Navigating Financial Challenges in a Disaster with Kate Bulger



“Helping people adjust to that new financial reality is really critical in helping them adjust quickly. Because the longer someone goes where they’re spending more than they’re making every month, the harder it is for them to recover long-term.” —Kate Bulger  


When disaster strikes, loss of income is often an unpleasant reality. Whether it’s due to business shutdowns or property damage in a natural disaster, the reduction in income can cause significant financial strain. Moreover, disasters can lead to unforeseen expenses. Repair costs for properties, medical bills, or short-term accommodation can quickly pile up.

In this episode, Jennifer sits with the Vice President of Business Development at MMI, Kate Bulger. Kate began her personal involvement in disaster recovery in 2011 when she visited Joplin, a city left in ruins by an EF5-rated tornado. Her first-hand experience illuminated the enduring and challenging journey to complete recovery.

In 2012, Kate started contributing to partner programs that concentrate on mitigating housing-related issues, enhancing financial health, and assisting victims of natural disasters in their recovery from financial setbacks. Her commitment to these initiatives has been unyielding.

Listen in as Jennifer and Kate explore the importance of trauma-informed recovery, how survivors can protect themselves from fraud and scams, the benefits of applying for SBA, supportive techniques for survivors during initial recovery years, and what helpers can learn about self-care. 




  • 02:15 A Journey Into The Disaster Recovery World
  • 10:34 Trauma-Informed Recovery
  • 15:03 The Danger of Fraud and Scams
  • 19:10 Overcoming the First Impulse
  • 24:36 The Impact of Disaster on Renters
  • 32:48 Applying for SBA
  • 38:18 Long-Term Outcomes
  • 41:53 Helping the Helpers



While financial problems may be a reality after a disaster, they don’t have to define your future. Discover resources that can help you overcome the financial burden of post-disaster with @JenGrayThompson and Kate Bulger, the Vice President of Business Development at @moneymanagement. #Recover #Rebuild #Reimagine #NorthBay #podcast #wildfire #DisasterRecovery #DisasterRecovery #AfterTheFire #Season5 #HowToDisaster #MMI #MoneyManagementInternational #TraumaInformedRecovery #FinancialSupport #SBA #Scam #Insurance 



11:28 “No matter who you are, that amount of compassionate hand-holding for something really complicated and important is just hugely valuable.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson

12:19 “All of the things that helped you be organized before are gone. And so, counselors are good at helping people through those steps and helping people make progress.” —Kate Bulger

13:42 “People are in trauma. And once the federal government says to them ‘no’, then it doesn’t occur to most of them that the absolute next step is always to appeal.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson

16:13 “Fraud and scams in particular are a real danger and can be really hard to spot.” —Kate Bulger

19:37 “The first impulse is really just to get back what you had before. The day before it’s actually gone. It’s worth grieving over but your life and what it looked like is not the same. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be terrible, it just means that it’s not going to be the same.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson  

21:09 “Anybody that’s charging you for an inspection, that’s also a scam.” —Kate Bulger

31:09 “Helping people adjust to that new financial reality is really critical in helping them adjust quickly. Because the longer someone goes where they’re spending more than they’re making every month, the harder it is for them to recover long-term.” —Kate Bulger 

33:09 “Sometimes, preventing fraud prevents access for everyone. And so you have to just keep going back and appeal.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson

40:12 “It’s expensive to be poor.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson 

43:47 “If I don’t give myself a pause and give myself a step back today, I’m not going to be able to be here tomorrow.” —Kate Bulger


Meet Kate:


Kate Bulger is Vice President of Business Development at MMI, the largest provider of nonprofit financial counseling and education in the United States. She specializes in developing and expanding the fee-for-service programs at MMI and its Clearpoint division. She has worked in the industry for over a decade, beginning her career in the sector delivering crisis counseling directly to consumers throughout the Great Recession. Kate progressed into partner programs in 2012, where she has devoted herself to helping organizations and their members resolve housing-related challenges, increase financial wellness, and, most recently, recover from the financial impact of natural disasters.

Kate’s personal focus on disasters began in 2011 following the EF5-rated tornado that devastated Joplin, Missouri, causing $2.8 billion in damage. Kate visited Joplin to witness the destruction firsthand and met with several survivors. She remained in contact for years, during which time she observed the length and difficulty of full disaster recovery. The experience inspired Kate to become the visionary and advocate for Project Porchlight, MMI’s post-disaster financial recovery program. Seeing Project Porchlight come to life and make a real difference for survivors has been one of the most fulfilling moments of her career.

Based in Atlanta, Kate has been sourced as a subject matter expert on housing issues by The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Bankrate, Nerdwallet, and others. She has presented at industry meetings, including the Hope Now Disaster Housing Conference and FEMA’s Partnership Day. Kate is an alumna of The University of Georgia and a member of the Georgia Center for Nonprofit’s High Potential Diverse Leaders class of 2015.

Kate’s areas of expertise include disaster recovery, partnership ideation, reducing organizational risk, homebuyer readiness, and data analysis. 




Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to the How To Disaster Podcast where we help you recover, rebuild and reimagine. My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, and I’m the CEO of After The Fire USA, a nonprofit that helps communities navigate after major disasters, and we specialize in wildfire. 

Today’s guest is Kate Bulger. I’ve actually wanted to have Kate on for a few years. I’ve known about her work through Fannie Mae. I love Project Porchlight. This is very much about financial well being and education in particular after a disaster. Kate’s skill set here is something that’s desperately needed. There’s a huge gap in the market to actually help people navigate after a disaster. Financial well being is one of the things that everybody encounters as a huge barrier to rebuilding, it’s an equity issue. I love the fact that not only is Kate, a person who helped conceive of Project Porchlight as part of Money Management International, but she did this after meeting disaster victims in Joplin, Missouri. She saw and stayed in contact with them for years after that. There is a very long slog to recovery. A lot of people think of disaster in just the first six to eight weeks when it’s on television and we’re thinking about it. But for those of us who work in it, we actually know that the hardest times come in year 2, 3, 4 and 5 when nobody’s paying attention anymore. And your only way forward is really by yourself. There aren’t a lot of resources for you. But in the case of Project Porchlight, they’ll actually stay with you for at least 18 months. I feel very confident whenever I recommend them to a newly fire affected community. I’m really happy to have Kate on today, and I think you’re going to enjoy her a lot. Once again, thank you for joining us on the How To Disaster Podcast. We appreciate spending this time with you. 

Once again, welcome to the podcast, Kate. We’re so happy to have you.

Kate Bulger: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’ve known about you for several years through my work with Fannie Mae and your work with Fannie Mae. But what I’m hoping to do first is really introduce you as a person in this space. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey into the disaster world?

Kate Bulger: Yeah, absolutely. So I’m Kate Bulger. I’m the Vice President of Business Development at Money Management International. And we’re a nonprofit housing and financial counseling organisations. As an organization, we really came into this space out of just pure necessity. Our headquarters was in Houston.. And in 2017, we were impacted by Hurricane Harvey. And so we had our own employees who were really struggling with recovering, struggling with understanding the process of applying for assistance and the roles of all of the different organisations that are part of recovery. People from the community coming to us asking for that same kind of help. And at the same time, we realized that we were working with a lot of people in the rest of our work where we said, how did your financial hardship start? And their answer was, I was trying to recover from such a disaster and I made a mistake, or something didn’t go the way I planned, or I’m still trying to recover. And it’s many, many years later. So we essentially took all of the different parts of our work that we do with all those different groups, and put them together. And I have to say, I’m also really proud that Project Porchlight really started with people who were either in the middle of recovering from a disaster for folks who were impacted by Harvey, but also from our employees and resources that we have who had recovered before. And so for instance, the counseling manager who oversaw or director who oversaw the team that does this work, she had recovered from two separate hurricanes in two different states and was able to come and say, I made this mistake, I fell for the scam. Here’s the things I wish I knew. That’s really how we got into it was, again, just kind of pure necessity.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that. And also, though, can you tell us just a little bit about how you personally came to, most of us come through this work either experiencing a disaster, or being there after, or something like that. So how did you actually personally come into this work? If you don’t mind telling us just a little bit.

Kate Bulger: Yeah, sure. So my in-laws live in Southern Missouri, not far from Joplin. At the time, they were nurses. They worked in a hospital setting. One of them was an emergency room nurse. And so when a huge tornado came through the city of Joplin, Missouri, their hospital was helping take care of people. And going to visit them later, I got to know some of the folks who had been through the tornado. We drove through the town and really saw the aftermath. I was really struck. Because every time we would go back to visit, I’d be talking with these folks, there was this moment of like, oh, they’re still recovering. It’s been two years, and they still don’t have the things that they had. The structure, the town and the jobs hadn’t come back. They were still working to recover. Even though there was a huge amount of resources that came into the area after the disaster, it would be really striking how long it took. And at that point, disaster was waiting to find a way that we could help.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: It embeds itself in people. Once you see that basic human need, and when you see that there’s something that you can actually do to lessen the suffering, for me, it actually shows you that humanity is in full force no matter what we’re told. Or people try to sell us the idea that we are all at odds, but if you experience a disaster, all of a sudden, you realize that we’re not so well, I love that, so thank you for doing that. And Joplin is such a great example. They actually recovered faster than a lot of places. And they are a great example for other disaster areas in the sense that they decided to go fast. They’re like, the first thing we need to do is get our schools back. I remember reading a Superintendent’s newsletter right after our disaster, because I was literally looking for resources on how to disaster. And one of the things they were talking about was their sort of call to arms or call to action, and the whole town got together to rebuild the school first. And they got it done in like three months, something crazy like that. And it really was. Okay, great. Well, let’s talk specifically about Project Porchlight. That’s my favorite part of MMI, so we’re going to go there. And we’re also going to link below so people will have access to find out about you, your LinkedIn profile to find out about MMI, to find out about Project Porchlight. And Project Porchlight is part of Fannie Mae’s Disaster Response Network. So you can always go there to find that out. So talk to us about what you offer disaster survivors, and then we’re going to talk about the particular problems that they run into. So what happens, I’m a victim of a disaster and I call you, what can you help me with?

Kate Bulger: Yeah, absolutely. So our role is to help with the financial piece of the recovery. So folks will call us for a variety of reasons in their recovery, but what we’re going to do is immediately assign them a counselor. And it’s usually the very first person they talk to. And so that counselor is going to stick with them throughout their recovery. In that first interaction, we’re going to really do an assessment, where you are, what are your most important needs? What are your goals in particular? And what are the things that you’ve done? What are the things that you tried, and have they worked or haven’t they worked. And at the end of that session, usually about an hour long to get through it, sometimes longer. But at the end of that session, what we’re going to have is a really clear couple of next steps for your financial recovery. So it might be applying for some type of aid, it might be getting a copy of your birth certificate, there’s all kinds of things that it can be. But the real challenge that we’re solving there is after a disaster, it is genuinely mind boggling how many different things are pulling at someone’s attention as they’re trying to recover. There is so much more that needs their attention, then they have attention to give. 

And so what our counselors are doing is really saying, okay, of the 10 million things you could give that attention to, let’s narrow it down to just the three or maybe four things that are absolutely most critical, and that are going to move you forward to the next thing you need. And then we’re going to figure out, here’s how you get to that thing. And so at the end, they’re going to have these next couple of steps they’re going to take, and they’re going to agree on when, what timetable we think those steps can happen. For instance, if they’re saying, you need to call your credit card company and let them know that you’ve been the victim of a disaster. That’s a really important piece in financial recovery. The consumer may say, okay, I can do that Monday. The counselor may say, great, I’m gonna call you again on Tuesday. And so on Tuesday, that comes with the same counselor assigned to them, it’s gonna say, okay, how did it go? Did it go well? Did they say anything? What happened with that step? And if something happened and got in the way and that step didn’t occur right, we’re going to do one of three things. So we’re either going to reset and figure out a way to get around that challenge, to get that step down. 

Or if it’s kind of a blocker, they tried it and it just really didn’t work, we’re gonna find a new step that someone can take to get to whatever endpoint we’re working for for that particular action, or we’re gonna help the consumer do it together. So if calling their creditor, their bank then they’re gonna say like, okay, let’s call the bank together right now. Let’s get that done and get it off your plate. You won’t have to think about it or stress about it anymore. And then we’re going to set a new next step. I think this is important too. When that next step goes well, it can be really hard to find moments of kind of a win in recovering because there’s so many losses. There is an overwhelming number of losses. And so having a counselor there who can take a moment and cheer you on, applaud you for what you’ve done no matter how big or small that step is, every step forward is a moment of celebration, and he’s worth it. And so having that counselor be there to mark that win with you helps people stay motivated in their recovery.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I just want to note that. One of the reasons why that’s so important for anybody who hasn’t undergone a disaster, or experienced it, or worked with people after a disaster, if you’re just listening to this podcast because you’re curious, one of the things that we do is that it’s trauma informed. The deal is that people, there’s a certain amount of capacity that they have to deal with. Because everything that they thought was true about their world, except for maybe their relationships, their physical surroundings, how they relate to nature, all of those things ended, and it leaves people absolutely stunned. That’s why we’re called After The Fire because people aren’t like after the fires, or not thinking about all the fires, or thinking about the one major disaster, and the rest of your life is a matter of before and after. The fact that you guys will sit on the line with them, why they do it, and handhold them, I don’t want people to overlook how important that is. And no matter who you are, how much money you have, or don’t have that amount of compassionate hand holding for something really complicated, important is just hugely valuable. So I love that.

Kate Bulger: Thank you. Frankly, I love it too. And one of the challenges that’s part of that trauma that really shows its face is when folks are coming up through the bureaucratic barriers of recovery. When you’re asked to fill out a form for what will feel like 10,000 times. Or when you’re asked to provide income information, you provide it, they come back and say, no, but we need income information. It doesn’t seem like they’re asking the question in a different way if you feel like you gave it to them. Those are especially difficult because your attention is everywhere. But also in large part, because all of the things that helped you be organized before and kind of buttress your ability to work through bureaucratic processes before it’s gone. I think our counselors are really good at helping people through those steps and helping people make progress.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: And people are starting from the beginning in many ways. One of the things that is different in wildfire, this can absolutely be true in wind and rain events. But in the wildfire, everything is gone. Your car can be gone, and it’s all just ashes. And it’s gone in like three minutes, and it’s just done. But then the fire could still be going on for three months. It’s a very strange way to experience disaster, not as common. Except for tornadoes that take out everything, I understand. But it is a huge challenge in megafires in particular. So do you help them navigate things like FEMA and SBA? How does that come into play?

Kate Bulger: Yeah ,absolutely. So people can contact us and work with us at any point in their recovery. But absolutely, we love to work with folks early on when there’s still a ton of active aid in the area. And so we’ll help folks work through their FEMA applications, those can be complicated and can be difficult to understand. We’ll also help folks if they get a denial letter from FEMA.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Which happens more often than not. So that’s very important. And people are in trauma. And once the federal government says to them, no, then it doesn’t occur to most of them that the absolute next step is always to appeal and suddenly appeal again. Incidents, appeal again. So go ahead. Yeah, I love that.

Kate Bulger: It’s heart wrenching to talk to someone who really, they need that money, and that’s genuinely the only way they’re going to be able to get through the next month, or two, or three, the next thing that they critically need for their recovery, and they get that denial letter. We see a lot of those denial letters are not straightforward. So it could be that FEMA just needs a clear picture of your driver’s license, for instance. And instead, you’re gonna get this really complex letter, that kind of bottom line that says, no, you can’t have it. And so helping people decode some of that language to make it clear what their next step is, why they were denied, and motivating people to get through that appeals process is a huge one. But absolutely, I think one of the things that I was most shocked about as I came into this space is how frequently people are denied for FEMA, denied for SBA, and how long it takes folks to get through the insurance process like those. Those three things I was just massively not prepared for as I learned about this process was very eye opening.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Nobody walks into the disaster space thinking, well, naturally, I’m going to be turned down. Like being turned down for a loan, for a house loan, you don’t think, I just need to ask again. That doesn’t happen. People don’t do that. But in this case, 80% of the people who apply for SBA are denied. The SBA is a loan program. You still have to have good credit in order to be able to get that loan. I know that they’re working on some major transformations there, and I appreciate it to make it a little more humane. Because they are great at getting into disaster right in that moment and saying, here we are, we’re here for you. But the follow up past can just be very rough. I don’t think the SBA people are bad, or they have bad intentions. It’s just the way the system is set up. All of it. FEMA even had all of it. It is set up to prevent fraud and public funds being misused. Fraud is rampant in this business. Can you talk to us about some of the things that your clients encounter in the space of fraud when they’re coming up after a disaster?

Kate Bulger: Yeah, absolutely. So fraud and scams in particular are a real danger and can be really hard to spot. So our counselors are specially trained to listen to them, and also to provide education about what kind of scams people should be keeping an eye out for. So I think the one that I find very consistent across all disasters are contractor scams. Things like contractors in many states, contractors cannot charge money to provide that initial estimate. For them to go out, look and give an estimate, it has to be free. We see all the time in those states, contractors charging money for that. We see a lot of materials, like rebuild materials scams where you’ll have a contractor, they seem great, you sign the contract, they go to get the materials and deliver them to your home. There was money in that contract that you believe who’s going to pay for those materials. But then a couple months later, there’s a lien on your home because you didn’t pay the material provider for those materials. And instead, the contractor just kept money because the contractors worded it in such a sneaky way.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Can you even go a little bit more deeply into that for people who don’t know about how easy it is to put a lien on somebody’s home because we see this in our rebuild here in Sonoma County. This was a major weapon. We had some great contractors who really did heroic work, and then we had some really bad ones. And then as subcontractors, they can also put a lien on your home. So can you just go a little bit more deeply into that so people can understand.

Kate Bulger: Yeah. To clarify, a lien on your home is where someone basically says, you owe me money, and I have some documents to back up that you owe me money. And so I am going to basically put that debt on your home, on the title of your home. And so it is kind of bad for your credit, like it shows up as a public record. It means you can’t really do anything with that home. You can’t sell it without paying off the lien. You can’t refinance it without paying up billing. There’s all kinds of things that you can’t do, and it really does sort of handcuffed people especially when they’re recovering because that access to credit is so critical to recovery. But absolutely it is, anybody that touches your home in recovery as the opportunity to put a lien on your home, they are difficult to fight. We encourage people to work with it. First, give a call and see if it was an accident because it does happen sometimes. Someone will say, oh, my gosh, you right, you did pay that. We’ll go ahead and get rid of it. But a lot of folks do end up working with legal aid to get those removed. And it is a long and difficult process. And unfortunately, the best way to guard against it is to read in great detail through those contracts and make sure that it isn’t money for getting materials, for instance, in the kind of fraud or the scam we were talking about before, it is money that pays for the materials.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Ah, that is such a good tip. I would not have thought that they would charge you for getting materials, not paying for materials.

Kate Bulger: Really little things like that where everything seems to be going right. You’re taking the right step. It feels like you’re going forward. And then suddenly, something comes out of nowhere and pull you backwards.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: How often do you see, because this was a big problem here. People panicked right after the disaster, and the first impulse is really just to get back what you had before. I hear that over, and over, and over again. I am always like, I’m sorry, it’s the day before it’s actually gone. It’s worth grieving over and taking the time to grieve in the space to do it, but your life and what it looked like, and how you walked through it is not the same. Doesn’t mean it’s going to be terrible, it just means that it’s not going to be the same and you can’t get back that very human urge to get back what we saw. I’ve seen many times that in California, you can only give the contractor $1,000 up front, that’s the law. But people were writing checks for 100,000, 50,000, 150,000, because they wanted to get to the front of the line. They broke the law in a space of trauma, and then the contractors accepted it knowing that the person in front of them was in trauma, and knowing what the law was, a lot of them just took off with the money and that was it. Done.

Kate Bulger: Yeah. One of the things we caution people against, first, making sure that people know what the laws are in their area is absolutely critical especially when it comes to anyone that you’re going to pay, or anyone who’s helping you to get money. Because we do see aid scams where someone is going to help you apply for FEMA, or help you apply for SBA. And really, they’re stealing benefits.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Who shows up and says, I’m going to help you do that.

Kate Bulger: Frankly, people who are heartless. Anybody that’s charging you for an inspection, anyone who’s charging you for it, FEMA comes in and says that they’re from FEMA, and they’re trying to get you to pay money so that they can look at your home, that’s also a scam.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: So in the space of fraud, sometimes, you see people who will show up and pretend to be FEMA, but they’re asking to inspect your home. In a wildfire, we don’t have anything left to inspect. I’m wondering like, how do they show up as a disaster navigator, or what are they doing? How do they disguise that?

Kate Bulger: So they’ll come up and they’ll say, I’m from FEMA, and I’m here because you put in an application for FEMA. And so I just need to see the damage before we can write you the check. They’ll do the same thing. They’ll say, I’m here from your insurance company, and I’m just here to check the damage. But first, we need that payment for the inspection. The inspection is $1,000. And typically, they want it in cash. Anybody who’s coming from your insurance, anybody who’s coming from FEMA or from SBA, they’re always going to have credentials, that real credentials. And if anything makes you wonder if anything doesn’t quite feel right? SBA, FEMA, Red Cross, other orgs, nonprofits that are in the area, all of them will feel very good about you calling their national number and checking to make sure that they’re real. Absolutely, absolutely. So if somebody says you can’t, or you shouldn’t, or I’m gonna have to leave and come back later if you try and check out who I am talking to, those are the other really common scams that we see.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. I never understand how people do those things. But that’s fine. I’ve just undergone a disaster, and you kind of helped me through that first initial rush of FEMA and SBA and navigating that. And then also to understand, for a lot of people, they are very surprised, the intricacies of FEMA, if you got an individual assistance declaration or not, because it doesn’t apply to all counties. Depend upon the county’s wealth, not the wealth of the individual, something we would like to see changed. So tell us, what do you see most often six months, one year, two years post disaster?

Kate Bulger: Yeah. So I think this is where we start to see real differences based on the type of disaster that it is. So recovery from a tornado, for instance, can begin almost immediately the next day. You’re able to begin clearing things, you’re pretty quickly able to begin rebuilding something. A fire on the other hand sort of being the complete other end of the spectrum, that’s when we’re there’s often a year or more before you can review, individuals can get back in there and start clearing the land and start thinking about rebuilding. And so those differences really are important. But I think the thing that’s common in all of the disasters that we work with is you got that initial period after a disaster when you got Red Cross, FEMA, SBA, Cajun Navy and all these nonprofit groups that are genuinely there to help and injecting aid into the community, and then they go away. That period ends and the entire area transitions into a kind of more long term recovery. And even after a disaster, you hear about headlines and things in the news about Congress often allocating funds for a disaster. That money doesn’t get into the community right away. That usually gets in the community one to two years later.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Or five years. In the case of it, it can easily be five years, it can be seven years, it can be for the block grants that go to cities and counties, entities. Just to be clear.

Kate Bulger: So that period of time where there should have no new aid coming into the area, that’s when we’re working with consumers to make as much financial space in their budget as we can to help them recover. And so sometimes, that is helping them find other nonprofits that are still active in the area. Sometimes, that’s working with their creditors, their mortgage company, their credit card companies, bank to get some payment relief, or to ask for assistance directly.And lots of creditors will provide it. So we mentioned Fannie Mae at the top of the show. Borrowers, for instance, can go into disaster forbearance where they won’t have to make a payment for a period of time while they’re recovering.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: So you’ve been working with Fannie Mae for years as I love working with them. It’s the most impactful partnership I’ve ever had. Can you tell me how your role with Fannie Mae plays into the disaster space? How can people find out about that?

Kate Bulger: Absolutely. So you can go to Fannie Mae’s website, And then click here to help, and you’ll be able to see all of Fannie Mae’s counseling resources, you’ll be able to find your service or information so you can call your service there. Fannie Mae does a lot to really support folks who are going through disasters. And so I encourage people to check it out.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: And one of the things that I really love is when they put together a disaster team in 2017, actually right during our fires is when they really were starting to put it together, but they were boots on the ground for us three months later. They were way ahead of the curve from a lot of other organisations. And I super appreciate that. To be clear, you can go to their website and find out who owns your mortgage. Because you know who your lender is, but your lender is not necessarily who owns your mortgage. It could very well be Fannie Mae. If it is, then you have the opportunity to do a one year forbearance. And instead of charging you interest, or a balloon payment, they just add that year to the end of your mortgage. So if it was a 30 year mortgage, it’s now a 31 year mortgage. So it gives you really a huge breathing space. And when I tell disaster communities that they have this opportunity, so many have said, oh, my god, I did not know it all. I was trying to figure out how am I going to pay a mortgage while I pay rent, while I rebuild a home. I really love that you’re a part of that network.

Kate Bulger: Fannie Mae is a great partner, just a phenomenal partner out there. Really compassionate, very compassionate, they genuinely care. They do.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: They’re always there on the grid. I’m traveling to the Martial Fire with them later this month, and a lot of traveling with them. So it’s more than just like, because they don’t just call it in. They actually get on the ground. They meet people, they listen to their concerns. They talk about mortgages, they talk about renters. That’s a great segue. Can you talk to us about your experience with the impact of disaster on renters?

Kate Bulger: Yeah, absolutely. So a couple of things. So first, when someone is renting and they’re in until like a multifamily rental unit. So there’s several units in a single building. One of the real challenges that I think most renters don’t realize is, if one of those units is severely damaged, the landlord may have to prevent, have to basically kick out everyone in the building because of health and safety challenges. So even if it doesn’t damage your particular unit, your apartment, your condo, you still might end up having to leave your rental because of the damage from the storm, or the fire, or whatever the event was. I think the other thing that people can be surprised about is that renters really need to have insurance. The insurance that the landlord has on the building, even if you’re renting from an individual, if you’re renting a house from an individual, their homeowners insurance on that property does not cover your things, or your loss, or anything. So renters should try and get it. If you can find a way to afford it, get renters insurance. It makes a big difference.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s very expensive though. Even if all you can afford is a basic policy, even if all you’re going to get out of it is $10,000 or something, that’s like $10,000 you don’t have to find. It can be as low as 5 or $10 a month. So you definitely must. I actually don’t like over regulating, but I do wish that that were a requirement for renters in an unstable, or climate based disaster area, which is all of us. Because it’s very sad when they just don’t know that they’re not covered. It’s like getting into somebody else’s car and you’re driving along, and you get into a car accident, and you think, well, their insurance is going to cover me. And then you find out that you were supposed to carry your own insurance, because insurance just doesn’t work the same for all hearts. So yeah, appreciate that. So what do you see three years after the disaster?

Kate Bulger: I think it’s actually a really good segue from renters to three years. So one of the things we see common across all disasters is that disaster puts little pressure on housing stock in an area. So there were a thousand homes in an area and a thousand families, for instance, 500 were damaged. Suddenly, you have only 500 units, but you still have thousands of families in the area who need a home. And so that pressure usually comes with rapidly increasing housing costs. And it happens in the area where the disaster occurred and continues out into the surrounding cities and towns a good distance. So one of the big challenges that we work with folks on is finding ways to afford that new payment. And sometimes, insurance companies will help pick up that cost or help pick up a portion of that cost for different time periods. That varies pretty wildly from state to state. But regardless, people have to find a way to adjust to that new cost. Similarly, with jobs. When a disaster occurs, jobs disappear in that area too. Or the jobs that are in that area really change because the needs of the community changed so quickly. And so it can be difficult to find new employment. And often, we see people end up taking pay cuts for a few years so that they can stay in the area. But the job that they had just no longer pays as much for some time. And so helping people adjust to that new financial reality is really critical. And helping them adjust really quickly. Because the longer someone goes where they’re spending more than they’re making every month, the more challenged, the harder it is for them to recover long term. Typically, they use credit cards for that. And so that becomes a challenge as well. We hit like the three year mark in general, for folks who are rebuilding usually at that point. And in most of those, certainly not all disasters, that congressional aid money has come through. 

And so you’ll hear people talk about CDBG Funds or their block grants, basically where Congress allocates money. HUD is the one who helps disperse the money to the different areas. And then each community gets to decide, here are the ways that we’re going to spend this money in order to make recoveries happen. Very frequently, those include aid to consumers, but there’s usually some string and requirements for it. And so we help folks understand what those terms are, find those kinds of programs that are often grants, make those applications and get them through. But also help people prepare for it in that interim period. Right. Frequently, we see reimbursement for repairs, rebuilding and certain kinds of material. And so we’ll help people ahead of time as they’re working with this recovery to make sure that they’re keeping receipts that they have, have those organized, that they know what things are typically covered in those programs, what typically isn’t. And then as soon as those programs open up, if they do in their area, letting them know, like, hey, you can go get $10,000 back for septic tank repairs, that kind of thing. Whatever it is.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: And then you help them when they are denied. Because again, it’s a public funds issue. It is meant to take care of public funds. And to remember that SBA doesn’t set the policies. They are trying, and it’s just a very difficult space to prevent fraud. And so sometimes, preventing fraud prevents access for everyone. And so you have to just keep going back and appeal.

Kate Bulger: Yeah, absolutely. I think we’ve talked about SBA a little bit. That’s so important. Even though it’s a loan, it is so important for everyone to apply for SBA. If SBA is offered in your area, even if you don’t intend to take it, even if you don’t want that loan, you don’t think it’s for you, even if you don’t think you’ll qualify, it’s still really important to take it because that opens up other potential benefits in your area that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to if you didn’t apply.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Like what? Can you be specific? I’m just curious.

Kate Bulger: It’s easier to get certain benefits from FEMA if you have applied to SBA. Some nonprofits are then able to provide money in a way that is really materially different when SBA has been denied. But if you don’t apply, all of those doors are closed. I think it’s incredibly confusing because it is the Small Business Administration, so it’s not obvious to people what their role is going to be. And then applying for a loan feels like it’s something that you intend to accept and that you expect to receive. So telling people, even though we know your credit score, your income is not going to support a loan, we just need you to apply for it. Because then, this next thing is gonna get easier.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that that just speaks to, once again, why it’s so important to have navigators in this field. I’m sure to have a generalist for communities. I can go where you go to that, that, this, this, this. But to have people like you who are doers, so very specific, who really understand the different corners of it and can walk people through because it’s not instinctual how it works, it doesn’t work like anything else. And even with FEMA, you may have a case manager, that case manager may not be funded really though until a year post disaster. That’s very common, you can really help fill that space because there’s quite a big gap of very important decisions that people make between day one post disaster and day 365. When case managers may be assigned, case managers are only used by a certain segment of the population. And even more commonly, they are not experienced because they’re from the community that also was affected by the disaster. They’re not really necessarily experienced in navigating FEMA, and it’s a surprise to them. It’s a bit of a game of fish, you have to know what to ask for, and then FEMA wants to give it to you. But it’s not as obvious that every community is assigned a FEMA, it’s called a VALs. And they actually will help the case managers, the public officials and everybody to navigate, but you can have that person rotate too. 

Sometimes, we see that the first year is easy. And in our case, it’s often their very first wildfire so everyone is doing their best on the learning curve. But this is the thing about disasters that can be both exhilarating, and that there’s a lot of room for leadership, emergent leaders and people who want to step up into their community. We should not be gatekeeping that. We should be really encouraging that. But learning it over and reinventing the wheel over and over again is one of the things that there are many of us in this space that don’t want people to do, because just the suffering that you incur trying to go through a trauma and then learn how to navigate this space of disaster, that does not work like anything else that you’ve ever encountered before. So yeah, that’s my soapbox.

Kate Bulger: Yeah. I will say that if you’re a nonprofit, or even a for profit organization that’s trying to find out your disaster, FEMA VALs are incredible resources. So even if they haven’t recovered from that particular type of disaster, a big part of their job is helping connect different parts of the community to each other. And so meet with them if you can. Try to build a good relationship with them even though there can be that churn, somebody else’s assigned or were reassigned, right? But they are, again, like you said, a group that really wants to help out and worth forging a relationship with.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: They’re great for me too. Because sometimes, I’ll get a supervisor in a community that will call and ask me a question and be like, I’m not sure why we’re not getting this. And now, I have no more questions to ask. I’m like, why did you ask for this? Did you put it in an email? Did you put it on the letterhead? I’ve had great experiences just saying, okay, can you give me the number for your FEMA VALs. Because often, people even in positions of power are afraid to ask questions that make them look like they may not know what they’re talking about, because they don’t want to be denied on the basis of that, or they’re not sure what the power structure is. And that FEMA VAL could assure them over and over again that they’re really there to help. But there still can be a fear factor for any kind of pushback, like asking again. And because I am in space, I don’t have to have that fear factor because I can call and just ask the question. And I know I’ve dealt with enough VALs that I know, that they’re there for absolutely the right reasons. And they’re happy to do that. And they don’t mind the pushback, and they usually give me the answer. And then I translate it back. But yeah, yeah. So what have we not covered that I should have asked about? We have about nine minutes left, and I just want to make sure that, I’m sure you have a list of stuff that I have not even thought to ask.

Kate Bulger: Two things I would love to put in. One of the things that I think we do really well with Project Porchlight is when long term disaster case management groups pop up in an area, we are good at helping people work with those groups. We want them to work with those groups. Consumers get basically a written action plan after every interaction with us, and we’re encouraging them to share those with their long term disaster case managers. Project Porchlight is a spoke in the wheel for their recovery. But really, again, our main focus is financial, and there is so much more to the recovery than that. And so helping people connect with those groups has been incredibly helpful. The other thing I’d love to talk a little bit about are some of our long term outcomes with Project Porchlight. So what we found is that without some support in place, your typical consumer goes through a disaster and ends up losing about 25 points on their credit score in that first year. And their credit continues to go down over the next couple of years. It is financially devastating. Not only is it financially devastating at that moment, all that people are spending to try and recover. Your credit score fall means that the cost of borrowing goes up, as those things like the cost of insurance, and it can be harder to get a job if your credit score isn’t higher. And so with Project Porchlight, what we know is that after a disaster, the average consumer’s credit score falls about 25 points in that first year. It is financially devastating, not just in all of the money that people are spending in a time to recover, but also because lower credit scores mean things cost more. It costs more to borrow, you’re less likely to get the ideal loan, you’re more likely to get a loan that’s not as great a terms.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s expensive to be poor. It’s very, very expensive.

Kate Bulger: Yeah, totally expensive, especially to have bad credit. What we found is that by working with a counselor from Project Porchlight, we’re able to prevent people from losing ground on average in that first year. And over the following three years, people gain about 30 points on their credit score on average. And so not only are they not losing ground, but they’re actually gaining ground in that area.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: That’s very impressive. If I can just say like, that’s very, very impressive.

Kate Bulger: We are incredibly proud. It is sometimes tough to explain to people that no change to a credit score is a huge win. But effectively, that’s a 25 point increase. You have prevented a 25 point fall in their credit, it’s something we’re very proud of. Consumers that work with us are less likely to feel as financially stressed. They’re more likely to be able to return to making regular payments again, and having more financial normal within about 12 months of working with their counselor. But it will say our counselors will work with someone for as long as they need. So I think our longest consumer has been with us for about 18 months, but we will continue to follow up to check in, to stick with that person for as long as they feel like they need us. And people can always come back. So if someone feels like they got what they need from their counselor, they say, we don’t need to keep having these conversations, I think I can do it. And then they run into a new financial roadblock, people can always come back and call their counselor again. And we start back and find ways to get around that roadblock. I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to achieve, and how many people we’ve been able to help with Project Porchlight.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m just very happy that you exist. There’s a lot of people in the disaster space that aren’t really, they want to help later. But it’s very hard with funding with long term recovery. It’s very hard because the donations dry up. And to have partners like Fannie Mae or people who will stay in it for the very long term, it’s something that I hope that we see more and more often, especially with our increased disasters that we’re having in this country and globally too. And so I really applaud the fact that you were even way ahead of this huge climate crisis thing that we’re experiencing now that you already had all of your systems in place to take care of people. I love that. Thank you. So one of the last things I’d like to ask you about, which I asked just about everybody in this field, is that this can be very stressful. The helpers are the last ones to ask for help. We absorb, absorb, absorb a lot of trauma and pain. So we’re not superheroes or saviors, we’re just human beings. How is it that you manage to stay in this work for so long and to take care of yourself and have some balance there?

Kate Bulger: I think we’ve got two sides. So personally, it is about trying to focus on the successes, and trying to think of setbacks and some of the emotional grind as learning opportunities. But also giving myself the opportunity to say, today, this is all I can do. This has been enough, and I need to step back and do something that cares for me. I’d say, when I first started doing this work, that was not a skill that I had. It took a long time for me to get there and say, you know what? If I don’t give myself a pause and give myself a step back today, I’m not going to be able to be here tomorrow for it. But also, like I said, focusing on the positives we have, I think at MMI, that is something we’re very good at. We keep client success stories online, we also share clients success stories with our counselors. And when I feel down like we’re not making a difference, I can go back and read those success stories. And that’s another thing, it’s a way to tangibly feel how much of an impact it makes for our counselors. Having a really strong EAP program makes a huge difference. So we know that the folks doing this work, talking to every client day after day, can be incredibly overwhelming. This is what they do full time. There’s enough disasters that we are never standing down, we are always active. So having a really strong EAP program is important. We have a great education team that takes education very seriously beyond, just sort of the things about our job. We’ve got a desk yoga kind of series where people can take a break and do this guided yoga at their desk that helps them tune back into themselves. Counselors can always go to their manager and say, you know what? I can’t do my next call like this. I cannot take another new call today, I need to have a minute just to quiet myself right or to step back. And so our managers know that that’s the thing that the counselors need so they’re able to provide it. But again, really focusing on trying to focus on that. The big successes, I think, are critical.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: It is critical. It’s interesting because I’ve been in one nonprofit and then one Emergency Operation Center that each had a crying room. They had set aside rooms for people to go and cry. I was like, well, that’s very good. I’m not mad about that at all. But that says a lot about what we’re doing here, which can be a little much. People ask me all the time, isn’t that just so depressing when you go to a wildfire community and everything is destroyed, you see the same thing over and over again, the pain and the suffering. I’m like, I don’t. I’m sad for them, but I’m there to help them. And they don’t need me to be crying all over them. But I can see why people have a crying room, so I’m not saying, don’t have that. I’m saying that you have to have strategies, though, for when you walk in, or you’re helping somebody that you may absorb it. It may take me like two weeks actually afterwards to reconcile it in my heart. But the people that you meet, though, and the impact, the possibility to lessen human suffering is what draws us all into this space to do our lane and do our share. I’m just so pleased that you are in a space that’s not that populated, I am glad to see it. I just interviewed, SBP has a new program. They’re helping people with individual assistance, and it’s just getting off the ground. They’ve had some successes, which is good with FEMA appeals. But honestly, I wish you had more competition. You can still take over. But I do wish you had more competition, because there’s so much of you to go around. So we will put links below. But if you want to say what your website is for MMI or Project Porchlight on this broadcast, I’d love for you to do that.

Kate Bulger: Thank you so much. So if you go to money, that is our MMI website. And at the top, you can click on disaster and connect with a disaster counselor.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: And again, it is a nonprofit. So if anyone is out there thinking that they really love and want to support this work, you can also go to the same website and support their work directly. Long term recovery is an unfunded or underfunded space. And it’s just incredibly important the impact that you have on people when they really feel like the whole world has moved on because it has, but their lives are still completely ended and not put back together the same. So anything you can do to help, and I just really, really want to thank you, Kate, for the work that you do, and for coming on the How To Disaster Podcast.

Kate Bulger: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me. This has been wonderful.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m so glad. The coolest thing about this part of the job is that I get to introduce people to cool people that I’ve met along the way. And so thank you so much. And once again, this has been the How To Disaster Podcast. Thanks for spending this time with us. And that’s a wrap.

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