on some platforms. And to me, it’s just phenomenal, and we should do more to encourage that. And I really have been trying to figure out a way to ask FEMA to incorporate it into our community preparedness curriculums.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that idea because that’s our entire business model for the record. People are like, what do you do? And I’m like, well, we help people navigate after a disaster then that we also have a whole other before the fire program. But my sweet spot is after the fire and specific to wildfire because there isn’t nearly as much experience as there is in wind and rain. I don’t know about wind and rain. So what I learned from you people at conferences, but that sweet spot I love, I live for that though, that human to human connected web, that tissue of humanity. And one of the things that I was thinking about as you were talking as I thought, we often only hear about how our social media and our social fabric is being torn apart, and how divided we are. And I’m always like, well, yeah, I see that. I see that on TV. I don’t experience that though. And maybe I’m super privileged and really lucky. And I will acknowledge all of those things. But I see people leaning into their agro right now, and don’t get me wrong because we’re all really tired. And next door can be wonderful. My admire next door in Sonoma is I’m used to terrorise people. So that’s a little different.
But generally speaking, especially on the onset of the pandemic that community fabric of helping each other, of seeing a problem and finding the gap, and being like, that’s what I’m going to do, because that’s why I work in this business. What happened here is we were cut off from the county because of how our geography in Sonoma Valley, we are surrounded by fires. I work for the county, but I was one of two employees out here for like 10 days, and it was really scary. But people were really gorgeous, so generous and so creative. So I would love it, if he would study that. I would take that class, I would give you any information we have from any of our nine fire affected communities, because that’s why we go in as humans even during COVID. They have to vibe you out, and make sure that they, and you’ve got to meet as human beings. And I think that would be great if you would do that work. And if I could support you in doing that work in any way I would know, every thing, and every person, every resource, because it also amplifies what’s really beautiful about being alive and being in the space of disaster. It’s what Rebecca Solnit calls A Paradise Built in Hell.
Heather Milton: Oh, my favorite. She’s my favorite.
“FEMA is supposed to come in and help you and build the structures in the system; the community has to carry itself across the line.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: She’s so good. I just read this whole other sci fi or it’s political so I won’t mention it, but I might send it to you. That was really helpful to me. But that would be sort of that model of, how do you pay it forward? That’s what we started looking at right away, like as a community, because it’s not what FEMA, that’s how FEMA does. You know what they mean, like they’re supposed to come in and help you build the structures in the system, the community actually has to carry itself across the line.
“We can lend each other our proficiency and our expertise and benefit from there. That’s how the work happens. Nobody can know it and do it all.” -Heather Milton
Heather Milton: Sometimes, that frustrates me a little bit because, well, first of all, FEMA is stretched very thin right now. I think people think, well, the feds have everything, and they have so much money, and they have so many people, and they’re endless resources. It can look that way, but it’s definitely not true. And with the pandemic and record number of disasters ongoing right now, we are stretched extremely thin, and it is definitely taking its toll on the system. A lot of folks leave FEMA just because they’re stressed out as far as they can go. So it’s happening everywhere, including in FEMA. And that’s why this person, a person, community, this whole idea of mutual aid is so important. That’s why I joined the GIS Corps and volunteer for so many things all the time. That’s why I joined the Digital Humanitarian Network to offer the skills that I have to whatever was going on. And I just found it. I just joined a network today called, I think FEMA helps run it and set it up. There were 240 people on the call today, it’s called the Resilient Nation Partner Network. And it’s people working in all kinds of climate adaptation and resilience space. I was like, this is a lot of people. Can we start getting like working groups that are on different topics, because this is starting to be too big. And to do it is just one big group. But it was just amazing. And that’s the sort of networking that we need to do, that we can lend each other our proficiency and our expertise and benefit from, that’s how the work happens. Nobody can know it and do it all. Not even FEMA.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, that’s a good message for everybody knows. So I think Cherry, I wanted to be on that call today, and I’d love to be in a working subgroup too, because it’s very big when it’s very big than I don’t, anyway. But I love that work, and I’m super interested in it. And Cherry Jochum who’s on the previous podcast, if you saw her, we all know her, who got us involved, but that’s exactly what that web is what I would love to see tightened. I’d love to participate in it. Doesn’t mean you take out what’s creative or organic about it, but to really highlight it because we see a lack of more people coming into the space of disaster, which we need because none of us are doing any of this alone. Period. Our organization really, we just bring people who know stuff. Let’s be honest here, it’s not everything. We’re just like, oh, you have that? Oh, is that what you want right now? You get a person, and you get another person you, and here’s a resource that we heard of. But that’s really the extent of the After the Fire model. But what we’re seeing is we do run into people who were like, I know it all. I know exactly how to do all of this, and I am going to be the hero of this community. And they’re like, they are heisman. I just had this happen in an email. This guy wrote to me, he’s like, I looked at your website and everything that you know, and all the people that you know, the resource, and I was like, wow, coz I’ve never met anybody who knew everything. I just said, sounds good. But really, look at how diverse your talents are from my talents, and it takes like a lot of people to do this work, that whole ecosystem of people.
Heather Milton: It really does. The group within people that I work with, we’re trying to find what’s the problem, who’s affected, who’s got the money to fix it, and who can do the work? It’s just a whole process. And then what does the community want to do about it? It takes a lot of different players, and a lot of bouncy balls, but I kind of feel like that, it’s not really my job at FEMA, but it is something that I really love to do the most is just connecting the dots and just making sure people are aware of each other. And that those resources are there, I’ll help you find them. To me, that’s a dream job.
“It’s okay if the system isn’t perfect, as long as we are moving towards making it progress.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Why should you dream yourself right into that perfect job, because then I want to sit next to you all day long, because we’re just trying to demystify it. And also, we like to share our lessons federally. We really don’t do any state advocacy work at all, but we do federal, and we want to be a partner in a resource for like, what do you really hear? And it’s okay if the system isn’t perfect as long as we are moving towards making it more perfect and progressing all the time and not being defensive, and not being possessive. Because I think that as we get more stressed because of COVID, after two years, we’re seeing a little bit more of an air of possession in areas that I have concerns about.
Heather Milton: I think there’s a whole lot of uncertainty that’s contributing to that. Thinking about the resources that are most in need, especially in rural areas and by marginalized communities, we always kind of call those low capacity communities. There’s just not enough people so they’re not going to have a planner, they’re not going to have a grant writer, those are the two skills that are probably most in need. And if I could just set up a college right now and shovel people through it to learn those skills, those are probably the grant writing. Especially in grant administration, that is a huge, huge, huge skill. And I’m hoping that we rewrite some of our rules so that we can open that up a bit more for consultants to assist with. It has happened a little bit. But by allowing them to earn part of the grant itself, that’s part of how that’ll work. So for the public assistance, that has happened a little bit. There’s a new category, and it goes to those administrative costs when you have to hire someone to help you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m also really excited that FEMA has a beta test right now for communities to be able to do more. We’ve been asking for a Turbo Tax Model for all the federal agencies with a common application, and we’re not the only ones, SBP has been asking for.
Heather Milton: It was my idea.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, well, in my brain now, it’s Heather’s idea that SBP is also supporting. It was funny, because I just interviewed Zack Rosenburg from SBP. But even last year, I was talking to Liz McCartney, or the two years ago, I guess now, and I was like, well, since 2018, we’ve been asking for this Turbo Tax Model. So this if then, because the language has to be very specific when you do apply for these grants. And if you get it wrong, then even if you will be denied, and you won’t know that it was really because of this one line, necessarily. They may tell you, they may not. And then if you don’t execute and report it correctly, they will clawback all of those funds. It’s just way more likely to happen in a rural under or underserved low capacity community than it is in a super overall very wealthy community like Sonoma County where I live and they can hire it all out. And so it’s this other disaster economy, which maybe those big consultants don’t want to hear about, but I’d love for them to help the federal government to work themselves out of a job in the interest of equity, but that’s not going to happen. But through FEMA, like having this new process that will come online, it’s being beta tested now. I am just very excited to see how that might help lower capacity communities navigate this in addition to letting them know right away, like count your volunteer hours because you can use that for your match. People don’t know that. I mean, they just don’t know.
“If it’s a language people don’t understand, they’re going to give up.” -Heather Milton
Heather Milton: There’s a lot of mystery around it. That goes right back to that equity question. If it’s a language people don’t understand, they’re gonna give up and dramatize for a single form for a long time for public assistance. And across all the agencies though, not just FEMA. Well, here’s a development that I’m guessing you probably know of. But it’s–
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Go ahead, I got it. I may not?
Heather Milton: Every denied, so that’s your region — has been putting on, they’ve developed kind of an online dashboard that helps grant writers get the correct demographic information requested for their grants for the grant applications. And it’s really fun.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I know that. I love that, so I welcome that.
Heather Milton: So it’s kind of backwards, though, that HUD already knows where it’s communities that it considers of interest, or in need, or whatever. It knows where they are already, but it still wants you to prove that you’re in one of those by submitting this demographic information, which it already knows. It’s really backwards to me, could be a step that they remove it. So it’s like, does this really service a community that we consider important? Yes, that should be how it works. But they really want you to submit all of this about, we have this many people who are a minority, or disabled, or over 65, or whatever the group is, and so we are kind of a special needs community in a sense. But anyway, I should put you in touch with those folks to look at that dashboard and maybe give them some feedback.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah, I would love that. And we’re staffing up now, and I’m only building capacity like, Kyle’s coming on full time in a couple of weeks, and he will be a program associate, he’s going to work in these areas. But I’m finally bringing my head up. The first two years, I feel like I was trying not to drown in all of the information and the learning curve. And the learning curve remains steep, but I’m finally able to bring people on who can take parts of that. So I would definitely would actually really like region nine, it’s my region so it’s probably why.
Heather Milton: Well, you make it look easy.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I do because, yeah, you know why? Coz I don’t put it on like LinkedIn, like I’m having a really bad day with this leader in this other recovery who is an unkind human being, and then tag him. I just keep it going. Just gotta keep it moving because I want to always think about who’s my end user, who matters. And it has to be the community that we have made a promise to, and we always keep our promises that we are helping behind the scenes. One of my big barriers right now is I was so quiet the first two years helping in certain communities that I just got a call, one of my program people did yesterday from a leader in one of those communities who was like, I’ve never even seen you in our [inaudible]. I’m like, why would you be in your [inaudible]? Because we were helping this other group with all of our resources, because we’re not going to jump in front of them and be like, where’s my cape? Here’s my kudos.
Heather Milton: We come to rescue you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We just aren’t going to do that. And it’s only in the past since COVID, I started doing this because I was so afraid that what if we decided not to change in the After the Fire? And I wanted so many cool people that I had met, I wanted to memorialize all this coolness. I’m not even halfway through my list. I’m like a third of the way through my coolest. I’m just starting with my top 60 in the first three years, and then I want to show everybody all of the cool people. But it’s such a learning curve. I feel really fortunate. I can’t wait till we get back to a space where we can actually meet together. We are looking at a late spring convening. I would send you the days that you can be a panel shut down right in front. Okay, we were going. I also love like, your particular skill set is fascinating to me because it’s very logistical.
Heather Milton: Well, strangely, I’ve been trying to get out of GIS for a long time, but I just keep getting drawn back into it. That’s where the jobs are, frankly. But I would love to be more of an on the ground community organizer.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that.
Heather Milton: That’s such a cool word. I always feel like that’s where I would really thrive. My data is pretty cool too, I’ll take it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, we’re only a few years into this relationship, I always want to thank Fannie Mae. I feel like Tim Carpenter has been like, there’s one of the biggest gifts of my life, like he is always just drawing me more cool people to me, but I do miss that about conferences that I would go to, and I’m almost always the only wildfire person historically. And I’m always like, there’s a lot of really smart people in this space, and I’m not the only one, but thank you for having me. But I would like more opportunities to sit in a room and share lessons, and hear from people who are just really smart and doing really great work like you. So we’re going to create one of those for the end of spring in Sonoma, which is terrible. Like right now, who wants to come here?
Heather Milton: I know, it’s terrible. I’m offending Guerneville, [inaudible] put me up for that.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, my god. Guerneville is where the Russian River is, and one of my favorite places.
Heather Milton: It’s actually a friend who went to Indonesia with me as part of GIS Corps, he’s a former GIS person, and now he’s head of marketing at one of the wineries over there. So oh, very talented guy. Well, I want your team.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah, definitely. I would love to. Because then, I would take advantage of that somehow big. Would you do some GIS for us on this because we were launching a social pinpoint very soon which will help other communities. Actually, you should be in the focus group for that. I’m going to talk to Pam, because social pinpoint is an online planning tool for civic engagement, and we have purchased the platform today. To use the platform, it needs GIS. Kyle works on it a lot. But what we’re doing is we’re mapping the fires, and then who’s active in those fires, and then the direct links to those people so that as we have more fires, or when people want to build resiliency, so they can actually look and say, the Dixie Fire, or look at the Alameda Fire and say, okay, who’s active in that space? And then we’ll put a lot of people on there and then put comments below about what we consider the best practices. That’s an opinion, but it’s an educated opinion. And so even if it’s just a very, so I would actually love to have your opinion on that.
Heather Milton: I’d love to see it. Anything with maps,I’m a big fan.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: But it’s community organizing using maps, though, sounds like right in your sweet spot so I’m going to set that up. Is there anything that you wish I had asked you today on the podcast or any subject that I blaze right past because I was so overly excited, because I do get really excited.
“The number one issue, not just in the US, but worldwide is how can we provide safe, sanitary housing for everyone, so that people don’t have to live on the streets or in shelters.” -Heather Milton
Heather Milton: I think the biggest issue that we asked, you and I met through housing in Florida, and we see housing as the issue everywhere. I had a woman at my photography program in New Orleans that I ran with homeless people for a few years. I was invited to hang her, photograph it at the UN headquarters in Geneva in an exhibit put on by UN Womens Highlight Homelessness of females. Actually, we raised some money and traveled to Geneva to be at the opening, which was really cool. I was so impressed at the UN level, but also discouraged. But even at the level of the UN, the homelessness is a huge problem worldwide. It’s growing all the time, and real estate speculation is a major contributor, as I’m sure most of us know. And the market is so inequitable, and it’s such a struggle to find ways to fix that. And to me, that is the number one issue not just in the US, but worldwide is how can we provide safe sanitary housing for everyone so that people don’t have to live on the streets or in shelters. And so to me, that’s going to continue to be the biggest issue that I always note and look at. And think about and pass on articles about because it’s just a huge, huge problem for instance after disasters. Renters are really kind of out in the cold and in a big sense because we don’t, at FEMA, they’re not entitled to the same level of assistance. Historically speaking, how do we fix that? That’s one of our questions.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We would actually, and this is an unpopular opinion, just mine. But I would like, you can’t drive a car without insurance, you have to have at least liability insurance. I would like all renters to have $5 month’s renter’s insurance, just something, because it’s a very rude awakening because they assume that they are covered under the homeowner’s policy, and they’re not. It’s 5 to $10 a month. I know for some people that’s really rough. If we want to give them back a tax credit, I’m fine with that. If we’re like, oh, 5, $10 back, it’s fine, no problem. But there’s no insurance for them, and it’s a very precarious situation. Home is so incredibly fundamental. And I think that that really boils down to a lot of the work that you do and that I do, which is like, how do you get people back to a home? You can’t give them back the day before. The other thing is, and I’m super passionate about this is that I’m trying to get all the parties and everyone to really see that 20% of our population in this country lives in 80% of the landmass where most of the naturally occurring affordable housing already exists. The thing that we are trying to accomplish, more suburban areas and urban areas, is being accomplished. Even in the state of California, you can live in Eastern California with a $50,000 plot of land and a dwelling. It’s possible and it did happen in Greenville before their fires. We should be fortifying those existing homes, especially the ones that are substandard housing. I’m not here to protect substandard housing for the record, but I want to lean into that spot of resiliency, because it’s also an opportunity, again, for equity if we help protect naturally occurring affordable housing.
Heather Milton: Absolutely.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I took out my soapbox again.
Heather Milton: It’s a good one. It’s a good one. I think it’s kind of funny, because I feel like the pandemic brought this a little ray of hope that if enough of us can work remotely, we could actually spread out and live in smaller towns and things like that. But I also have this issue, my personal issues, that urban wildland interface, which is that danger line of fires, and how do we develop more safely in those areas even when we are spreading out and becoming more, creating more affordable housing in places where it’s possible.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s true. I think that people have to differentiate though between, we’re not saying approve a 400 unit subdivision up into the woods. We’re not saying that. We’re saying that a lot of people already live in the woods, they’re super attached to their land, they are good stewards of the land, or they live even in grasslands, whatever we’re talking about to not assume, A; that they don’t care about the land. B; that they’re not attached to it. And c; that there’s nothing that we can do in order to keep them safer. Then I find myself on public radio having as a guest having a fundamental argument, discussion with somebody who lives in the Oakland Hills. I’m telling people who live in the WUI that they shouldn’t live there. And I’m like, well, first of all, fire doesn’t care about your wound. Not that much. Just doesn’t.
Heather Milton: We learned that this time around. I’ve been cheated on how that works.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, in our fires, the fire took the overpass. It was like, oh, I just like I had this vision in my head of it, looked left and right and it was like, I saw an overpass and it went over a six lane freeway. And then it went around, and it snaked in, and it found an empty line, it took out 1400 homes in Coffee Park. It doesn’t care, right? Because WUI matters. But mega fires are so there. It’s a game of embers. The more embers you have, the further that they carry. And they’re like emissaries ahead. So mega fire, if we lean into how to deal with that, and how to fortify homes, and we get to a place of balance, mostly through indigenous land practices, then we can withstand some mild fires. Soapbox was out again. For those of you tired of me pulling it out, don’t worry, we’re at the end of the podcast. It’s the third time I’ve done it today.
Heather Milton: Where I live in Ranch Land, they’ve gone back to indigenous land practice and they fire up the Ranch Land about every three years, they burn off every pasture. And it’s definitely the best way to maintain the health along with certain changes to how they farm the cattle out, how they manage the cow.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: How they rotate.
Heather Milton: Yeah, exactly.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s not a zero sum game. I’m reading a book by this woman named Kat Anderson who’s out of Davis, and it is called, I’ll send it to you. It’s just recommended to me, but it was about, essentially how California is, but the history of California and indigenous land practices. And for thousands of years, we became human adapted, human interacting with the environment. there was a positive cyclical relationship with indigenous people, how they managed it. But the idea that somehow they just tiptoed through the woods and did not touch the edge of the land is just hooey. I think it’s called tending the middle (Tending the Wild), anyway, I just started it. I bought three copies for my staff so I’m very happy here. I can talk to you all day long, I would so enjoy this. I’m looking forward to inviting you out here in the late spring to be on a panel and to sit with your friend in Greenville. I love Greenville. I got engaged in Greenville. Just convening with you again in person, and I really want to thank you for taking this time. I feel really lucky when I get a female person like Cherry and you on the podcast because I want people to meet the really cool people that I’ve met, especially a female. It can feel impersonal to some people and like, it’s actually full of human beings and check out these super cool ones, so thank you.
“If your community has a disaster, help with the planning. Help figure out what you want to happen next because if you don’t play, you can’t win.” -Heather Milton
Heather Milton: Well, thank you. I think it’s always a good opportunity for us to try and share the important messages, the ways that we know the system is flawed, and the things we’re trying to do to fix it, and the ways that everyone can pitch in. If your community has a disaster, then definitely help with the planning. Definitely help figure out what you want to happen next. Because if you don’t play, you can’t win, I guess.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Right. Hey, that’s a perfect note to end on. So I want to thank you again, Heather, for being on the podcast, How to Disaster. For more information about Heather, we’re going to drop a link in the comments. And you can also visit and look at fema.com and look at more programs that are out there. You have a voice, and it matters, and I thank you for your time.
Heather Milton: Thanks so much, Jennifer. It’s so good to see you again.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s good to see you too. Thank you.