Disaster Community Organizing

Disaster community organizing is the process of organizing and empowering our most disaster impacted residents and communities as equal partners and co-leaders in the disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and resiliency system. 

There are multiple steps in developing and implementing a community organizing and empowerment approach in relation to just disaster preparedness. These include, but are not limited to, the following steps. 

  1. Start weekly meetings in preparation for a possible climate disaster. Right now in North Carolina, that means having virtual and possible meetings outdoors on every street among neighbors in your community. 
  2. Collect the names, phone numbers, and addresses of every household and who lives in each household on your street. 
  3. Choose a Street Leader on every street in the neighborhood and community that will represent their street on a Community Leadership Team and stay in contact with each household on their street during the disaster response phase. 
  4. Form an advocacy team that will provide advocacy assistance to anyone on their street that needs advocacy during the disaster response phase. Provide training for the advocacy team. 
  5. Sign up for a free conference call # for daily and weekly conference calls for the residents on your street. 
  6. Also list where every household plans to go when they have to leave their homes for higher ground. For those that need to go to a shelter, make sure they all go to the same shelter. With the pandemic, it would be better to go stay with relatives, friends, or stay in a motel instead of going to a shelter. 
  7. Have the county or city emergency services staff attend one or two of the community meetings to go over all the preparation plans. Make sure that everyone packs what they need to take when they leave their homes, including clothes, toiletries, medicine, cell phone plugs, additional batteries for cell phones, etc. Make sure everyone takes pictures of all of their major belongings in their home, including furniture, clothes closets, tools, and anything of value that you will have to discard if your home is flooded. 
  8. During this first phase, which we call the “diaspora” phase, when our people have to flee their homes due to flooding, street leaders and advocacy teams need to connect with everybody on their street and make sure that everyone is safe. If cell service goes out, this can be done when it is restored. Make sure that everyone that needs medical care gets it. 
  9. Hold daily street meetings using the conference call # and community-wide, weekly calls. If residents are together in a shelter, have daily street/community meetings in the shelter. 
  10. As residents are allowed to return to their homes, hold daily street meetings and weekly community meetings and start a Neighbor-to-Neighbor, house-by-house Mucking and Gutting campaign. Access gloves and masks and suits (if needed) and train all residents on how to muck, gut, and dry out their homes. Work together on your street and community in working with volunteer groups to muck, gut, and dry out everyone’s home as soon as possible to prevent mold growth. 

A shorter version of these proposed steps and a description of a community-based approach on disaster preparedness was published in an OpEd article in the Fayetteville Observer on September 9, 2017 entitled: “Relief from Hurricane Irma, Community Style”. It was written by Mac Legerton, Co-Author of this report (https://www.fayobserver.com/opinion/20170909/mac-legerton-relief-from-hurricane-irmacommunity-style). 

There are also multiple steps in developing and implementing a community organizing and empowerment approach in relation to just disaster recovery.

In order to describe just recovery in a creative way, we were asked this question: “If you were to write a “Just Recovery Charter for North Carolina”, what would it be?” Here is a sample.

Sample: Just Recovery Charter for North Carolina 

We are an organized and powerful, community-based organization of disaster impacted residents. We, as disaster impacted residents, meet weekly and lead the effort to re-vision and redevelop our communities. 

We, as disaster impacted residents, are committed, competent, educated, and trained to lead our community recovery both effectively and successfully.

We are at the decision-making table as equal partners in the disaster recovery process. 

We work in partnership with our community organizers and leaders, other nonprofit organizations, and local, state and federal agencies and officials in designing, implementing, and evaluating this just recovery process.

To recover justly means that we become transformed communities that are resilient. We are able to meet challenges, break down barriers, and sustain a pro-active and powerful approach to broad-based, social change. 

Our State of North Carolina now uses a top-down system of disaster recovery.  In most cases, highly-paid consultants and experts are hired to re-vision and re-design our communities for us. Local, state, and federal officials and government agencies are their neglectful partners.

We need to transform our state disaster recovery system. We need to stop all buyout programs until we, as disaster impacted communities, take charge of our own recovery and destiny.

As disaster impacted communities, we will never recover until our authority, liberty, and dignity is respected and honored. 

We are ready, willing, able, and committed to our just recovery.  We call on the public and private sector within our beloved state of North Carolina to join us.



When a home is destroyed by a hurricane, our state’s assistance provides three options to homeowners: (1) remove the home and construct a new home at a safe elevation; (2) renovate and elevate the existing home; (3) buyout the home and demolish it, creating an empty lot which our officials call “green space”. The problem is that only in rare circumstances are residents of impacted communities engaged as equal partners and leaders in re-visioning and re-developing their own communities. Given this pattern of systemic neglect, why would a homeowner want to remain in the community if they see no future in it because they have not been engaged in re-visioning and redeveloping it? In reality, what is called a “voluntary buyout” program becomes an “involuntary sellout” program.  We are then subject to lose not only homes, but also businesses, schools, civic organizations, faith communities, and voting districts in disaster impacted communities.  This is particularly the case in low-income communities and communities of color. This systemic pattern of neglect and abuse is a form of rural, climate gentrification facing many of our poorest, most flood prone, and most vulnerable rural municipalities and communities.

The “diamond in the rough” in the disaster recovery system in relation to the need for a community-based and centered disaster recovery process is documented in the film: “Three Towns/Three Rivers”.  The film documents the re-visioning and re-development, disaster recovery process in three towns devastated by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 in Eastern NC. The re-visioning and re-development process was designed and facilitated by the UNC Coastal Resilience Center.  The film documents the recovery process that engaged the residents of Princeville, Fair Bluff, and Seven Springs in visioning and designing a new future for their municipalities. 

With further development based on additional principles and practices of community empowerment and education, a model approach to community-based, community-focused disaster community recovery and resiliency can be designed and implemented throughout North Carolina. 

Robeson County Disaster Survival and Resiliency School.

The Robeson County Disaster Survival and Resiliency School is a part of the virtual, statewide School coordinated by the Southern Vision Alliance. It is the first local School to be launched on-the-ground. It is hoped that it will be the first of many local Schools in Eastern NC. 

We will launch the School this month of August. At first, our School will operate virtually and hold weekly meetings. 

We will mount a coordinated, organized approach to improve community-based and statewide approaches to disaster, promoting a more just response and recovery in relation to both the pandemic and climate disasters.

The pandemic is rapidly expanding across rural NC. Robeson County is the most racially-diverse rural county in the U.S. and one of its poorest, 72% of its population is people of color, including the Lumbee, the largest indigenous population East of the Mississippi River.  The rate of COVID-19 infection in Robeson County is one out of every 32 people. Its positive test results are the highest in the State. The county’s rate of infection is 30 times higher than the national average. There are at least 11 major outbreaks in public and private institutions, including food processing centers, nursing homes, and our state prison.

The former, daily local paper is down to publishing only twice per week. There is no community-based system of communication and education on how our county is responding to COVID-19 beyond reporting on infections and testing sites. There is no effort to develop and engage community organizations and grassroots leaders in strategizing and planning what to do in relation to rising infection rates in both workplaces and the community at large.

The Survival School will provide a space and place to organize and engage the community in pandemic education, protection practices, policy advocacy, self-care, and systems change. 

Along with the hurricane we are now facing in a few days, we are likely to experience more powerful hurricanes in the coming months due to climate change.  The Robeson County Disaster Survival and Resiliency School will be the organizing arm that brings impacted communities to the table as equal partners that take charge of their community’s recovery and resiliency. The School will eventually organize small farmers as well. They have largely been left out of the work on just disaster recovery.

A major goal of the local School is to halt the neglect of our most impacted disaster communities, primarily communities of color. The local and statewide Disaster Survival and Resiliency Schools will be a major hub and vessel for both individual and social transformation.

Here is a description of what we hope to accomplish through the local Robeson County Disaster Survival and Resiliency School and also through the virtual, statewide NC Disaster Survival and Resiliency School that will launch in the Fall of 2020.

  1. We will develop stronger relationships and community bonds in our most disaster impacted communities. This will occur among our people in facing the pandemic and during and following hurricanes, floods, rising temperatures, and droughts.
  2. We will build organized power and influence. The Survival School will be our vessel for developing and sustaining our vision and voice at the decision-making table. We will assert our leadership role in meeting and overcoming our challenges as we face them together.
  3. The School will provide up-to-date information on the pandemic and climate disasters. Members of the school will develop organizing and action plans to address the growing pandemic. We will decide our goals for revisioning and redeveloping our communities as a result of Hurricane Matthew and Florence. We will also prepare for hurricanes now in 2020.
  4. The Disaster Survival and Resiliency School will be a center of community and state-based advocacy work. The School will be a strong advocate to prevent the destruction of our communities of color impacted by the pandemic, hurricanes, floods, rising temperatures, and droughts. If we don’t organize and act, we are going to lose homes, jobs, and businesses. We will lose our schools and faith communities. We may even lose voting districts if our communities aren’t rebuilt in a just way.
  5. Finally, the Survival School will be a vital, community-space of mutual support. We will learn new ways of: self-care; of sharing our challenges and burdens; of encouraging and nurturing one another; of learning new organizing and advocacy skills;, and of preserving and strengthening our cultural, social, and spiritual foundations. For it is all of these combined that provide sustenance in times of struggle and trauma such as these. 

Collectively, we can create a more just approach to disaster response and recovery in facing both the pandemic and climate disasters. “Si se puede”. “Yes, we can”. 


Reference: Mac Legerton and Sally McLean. “Disaster Community Organizing and the Robeson County Disaster Survival and Resiliency School”. Published by the Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development 2020.

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