Remembering Disaster, Ready for Disaster

Twenty-five years ago this week, the Oakland Hills firestorm killed 25 people and burned over 3,000 homes. Two years before that, the Loma Preita earthquake dropped sections of 880 and the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. The quake claimed the lives of 63 people, injured thousands, and caused an estimated $6 billion in damage.

In 1989, I was Director of Development for the San Francisco Education Fund. As I was speaking with one of my team members on the early evening of October 17, the file cabinets flew across the room. It felt as if a giant had lifted our building into the air in order to shake it viciously. None of our staff ever again entered our offices; our unreinforced masonry building was declared unsafe following the quake. We all worked off site for weeks (with no cell phones or home computers in those days).

I have often thought since then of how helpful it would have been to have had an evacuation plan in place. We hadn’t anticipated that it would be pitch dark. We had no flashlights nor had we ever before used the stairs to exit the building. We didn’t have a phone tree to help us connect with each other. All of our most valuable papers were stored onsite, with no copies ready in case of emergency.

It was a difficult time, but I remember clearly: the first phone call we received the day after the earthquake came from one of our funders.

She asked what we needed.

That support and concern lifted us up. It helped us to resume our important work of helping classroom teachers, despite the turmoil around us.

During this Bay Area disaster remembrance week, we want to remind our grantees and our funding colleagues how important preparedness is for the nonprofit community. The Walter & Elise Haas Fund has supported disaster preparedness work for more than a decade. We continue to help nonprofits and religious congregations find the training and resources they need to prepare for future disasters.

Many of the groups we support deliver vital services to vulnerable people every day. And whether they’re funding a generator for St. Anthony’s or floor lighting to Glide, our disaster preparedness grants help seed resilience for these essential safety net organizations.

If you are a nonprofit leader, I encourage you to train your staff and begin planning your disaster response. Two of our grantees, SF CARD (in San Francisco) and Eden I&R (for those in the East Bay) have resources that can help get you started in this process.

While government is often considered the first line of response in the case of disaster, we know that the nonprofit sector plays an equally crucial role. People turn to those they know and trust, whether that’s their local church, synagogue, mosque, or community center. As we remember the Loma Prieta quake and the Oakland Hills firestorm, I hope that our colleagues in philanthropy will continue to consider ways to help their grantees prepare so that when the next disaster strikes, our community is as ready as possible.

Blog, Other, Reflection

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