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Community Building after Natural Disasters: Lessons Learned from Japan and Katrina

As the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is upon us, my own personal reflections are rooted in two different disasters, on two separate continents. I just returned from Tokyo this past week where United Way is expanding and formalizing its presence to continue the great work that has been underway for years in communities throughout the country.

While there, I visited Ishinomaki, Kamaishi, and Minamisanriku; the three communities most impacted by the Great East Japan Tsunami of 2011 that killed more than 15,000 people and forced the evacuation of nearly half a million more. The earthquake, that triggered the tsunami, was the most powerful ever to hit Japan and the fourth most powerful in recorded world history.

In both the Gulf Coast of the United States and eastern seaboard of Japan, United Way has been working with community leaders and organizations of all sizes to help these communities rebuild. United Way’s work is fueled by the support of more than ten million annual donors worldwide. 

Since 2011, our partner in the region, Central Community Chest of Japan (CCCJ) has been leading extraordinary recovery efforts. Funds and volunteer sites are addressing everything from housing and basic infrastructure (water, heat and electricity) to places to shop, child care, and mobile libraries and schools.

Similarly, United Ways and their partners in the U.S. gulf coast have responded to hundreds of thousands of their neighbors with critical immediate and long-term needs. Together, since 2005, they’ve taken on issues like housing, medical and mental health care, child and adult care, and academic supports, among many others.

Despite these heroic efforts, complex and often overwhelming long-term need remains.

According to USA Today, more than 230,000 still await permanent housing. These communities now struggle with increases in alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, depression and other mental illnesses. In the Gulf Coast, it may mean residual crime, entrenched poverty, and ongoing gaps in education and development.

I’ve worked for United Way for more than 30 years, the past 13 as CEO of United Way Worldwide, and I never considered us to be focused on disaster response. Though, whether we know it or not, we all have a role to play in the rebuilding of our communities after disaster strikes—in the short and long-term. It’s ensuring that people and strategies are in place long after their need is in the headlines.  

For United Way, it’s bringing together all of the change-makers—business, government, nonprofits and citizens—to create stronger, lasting community systems. These are systems that are adaptive to need, rooted in partnership and collaboration, and measured by metrics focused on inclusive, long-term sustainability.

It’s communities with strong multi-sector partnerships that create the kind of resiliency that allows us to withstand man-made or natural disasters.

Before. During. After. Always. #XOXONPO

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