Perspectives Online

Extension helps disaster victims file for state assistance

In the months after seven tropical storms and hurricanes struck the state last year, North Carolina Cooperative Extension offered recovery assistance for citizens. In May and June of this year, Extension centers in 50 counties continued their support roles at Recovery Assistance Centers, where citizens filed computer-based applications for state assistance under the program Operation Brighter Day.

When the Hurricane Recovery Act of 2005 was approved, the state needed help from an organization with computer access and a tradition of customer service. Cooperative Extension fit the bill, according to Dr. Edwin Jones, Extension's associate director and state program leader for agriculture, natural resources and community development. Jones is Extension's representative to the state's Emergency Response Team.

"This shows the responsiveness of Extension to provide assistance to the citizens of North Carolina," Jones said. "It sets us up to develop a strong partnership with other state agencies to educate citizens on preparation in advance of a natural disaster and on recovery after disaster."

Operation Brighter Day was created to provide assistance to citizens seeking help with housing, agricultural losses and replacement of private bridges and driveways. The hurricanes and storms of fall 2004 were especially hard on western North Carolina, which experienced severe flooding.

The role was a new one for Cooperative Extension, but the organization responded quickly. Three training sessions were held across the state to teach Extension agents how to help citizens file the online applications. From late April through mid-June, county agents adjusted their schedules and plans to help with the assistance applications.

In Haywood County, which was hit heavily by hurricanes, all Extension employees went through the training, according to Bill Skelton, county Extension director. Skelton said 508 applications were filed for his county, with housing and agricultural claims the greatest needs.

Early in the application process, Skelton and his staff contacted local agriculture clients who suffered hurricane damage to encourage them to make an appointment to apply for disaster funds. Most clients were happy to make an appointment and avoid waiting to file, he said. Tobacco and vegetable crops, primarily tomatoes, suffered the greatest damage of agricultural commodities.

Extension secretaries Karen Ball and Erin Freeman took more than half the applications filed in Haywood County, Skelton said. Other staff helped as well, and volunteers were brought in to answer the phones while Ball and Freeman assisted clients.

Skelton said the only frustration for his staff was not being able to tell clients when state agencies would make decisions about assistance claims. And because Extension's mission is education, he would have liked to provide more recovery education to those applying for assistance.

"This is a new role for us," Skelton said. "We were excited about being visible and valuable to state government and to the citizens who lost crops and homes."

In Buncombe County, where 471 assistance applications were filed, County Extension Director Kenneth Reeves said the visibility of serving as a Recovery Assistance Center had been good for Cooperative Extension.

Reeves commended his staff for making personal sacrifices to help citizens file assistance applications. One evening in early June, he was preparing to work late in order to meet someone who had been trying without success to get through on Operation Brighter Day's toll-free number.

In Buncombe County, housing losses started out as the greatest need, Reeves said. But later, more applications were coming in for agricultural losses.

"Our staff has been touched by the seriousness of some situations," he said.

"This program has made it possible for people to get some help," Reeves said. "I'm not one to believe this is the sole solution to disaster recovery, but it will provide a hand to help out those in need."

Ed Jones said that an advantage of having Extension fulfill this recovery role is that the organization won't move on when the recovery is over. In fact, as the 2005 hurricane season started in June, Extension centers reminded citizens of the disaster preparation and recovery materials they can offer.

"Overall the effort has gone pretty well," Jones said. "I've heard nothing but accolades for our efforts from other state agencies."

- Natalie Hampton