How to Improve Community Resilience and Preparedness with Michelle Luckett



“The significance of the average person understanding the consequence of what’s coming is huge.” -Michelle Luckett



Every community is unique. It’s not just about the geography or demographic, but also the way a community responds to a disaster. So it’s important that we take the time to assess our community’s resilience.

Community resilience is about bringing together all of the resources and people in our neighborhood to make sure that everyone has what they need to survive in the case of a disaster. As part of this, it’s important to make sure that we, ourselves,  are prepared for any kind of emergency, and that everyone in the community is, too— down to the most vulnerable ones. 

In this episode, Jennifer interviews Michelle Luckett, the CEO of Be Ready Alliance Coordinating for Emergencies/ BRACE. Michelle answers the question, what do we rebuild first— businesses or residences? She also shares practical steps that small businesses and ordinary citizens can do to prepare for compound disasters and strengthen their resiliency, and the secret to staying in the resiliency and recovery space long-term.

In order to initiate recovery, most people require assistance. However, in a disaster, it’s a challenge to qualify for one. And even if we do, it will probably take a long time before we get our hands on it. This can be discouraging, especially if we’ve lost both our homes and our jobs— that sense of loss that drives many to hopelessness. Listen in as Michelle shares a less known provision that displaced workers can take advantage of and what to do to qualify for it. 




  • 03:45: BRACE and Its Focus Goals
  • 14:52: How Small Businesses Can Prepare for a Disaster
  • 22:21: A Provision for Displaced Workers
  • 29:31: What to Rebuild First— Business or Residence
  • 36:27: Dealing with Compound Disasters
  • 39:18: How to Build Community Resilience
  • 44:35: How to Approach the Next Decade
  • 52:11: Mental Health for First Responders



In trying to improve community resilience and preparedness, it can be easy to get lost in the weeds because of all the complex systems. What can we do? Where do we start? Tune in as @JenGrayThompson and Michelle Luckett, CEO of @BRACEbeready answer these questions and more! #Recover #Rebuild #Reimagine #NorthBay #podcast #wildfire #DisasterRecovery #AfterTheFire #Season3 #HowToDisaster #preparedness #emergencyresponse #resiliency #wind&rain #grant #CompoundDisasters #BRACE #BeReady



07:10: “Having a local Community Emergency Response Program is a significant part of the readiness component of our communities.” -Michelle Luckett 

09:42: “Emergent leaders are the secret sauce in disaster, but coordination is the key to even dealing with that.” -Jennifer Thompson

15:56: “If your employees are displaced because of a natural disaster, their ability to get back on their feet may make the difference in whether or not you have that employee next week.” -Jennifer Thompson

17:11: “Some of this is avoidable. You can plan and prepare for business resiliency by taking a few steps— Once a quarter, do an insurance checkup and talk to your employees about their readiness and preparation.” -Michelle Luckett

20:19: “You’ve got to have peace somewhere in this process or the burnout happens even faster.” -Michelle Luckett  

22:15: “If they knew in advance, they would do better.” -Jennifer Thompson

30:43: “You’re getting people re-engaged, you’re reestablishing business. And it may not be that you’re gonna make a whole bunch of money right then and there. But you’re building loyalty in the community that you live in.” -Michelle Luckett 

36:52: “The understanding of what needs to be done to prevent a natural disaster from being a community killer is a huge conversation.” -Michelle Luckett

37:59: “It’s not just about having your disaster kit, but it’s about having disaster resiliency in every part of your preparation.” -Michelle Luckett

40:33: “It’s emotional. It’s hard work. And sometimes people forget it’s not just numbers on a paper. We’re talking about communities and making that change, and allowing for more resiliency funding has got to happen.” -Michelle Luckett

41:56: “The issue of climate change and climate resiliency is something that’s becoming less politicized daily.” -Jennifer Thompson

44:41: “The significance of the average person understanding the consequence of what’s coming is huge.” -Michelle Luckett

46:39: “The more we talk about it, the more creative solutions can be found and people can be less afraid.” -Michelle Luckett

47:57: “Politics are going to hurt us in the field of disaster if they’re not used in service to education.” -Jennifer Thompson

51:53: “When you’re a helper, you don’t really feel entitled to mental health care, but it’s actually key to being able to do this work long term.” -Jennifer Thompson

54:40: “The work we do is hard work. Not everybody can do it— And I love it. I love it a lot!” -Michelle Luckett

55:03: “This work has very little room for heroes and saviors. And if you never mistake yourself for one, then it makes it much easier to talk about it.” -Jennifer Thompson 


Meet Michelle:

Michelle Luckett is the CEO of Be Ready Alliance Coordinating for Emergencies/BRACE. She is an expert in nonprofit management, disaster recovery efforts, and domestic and international school operations with a proven track record for significant success in community building, volunteer management, fundraising, grant development, and government affairs. Prior to being the head of BRACE, Michelle managed a federal, state, and nonprofit grant portfolio of $24 million in St. Vincent de Paul South Pinellas. As a servant leader, Michelle was on the frontlines coordinating all 560 nonprofit organizations in the Florida Keys to ensure that they work harmoniously in providing relief and recovery services. 

Connect with the Be Ready Alliance Coordinating for Emergencies/BRACE:



Jennifer Gray Thompson: Today, we have a very special guest. I know I say that every week, but one of the goals of this podcast is to bring you just this ecosphere of what I consider super wonderful human beings that I have encountered along the way of working in the field of disaster. This one was that many months in the making. She’s a very busy woman, Michelle Luckett is with us today, and she is the CEO of BRACE. BRACE stands for Be Ready Alliance Coordinating for Emergencies. 

You have to forgive me if I’m looking over here a little bit for our scripts. We’re having one of those technical difficulties, but it’s not a disaster so we’re going to be just fine. Michelle has over a decade of experience in the disaster sector and she just joined BRACE which was founded 14 years ago. It helps to coordinate disaster preparedness, response and recovery. So we have a lot in common. I actually met Michelle, I believe through Fannie Mae and Fannie Mae headquarters about three years ago. We were both there to speak together, and then I was very fortunate that FEMA asked me to go out to hurricane Michael in Florida in the Florida Panhandle and address and convene with a group of disaster professionals. And it was there that we really sort of cemented our affinity for each other. There’s an entire world of super cool people out there, like Cherry Jochum and like Dr. Lopez, who shows up and who is just such a pleasure to know and work with.

I invited Michelle today to really talk to you about how she even got into this field. And when I first met her, she was the Executive Director of the long term recovery group in the Florida Keys. And since then, she’s moved to Pensacola County and has taken over the role of CEO of BRACE. She’s perfect for that kind of work. I’m really curious to talk to her about some of the things that she does, how she got here, but also what might the challenges be that could be addressed in cross pollinating the specific areas in wildfire. Because wildfire is not wind and rain, and a lot of people have decades upon decades, upon decades of experience in wind and rain. But the field of mega fires is really only about, I would say four to six years old. We got a hint of it in 2015 with the Valley Fire and then really a full introduction in 2017, and it’s just been a real challenge since then. But I always love sitting with people in this field that I highly respect. 

I’m so excited to welcome Michelle Luckett to the podcast, so thank you for joining us.

Michelle Luckett: Jennifer, I’m thrilled to have the time to talk to you.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: So I feel really fortunate to know this group of disaster professionals, it just so happens to be inhabited by a lot of kick ass women, and I definitely put you at the top of that. I can’t wait until we can actually meet together again in person. I just wanted to check in with you like, what are the last two years, you’ve had so many changes in your career so tell me what’s going on with you in the last two years. We’re gonna start there. Because when I met you, you were the Executive Director of the long term recovery group in the Keys, Florida Keys. And now, you are the CEO of BRACE. And so if you could tell us a little bit about how that’s been, and then talk to us about BRACE because it’s very cool. I really liked this model.

Michelle Luckett: Great. So I took over CEO here with BRACE in November of 2020, and the founding CEO Greg Strader retired. It was a great opportunity to continue doing the great work that I did down in the Keys as far as hurricane recovery and working with the VOAD partners, the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, and continue building on something that I have a huge passion for. BRACE has been around since 2006. It originally started off as the Escambia County Long Term Recovery Group. And then Hurricane Ivan happened, and then Hurricane Dennis happened, and this community realized that they needed to really have a long term sustainable Disaster Services nonprofit. So Greg came in and started building this organization. And today, we have a team of 27 here in Pensacola, have an AmeriCorps VISTA program that is the largest Disaster Services Program in the southeast with 18 Vista slots and a team leader. And we’ve got offices just outside of Tallahassee and a little rural community called Quincy just outside of Jacksonville in Nassau County. And we are adding to a nonprofit partner in Tampa Bay that is still doing Hurricane Irma recovery. So BRACE really has four main focuses, and it’s those four R’s. It’s the Readiness, the Response, the Recovery and then the Resources. And so for readiness, we handle all of the community training for the cert programs for Escambia County. We have a really strong CERT program here in the Panhandle.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Just in case somebody doesn’t know, I know what it is, but I always want to assume that people don’t necessarily know all the acronyms, so can you, no, no, no, sorry. All good.

Michelle Luckett: So CERT stands for Community Emergency Response Team. And the CERT program was established, actually, because of the earthquakes in Mexico City. And then it really solidified it here in the states in Southern California after the wildfires in early 1980s. And so this program evolved out of the wildfire response that communities were doing to take care of each other before the first responders could get on scene to provide assistance. So that program has grown exponentially around the country. There is a national CERT Association. A lot of states have CERT associations at the local level. And so we are grateful that we’ve got a really strong partnership with the CERT programs here in Panhandle. Most people don’t realize that from one end of the state of Florida where I am here in Pensacola down to Key West, it’s a 15 hour drive and two time zones. So the Panhandle here is about six hours across from Pensacola to Jacksonville, and the communities are very different because we’re very rural. 


“Having a local Community Emergency Response Program is a significant part of the readiness component of our communities.” -Michelle Luckett


So the other part of that is that we are the bull’s eye for hurricanes. And so having a local Community Emergency Response Program is a significant part of the readiness component of our communities here in Panhandle. So we do that. We do specialized training for senior citizens, we run a great youth engagement program and have got fantastic partners. We’re looking at bringing in a Camp Noah program, which is about mental health trauma, support for young kids, and to really help them move through the life consequences after a disaster. And that’s a once in a lifetime experience that’s done with Lutheran Disaster Response. And so we’ve also got a huge veterans engagement program where we work closely with Team Rubicon to get the veteran community involved. 

Pensacola is home to the Naval Air Station, which is home to the Blue Angels. So we’ve got a really big military presence. And just down the coast from us, we’ve got Eglin Air Force Base, Hubert, and of course Tyndall in Panama City. So the retirement community here from the armed services, they have a servant’s heart. I mean, that’s why people join the military is to give back to the country, and so we really are happy to embrace those veterans and bring them into the volunteering work that we do. So that’s the readiness. Then on the response side, we work very closely with the Escambia County emergency management to support the Emergency Operations Center. So as you know, they’re different in support functions. So everything from, you’ve got mass care and liaison with the National Guard and all that stuff. So we handle what is known as ESF or Emergency Support Functions 15, which is volunteers and donations. That program or those responsibilities mean that for any group coming into our community, whether they be an affiliated VOAD, or voluntary organization partner, or an individual that’s with, I just got a truck and I want to come help that spontaneous volunteer that shows up, we run the Volunteer Reception Center in partnership with Pensacola Christian College, which is a huge campus to get folks involved in a way that doesn’t create a level of chaos after the disaster because people self deploy.


“Emergent leaders are the secret sauce in disaster, but coordination is the key to even dealing with that.” -Jennifer Thompson


Jennifer Gray Thompson: And then they accidentally duplicate. And I think it’s important to say that emergent leaders are the secret sauce in disaster, but coordination is the key to even dealing with that.

Michelle Luckett: Absolutely. So we’re very fortunate here that our nonprofit community, when it comes to response activities, really does not silo. The long term recovery group here in Escambia County is still administered by BRACE. We have 120 active partners from this community, everything from social services, to faith based organizations, to the local collegiate system, to the school district. Everybody is involved in some fashion or form with the volunteers and donations component. So that’s a big part of what we do. I’m grateful that we are funded by the Escambia County Government to really fulfill those roles. And then on the recovery side, so we’ve got readiness, we’ve got a response. On the recovery side, currently, we administered the Hurricane Sally disaster case management program. It is a locally led program that was done with philanthropic dollars, both for the staffing model that is partially done through philanthropy, but it’s supported by a displaced workers grant from the US Department of Labor.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Okay.

Michelle Luckett: And we can talk about more of that if you’d like in a minute. And then we have raised with our nonprofit partners, $1.1 million for unmet needs in this community. It’s not a big market like Tampa Bay, or Jacksonville or Birmingham, or Atlanta. This is local Pensacola. So the fact that this community and the partners all came together to pull those resources is significant. Hurricane Sally happened in September 2020 right as we were coming out of the pandemic. And so ways that we do recovery work as far as conducting needs assessments and case intake, and all of those things that require face to face contact with clients had to be pivoted to embrace the new COVID protocols and realities of working with disaster survivors. The recovery is a big part of what we do here. And then the last part, of course, is resources. My job is to pull as much best practices and support from national organizations, best practices that we’ve learned through organizations like yours, about how we do wildfires here. Because we do have wildfires here, but they’re things that people don’t consider until it happens. So my job on the resources side is to bring best practitioners into the community to really share what they do, educate the population, prepare the community. And through all of that, then we look at resiliency. What does it mean to be a resilient community in an era where climate change climate adaptation, whatever you want to call it, is a significant reality, especially in the state of Florida.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. We think about Florida often, and when we’re not thinking about the American West. But as far as Ground Zero, really, for so many of the wind and water issues, like most people think of Hurricane Katrina, and I think of that too, and I think of Louisiana. But when I was in Florida a few months ago, I was driving from Cocoa Beach to Orlando, because I met family there. I was like, wow, the job there is to keep the ocean away, to deal with this. And water is just the strongest element. And in a way, like it made me like, who is really thinking about that in a way that I don’t think that I had quite considered the same way before. But also, we often feel so overwhelmed by the fire monster. I was like, I think we can do that though. Like, I think we can handle it, we can live alongside wildfire just like you all have to live alongside water. It’s really how, what kind of interventions there are, what kind of technologies, how we’re willing to adapt as humans to not be taken out by mother nature. Because she’s definitely not going first, that’s for sure. So I was just really struck by that. I just think it’s so important that we have these cross disaster sector conversations, and I am really interested to learn more about the wildfires you have there. But there’s so many things that you just said that I would like to talk about. But one of the things that I was really interested in was you were talking about the importance as a business like a lot of businesses, and so we do a lot of residential issues, but also we care a ton about the private sector, especially small businesses. Can you talk about not only the role and responsibility of small businesses, but what resources are out there so that they can stand themselves back up in our case in a wildfire. To be clear, it’s often that those businesses are, we don’t really have anything left at the end. But there are a lot of businesses on the outskirts of these megafires that have to have some of the same consideration. So I was very interested in your conversation around that, if you could talk to our listeners.

Michelle Luckett: Sure. So I think there’s a couple of action items that small businesses can do. Of course, preparation for disaster season, whether it’s tornadoes, or fire, or hurricanes. You know that your community floods, when you’ve got five days of rain. It’s the ongoing business continuity planning the COOP plan, but also in that are the readiness and preparation things that you don’t think about until after the fact. Did you do an insurance check for your building?


“If your employees are displaced because of a natural disaster, their ability to get back on their feet may make the difference in whether or not you have that employee next week.” -Jennifer Thompson


Jennifer Gray Thompson: Hold on right there. Don’t even move past that for just a minute. Because over, and over, and over again, the insurance issue, we don’t do insurance because we defer that to people who are much smarter than we are an insurance, but it is so heartbreaking, the insurance piece, and also ask your employees, are you a renter? Do you have renter’s insurance? And if you don’t, let’s look at yours, it may seem like an overreach. But if your employees are displaced because of a natural disaster, like their ability to get back on their feet may make the difference whether or not you have that employee next week.

Michelle Luckett: Well, and the other part of it, to be quite frank, and I’ll speak to what I know best, which is here in the southeast. When a disaster happens, if a small business does not have a continuity plan and a disaster hits 70% of those small businesses in that community do not reopen. And if that 30% or so, that does reopen. Half of them will be gone within a year. So if you’re a small rural community as we have here in the Panhandle and across most of Florida, that happens, it’s a community killer. It’s a community killer economically. Because of what you just said, people can’t get back to work. They don’t have a place to live so they’re going to leave. So you’ve got not just displacement of an employee, you’ve got a displacement of an entire community. 


“Some of this is avoidable. You can plan and prepare for business resiliency by taking a few steps— Once a quarter, do an insurance checkup and talk to your employees about their readiness and preparation.” -Michelle Luckett


What is a challenge for me in my work is getting that message out that some of this is avoidable. You can plan and prepare for business resiliency by just taking a few steps once a quarter to do an insurance checkup, to talk to your employees about their readiness and preparation. Do they know where they’re going? Do you have a contingency plan? If the internet goes down, do you have a contingency plan? If the cell towers go down, how are you communicating with your employees? Do you have a displaced location where you can stand up your business? If you had to because your building is destroyed, a lot of that is conversation that can happen ahead of time. But the challenge with entrepreneurs as you and I both know is that you get so busy in the day to day worrying about your employees and paying your bills. That those critical planning moments tend to wait, they get put off. 

So one of the things we’re doing with the Chamber of Commerce and some of our banks here is we’re putting together a new business continuity bert bag, if you will. And it’s orange, and it’s going to have a list in there. Here’s all the things you need to do, and put all those documents in this. So when something happens, you grab that, you lock your building and you go. But then after the fact, you’ve got your insurance information, you’ve got your banking information, you’ve got a flash drive that’s got all your inventory and all that in there so you know what to do.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: And just a side note, I think this works in every disaster. Just once a year, just walk around your business and videotape it on your camera and throw it up in a cloud. Don’t just take 10 or 15 minutes because we’ve got to do that for inventory reasons. Well, that’s the same in wind and rain too. And it’s one of those very simple not a drain on your resources, or your time, or your energy. But every single year, do it because you don’t really think in your brain the incremental changes that your business, your home, they’ve undergone over the course of that last year, but they really have, and open the drawers.


“You’ve got to have peace somewhere in this process or the burnout happens even faster.” -Michelle Luckett


Michelle Luckett: Absolutely. Absolutely. So that’s on the readiness side after the event. If you’ve got all these documents ready, then applying for your SBA disaster loan is not insurmountable. You’ve got your documentation, you’ve got what you need to have because it’s all in that one location and you just took it with you so that you can not only file your FEMA claim as an individual, but you can also start your SBA process as a business. And in the meantime while you’re doing that, hopefully, you’ve got a nonprofit in your community that can say, listen, let us help you whether it’s the Small Business Development Council, the local Chamber of Commerce to give you guidance as a business owner, where do you put your energies? Do you put your money in your personal recovery? And deal with that first. Or do you put your money in your business development and try to get that back up and standing. But when you do that, your personal recovery doesn’t happen. And you and I both know that you’ve got to have peace somewhere in this process, or the burnout happens even faster. So having that plan in the community of who to turn to, what’s the prioritization after the event to get reopened. In the meantime–


“If they knew in advance, they would do better.” -Jennifer Thompson


Jennifer Gray Thompson: That you almost need like an A, B plan, though. Because if you don’t really know it’s going to be destroyed, as much as I love all of our partners at FEMA and SBA, I think people have to know in advance that FEMA individual assistance is not a given. In our case, FEMA has denied individual assistance to the Caldor Fire because what they said was, sure, you’re a federal disaster, but you have too many wealthy people in your county that didn’t lose their home. So it never mind that 70% of people who did lose their home are uninsured, not under, uninsured because they couldn’t afford the fare plan. So make sure that you’re looking at the actual, and they have also refused in the housing mission. So both. So individual assistance, not a given. And it’s good to know that, I mean, you should register, but know in advance that may not come true. SBA, love them. They did a miraculous job during COVID. But from a wildfire perspective, they regularly denied 80 to 90% of every single application. And then sometimes, I just appeal process is three to four times and very difficult. So if you know these things in advance, you are not re-traumatized, you are ready to deal with them. But we have to be very, like clear, and open about what that process really can look like, and all of the different pieces that can come to play dependent upon your disaster. And again, not dissing FEMA or SBA, it’s all about stopping fraud. I understand that. But people, if they knew in advance, I think they would do better.

Michelle Luckett: I agree. That’s from the business side. But there’s something that every state can do. Most people don’t take advantage until somebody else says it, and then the window for application has expired. And that’s the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Acts Displaced Workers Grant. But that requires that emergency management notifies the governor’s office through whatever state, and then the governor’s office requested it from the US Department of Labor, and then they make the award for us. We did not get a federal disaster case management program approved by FEMA, and it didn’t even make it off the desk in Region 4. It just didn’t happen. So I had just come into this position, and Governor DeSantis announced that $5 million was being awarded for Sally displacement. Well, I’m like, that’s how I’m gonna staff my case management program.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: That is so smart. Okay, you have just unlocked a puzzle piece for me. I’m not even kidding. This was my big learner, their learning moment of the day. Go ahead.

Michelle Luckett: Awesome. So under the displaced workers grant, the deal is there’s some qualifiers for employment. The first one is, of course, you have to be placed. So you got to have lived in the community that’s been impacted, number one. Number two, you have to be able to prove that you have lost employment because of the event, or your business has dropped so significantly that you are now under employed. Okay. And then another one could be that you have been unemployed for six out of the last 12 weeks. So you’ve got death, by definition, long term unemployed going into it. The entire purpose of the grant is to get people back to work and get the community stood up. So under this program, you can hire temporary disaster workers. Those workers can also be laborers. 

So what happened in June of this past year, we had submitted a paper to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which is our DOL equivalent, because they asked for some feedback. And I said: “Hey, you’re missing the mark on this grant.” The grant is great because I can hire people. But as with the real need here, because Sally was a wind event, because we’ve got debris everywhere, everywhere. And so under this grant, the disaster workers can only work on government property or nonprofit property. So I made the argument that in our communities here in the Panhandle, that’s less than 7% of the real estate digest. It makes no sense if you’re trying to stand a community backup. So we sent the appeal and said, you really want to make a difference. Let us work on residential property with a hold harmless agreement in partnership with the county municipal governments and their public works divisions. I honest to goodness didn’t think it was gonna fly. Well, it did. And they came back and said: “You can do this.” So this week, we’ve opened a new office behind our office here and we’ve got a program manager, we’ve got two crew supervisors, and we’re in the process of hiring the laborers. We have agreements with Escambia County and Santa Rosa County to do debris removal. The problem with this right now, if I’m totally transparent, is that it’s 18 months after the storm, 15 months after the storm, this could have happened had the grant been adjusted to happen right away. So now, the great news is that moving forward, that is an option that grant applicants can ask for.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: So we have to take a commercial break. But I just want to say that I would like you to send me anything you can on that because we too, yes, it’s 18 months after. And also, you’re dealing with compound disasters at once with COVID and you have to build on resiliency so you have like three things that you’re looking at. So while it may be many months later, the fact that you did it and it set precedents, I need people to hear that, this is how we change the space of disaster to serve people better is to have the tenacity to stand up and say, here’s what I need. Here are the facts. You always want to back it up with facts, but also like, here’s a possibility of how you can actually meet this community where it’s at as opposed to trying to serve 320 million people through one policy. And I really believe firmly that that is what FEMA, and SBA, and USDA, and the EDA, that’s what they’re looking for are opportunities to serve more effectively, but they are constrained. And so we have to help them through that by giving them the reason so that you set a precedent means that I can take advantage of that in our world. So we’re going to take a quick commercial break and we will be right back with Michelle Luckett.

And we are back with Michelle Luckett, she’s the CEO of BRACE, and I’m so happy to have her join us today. She is based in Florida. So today, we’re really looking at some wind and rain. But also, just how do you do disaster resiliency, especially serving small businesses and they play an incredibly important role. Michelle, one of the things that we’ve been talking about is how we serve in compound disasters. I know maybe COVID was a little different in Florida. But here, they just lifted our mask mandates this week after two years. And so you were very excited about that. But our numbers just like yours are much lower so it seems like a safe thing to do. So what we’re looking at compound disasters, we’re also looking at this sort of recovery. Not in the space of resiliency, but in recovery. We often see in rural communities, which we serve a lot of rural communities. I’m very passionate about helping out. We help them remove some of the inequities and the barriers to their recovery. We see them struggling with that. What do you rebuild first? The business or the residents? Because you need it, it’s an interesting chicken and egg issue. So you sort of touched upon that a few minutes ago, and I was wondering if you could come back to that and talk about what have you seen and what have you learned about, when you’re rebuilding a community, how do you measure when to build the business as opposed to, or in concert with the residences? It’s a hard one.


“You’re getting people re-engaged, you’re reestablishing business. And it may not be that you’re gonna make a whole bunch of money right then and there. But you’re building loyalty in the community that you live in.” -Michelle Luckett


Michelle Luckett: Jen, I think that’s the million dollar question of what we all encounter, whether we’re dealing with a hurricane, a tornado, a compounding event where you’ve got a hurricane, a flood, and then inland tornadoes all at the same time, and communities are wiped out. So I think part of it is the mitigation efforts that have to happen ahead of time, because that then helps the community understand that it’s not going to be great. It’s not going to be fixed in 96 is something we talked about here in the state of Florida. Meaning, it’s not going to be fixed in 96 hours. So you’re on your own, basically, for an X amount of time. But the flip side of that is, if the business community is prepared and they’re active in the local CCO ad, then, Mr. or Mrs. Smith’s restaurant at the Town Square knows that they’ve got four days of food that they’ve got to get cooked because we’re not going to get power for another week. So then, that relationship then builds on the local church that says, hey, we’ll bring the tables and we’ll set up shop, and then the community begins to respond. But by doing that, you’re getting people reengaged, you’re reestablishing business. And it may not be that you’re gonna make a whole bunch of money right then and there, but you’re building loyalty in the community that you live in. 

The best example of that was when I was in the Keys after Hurricane Irma. It was a Cat 4 storm, there was 12 feet of storm surge in some parts of the Island, and it just decimated the community. However, the local business associations immediately got the restaurants together and said: “Hey, what do you get for food? What do we get for supplies? Let’s get this in.” Because in the Keys, there’s one way in and one way out. And it’s two lanes the majority of the time. So if the road is underwater, or the asphalt has been compromised, and it’s weak, and it’s failing, you can’t move things around. And the Keys are 150 miles long. So going back to your initial question, I think a lot of it starts, again, with readiness and talking about resiliency, the partnerships you build in the community, and then the acknowledgement that small business owners are in a quandary most of the time because they want to take care of their community, they want to take care of their employees. As someone that employs a lot of people, it is my top priority. However, what do you do about your own recovery? And the first responders go through it all the time. How do I do my job, serve my community, and at the same time, make sure that my family is prepared and ready. Or in our case, sometimes evacuated. 

And compounding disasters here make it a huge issue. Because as you mentioned earlier, at the beginning of the cast, water is an issue here in Florida. The sea is not as it’s not going to get any lower. So in some parts of the state, we deal with a king tide. Which means that the saltwater is intruding on the ground level. And what’s coming up is not just standing water, but it’s standing saltwater. So emergency response vehicles will not drive through it because it compromises the integrity of the car or the vehicle. So that’s a problem in normal time. Now, you have rising sea levels, you have a water event with storm surge, you have a wind event as well because of the hurricane force winds, but then you move inland. For instance, if you’re in Tampa and something is going heaven forbid, going through Tampa inland, now you’re going to have spin off tornadoes. So you’ve got three things with one system that happens. So another example of a compounding disaster faced here is Florida’s lightning capital of the world.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I did not know that. There is number two, Michelle.

Michelle Luckett: We are. And the challenge with that is that we have a huge timber industry. Huge, which was a problem after Hurricane Michael. Everybody watched the storm land in Mexico beach in the White Belt because it was a daytime landing. What most people don’t realize was that they lost billions of trees in that area, and those trees go down on private property because it’s an investment for a local farmer and as you know from out west. What happens when you’ve got dead trees on the ground under storm season and rolls here. And so now, you’ve got lightning strikes. And now all of a sudden, you’ve got a wildfire. And then as you know with wildfires comes mud. And we’re not super elevated here, but there is enough elevation. And there is enough lack of soil because there’s so much sand that it causes sinkholes, and it causes other problems. And so you’ve got all these variables that happen. I certainly am not discouraging anyone from moving to the state of Florida, but these are the realities that we face here.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I was amazed. Tim Carpenter from Fannie Mae, I made him drive me around for six hours the day before we all convened together because I was like, am I going to talk to a bunch of disaster people if I have not seen their disaster. And I was amazed at all of the trees like hundreds of thousands of tons of trees that, because they’re not like redwood trees. So when everyone’s thinking they’re probably like the width of me, they’re just like normal sized trees, they might actually, they maybe even some of our supermodels, I am not. And they just tip right over on top of each other, and it’s kind of like you’re just laying in the field though for a massive wildfire. And it just looks so scary to me. I do know that Paradise, the folks in Paradise, including Charles Brooks Rebuild Paradise, really led the effort on getting FEMA to approve with debris removal to also take out the dead trees that didn’t even come into. I don’t think they approved that until late 2019 or early 2020. So well, for the record, but it’s a huge, huge fire danger. And unfortunately, it’s even political because you have some environmentalists who were like, oh, no, the trees, they know themselves, they should just lay down in the forest together. And you’re like, no, all you’re doing is creating a secondary disaster in the making. So none of it works that way. When we were in Oregon, in Central Oregon, a couple of months ago, or four months ago or so, they had protesters who had stopped FEMA, and the Army Corps of Engineers, and the contractors from taking the dead burned wood out of the forest because they mistakenly believed that it should be left alone. So no side notes, that’s the end of my TED Talk. I keep going.


“The understanding of what needs to be done to prevent a natural disaster from being a community killer is a huge conversation.” -Michelle Luckett


Michelle Luckett: Okay. Well, I mean, that’s really the significant part of the compounding factors here if it happens. So when you start talking about readiness and preparation, when you join my team, you take the FEMA class on fire mitigation, flood mitigation, hurricane mitigation. And the only thing they don’t have to do is an earthquake. Because fortunately, we don’t have that here. But the understanding of what needs to be done to prevent a natural disaster from being a community killer is a huge conversation here. Pensacola was in the warning cone for hurricane seven times in 2020. 7 times. So that means, communities are standing up, standing down, shutters are going up, they’re going down, you’re buying groceries, you’re filling your gas tank. And for families that live paycheck to paycheck, you know that united way, Alice number that asset, limited, income constrained, employed individual. So it’s basically, that person that is living paycheck to paycheck, every time we have an event, they’re now tipping into a little bit of reserves. They may have to put gas in their car, or to buy food, or to pay for a hotel because they’re not comfortable where they live, or they live in a mobile home and they know they’re not going to be able to stay there during a storm. And so those compounding factors about financial education, it’s not just about having your disaster kit, but it’s about having disaster resiliency in every part of your preparation, and that it runs the gamut in a community. So we talk about it every single day.


“It’s not just about having your disaster kit, but it’s about having disaster resiliency in every part of your preparation.” -Michelle Luckett


Jennifer Gray Thompson: Sometimes, I hear this too. I think that probably a lot of us in disasters hear this is they’ll say our reporter is often asked, they’re like, why should a teacher, a public school teacher in Des Moines help to pay for resilience in Sonoma, California? And I’m like, because they’re gonna pay for it anyway. You want to pay one six or six times. Like, it’s really like, it’s your call. So when I think about it, when we see people in disasters who are just so suffering, and I wonder, I’m really hoping we move way more into resiliency. And that when you and I talk again, we’re going to talk throughout the next decade. But a decade from now and we’re talking yet again, we’re like, wow, this is so cool about how three quarters of our work is in resilience. And so like what can be done for entire communities, and you have the search team, which is great. But like any resilience grants to build up their infrastructure for some, maybe one day a mobile home will successfully survive a horrific events. I think about that.


“It’s emotional. It’s hard work. And sometimes people forget it’s not just numbers on a paper. We’re talking about communities and making that change, and allowing for more resiliency funding has got to happen.” -Michelle Luckett


Michelle Luckett: Yeah. I think some of it is, quite frankly, I think it’s educating local elected officials on why it should be a priority now instead of after the event. Elected officials are passionate about their communities. They want to do the right thing. And part of that is our responsibility to educate them and you do a fabulous job of carrying that message in Washington DC. There is nobody that does it better than you. It’s true. It’s true. I can’t thank you that tidbits from you on it and then I drop it in my world here in Florida because it’s effective. Having conversation does that help those who make funding appropriations available have to understand having the emergency managers from around the state of Florida invade Tallahassee last week and do — day and have them all make the rounds. We’ve got 69 counties here. That’s a lot of people, but there’s one emergency management director for the state. And Kevin is great. His name is Kevin Guthrie, but he cannot influence political change for appropriations by himself. Yeah, it’s local. It’s emotional. It’s hard work. And sometimes, people forget, elected officials forget that. It’s not just numbers on a paper, but we’re talking about communities and making that change, and allowing for more resilience funding has got to happen. More states need resilience officers. There’s a great conference that the National Governors Association is putting on next month in New Orleans. And if you are not there, you need to be there.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, I would like to be there. Are you gonna be there?

Michelle Luckett: I’m gonna be there.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m free, I actually don’t have a trip plan next month.

Michelle Luckett: Now you do, and it’s in New Orleans.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I do like New Orleans. And I like you. I like governors, and I like emergency management. All that would be very interesting for me.

Michelle Luckett: It’s going to be great. But that is, again, an indication that there was a change in the political temperature at the state level, recognizing that they have to do something about resilience because it’s not going to go away. And if it starts at the local level with support from the Governor’s, then the message is going to carry a lot heavier in Washington DC with those individuals that represent states and the interests of their constituents back home.


“The issue of climate change and climate resiliency is something that’s becoming less politicized daily.” -Jennifer Thompson


Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m so actually happy to see, even in these very strange times, it feels like the issue of climate change, and climate resiliency is something that’s becoming less politicized daily. And it’s clearly because I think so much of it had to do with us being sort of held hostage in COVID and affected by that kind of natural disaster, if you will. Then we were also burning down, or wind and rain events and having sort of a front row seat to our vulnerability. And once you get a front row seat to your vulnerability, some people will shrink from that. But there are just enough people who were like, yep, that’s how it is. And guess what? We’re going to lean all the way in, and we’re going to figure out how to make resiliency. Something that we do together. And it’s not going to look exactly the same in Florida like it looks in California, but at least we can agree on that. And that we are a bit at the mercy of mother nature. And again, she’s not going to go second, she ever first. None of that’s going to happen like that. But I’m so relieved to see this sea change from philanthropy, from politics, all of these things. I’m so excited to see corporate America and the car industry in particular say, oh, yeah. Even if you don’t make us do it, we’re actually gonna do it because it also makes financial sense where to invest.

Michelle Luckett: I think it’s a significant paradigm shift from the world 10 years ago. I mean, if we’d had this conversation 10 years ago, we’d have been laughed out of the room.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I see a difference even from 40 years ago. People were like, Oh, I don’t know about climate change. And they’re like, oh, yeah, I’m pretty much, I see that. Yeah. Wow, that’s just remarkable. So if we have some say, we have like eight minutes left and I want to make sure that I’m gonna get everything in that we can do for this episode, I have a feeling we should probably just do this yearly because there’s not going to be like an end to how much we’re going to ever want to talk to each other, which is always going to be a lot.

Michelle Luckett: Always going to be a lot.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s going to be a lot. So the UN report that came out the other day on climate change globally is really terrifying. And for a lot of people, it’s going to make them sort of shrink away. Give me your ideal case scenario, and then I’m gonna ask you another question after this. So give me like a three minute ideal case scenario for how we should approach the next decade together with what the nature conservancy calls the determinant decade.


“The significance of the average person understanding the consequence of what’s coming is huge.” -Michelle Luckett


Michelle Luckett: I think one of the most significant parts of it is to address the education component. I think the significance of the average person understanding the consequence of what’s coming is huge. Sea level rise here in the state of Florida is significant. It is going to cost billions and billions of dollars in the real estate market in this state over the next couple of decades, if not sooner, given the rapid numbers that are coming in now. Because the majority of the development in the state of Florida is on the coastline. And so education is going to be important. Understanding that it is not a political issue, this is a fact. It is not Republican, it’s not Democrat, it is not libertarian, this is a world civil issue that has to be addressed. I think the world got a big wake up call in 2020 when the globe shuts down. And all of a sudden, I lived in Southeast Asia for four and a half years. And all of a sudden, communities that are laden with pollution have beautiful blue skies and they see the consequence of a slight change in behavior and what that can do to the planet. 


“The more we talk about it, the more creative solutions can be found and people can be less afraid.” -Michelle Luckett


So we have a slight change in behavior and the modus operandi of an individual’s responsibility in their community. And we take that, and we seed it in a community that changes exponentially, adjusting the resiliency of the community because people then understand that it’s not just, oh, my carbon footprint. Okay, it’s a bit more than that. And you have a responsibility to do your part. What does that mean as an educator, as a teacher? What does that mean as a civil servant? What does that mean as a nonprofit? What does it mean as a medical provider? I mean, every segment of this population of our communities is affected by what the climate is going to do. And the more we talk about it, the more creative solutions can be found and people can be less afraid. I really hate personally, the fear factor that some organizations put out there. It’s one thing to be informed and aware, but then be prepared. I mean, the acronym for BRACE is the Be Ready Alliance Coordinating for Emergencies. So the challenge I posed to my board in the fall was, how do you define an emergency? Because what it was when you were formed in 2006 and what it is in 2021 is not the same. The concept of alliances and the partnerships we have in our communities and the collaboration that has to happen in order to build a resilient community must be acknowledged and it has to be tended to. You can’t wait until after the fact to do it. Because you’ve lost your community. And now, you spend all this money and energy rebuilding. So again, I’m a huge proponent of readiness, preparation, dialogue, and strategic thinking is what communities can do best to protect themselves in the future.


“Politics are going to hurt us in the field of disaster if they’re not used in service to education.” -Jennifer Thompson


Jennifer Gray Thompson: When you talk about politics, or how politics are going to hurt us in the field of disaster, if they’re not used in service of education to everything that you mentioned about, we have to stop with magical thinking. And if I win, and you lose, because none of it’s like that, I was really struck. We actually had to reschedule this because of the Sunnyside condo collapse and your work there. I found that just so profound watching it and I thought no one’s asking, are you Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Muslim, Christian? Nobody cares when they’re trying to pull you out of a condo collapse. What they’re looking for is how do we serve humanity in this really terrible, frightening tragedy. And that’s so much of what disaster needs to be both before, during and after. So I just want you to know that I thought of you, I can’t imagine how difficult that was to attend to and acknowledge that that must have been like a rough, very rough, but also profound. From my perspective, from very far away thinking about like, you were not means testing anyone asking them their affiliations before they were receiving help.

Michelle Luckett: The Surfside building collapse was a change in the Miami-Dade community. Miami-Dade has got fantastic nonprofits. I mean, and they do great work. Within 10 days, we stood up the case management program using local dollars, not federal funds from the Department of Labor, not state funds. We got the local nonprofits to pay for the case management program for two years, and we did that within 10 days. Within 12 days of the building collapse, that community inside itself, and on the east coast of Florida, and with national partners raised $8 million. Because the consequence of the building collapse was not just on those parcels that were lost in the event. But then the employers, the employees that worked in the building, the surrounding neighborhood that’s impacted by nine weeks of disaster recovery work, and the entire area being filled with FEMA and state, and mobile units, and all this stuff. It’s the Orthodox Jewish community that lost 60% of the victims and the building collapse were Orthodox Jews. And so there’s a huge sense of loss in the community, plus the folks that were there internationally on vacation. And so now, we’re dealing with foreign governments, and we’re dealing with the State Department and all of these things had to happen. And again, because the community came together quickly and they brought in individuals who knew what to do fast. Victims and victims’ families were able to start getting the services that they needed to begin the recovery process. For those folks, it’ll take years. The emotional trauma of it for the first responders was significant. The debrief sessions for the teams that were there was probably some of the hardest work I’ve ever done and I’ve ever been a part of. Surfside was a change in the game for emergency management in the state of Florida.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I’m so glad that we touched upon that. And I guess that leads me to my final question, which I actually like to ask just about everybody on the podcast. Doing this work is difficult. I was overlooking the Marshall Fire in Colorado a couple of weeks ago and I’m like, there it is again. And then I came home and my neighborhood looked just like that. And I was like, oh, my house is probably gonna burn down. And then I go, well, who’s traumatized? That’s me. And it’s hard. Because when you’re a helper and when your job is to be a helper, you don’t really feel entitled to mental health care, but it’s actually key to being able to do this work long term. So if you are comfortable, do you mind just telling our audience how you attend to your own mental health and well being?

Michelle Luckett: Not having to share, Surfside was difficult. I walked away from it with a lot of emotions. I spent time in Bangladesh after the largest terrorist attack in the country happened, I was involved in a couple of different suicide bomb situations in that community, but none of that compared to the reality of sitting in a briefing, listening to what can and can’t be done for families and identifying their family members. And so carrying that home, I got real quiet. So I’ve got some amazing support here in Pensacola. I’ve got several colleagues that specialize in somatic trauma response for first responders that are based here in Pensacola. 


“The work we do is hard work. Not everybody can do it— And I love it. I love it a lot!” -Michelle Luckett


Amie Leigh writes the curriculum with SEI which is a National Institute for mental health. And so we worked through it, and we did the debriefs, and we talked about it. Because one of the things we all do in this work is we’re like, I’m good. I’m good, let me work. I’m good, let me work. And then you go home and you can’t sleep, or you get a little edgy, and you’re edgy with the staff. And so I am a big believer in debriefs. I’m a big believer in follow up debriefs 6, 8, 9 weeks after the event because we get home and we get back in a routine. But the consequence of what we have seen, what we’ve had to do, for me, the big issue was I got there, I worked 12 days and everything’s name on a list. There’s just names on the list, and I am working 12 hour days and all this stuff. And so the branch chief for human services for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, Pam, who said, go take some time and go to the memorial wall. And I was like, oh, I don’t know if, okay, I’ll go. And now, those names or faces, and that name is an eight year old kid who’s smiling and loving his dad, and having a great time at the beach and I know what happened. And so that was super heavy. And it was super emotional. On top of the fact that my sister lives two blocks away from the building. And so it got personal really fast. Just as it is for you as you deal with communities that you have been around and been a part of your entire life, the work we do is hard work. Not everybody can do it, and I love it. I love it a lot. And unfortunately, I’ve got great family support and a good support system to help navigate what we’ve got to do to take care of our community.


“This work has very little room for heroes and saviors. And if you never mistake yourself for one, then it makes it much easier to talk about it.” -Jennifer Thompson


Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that it’s such a good takeaway. You actually have to talk about it and you can’t have like, because this work actually has very little room for heroes and saviors. And if you never mistake yourself for one, then it makes it much easier to talk about it. But it’s tough. And I think that we just have to always bring it up as a huge component. Oh, that’s what he was telling me. He’s telling me that my camera’s about to go off, and I totally ignored you, Kyle. Like, I’m ignoring you, Kyle. I just think it’s so important that we talk about it. I’m so grateful to have, again, just this community of people who’ve been delivered to me is the result of disaster and I count you as a huge blessing. I’m so glad you’re in this work. I would love to see you next month so send that also to me. And I look forward to our next conversation. I just really want to thank you for being on the podcast today.

Michelle Luckett: Oh, it’s wonderful, Jen, and I look forward to seeing you soon.

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