Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Tornado Recovery Volunteer Time Equals Federal Dollars

Local and state leaders in Mississippi are encouraging volunteers to document their time.

Tornado damage in Louisville, Miss.
Homes and cars were left as rubble after a tornado struck Louisville, Miss., on April 28. Photo courtesy of Bill Koplitz/FEMA

The thousands of volunteers who have helped Tupelo and Lee County residents whose homes and property are now giant piles of debris may not realize how much their assistance helps.

Sure, they probably know the direct benefit to those without good insurance or extra savings to pay for cleanup in their backyards. People taking their valuable time to help neighbors and strangers has an intangible benefit of renewing a sense of community.

But tornado recovery volunteer hours in Tupelo and Lee County can literally translate into a few hundred thousand dollars or more toward matching funds needed in disaster recovery partnerships with the federal government.

Usually, the Federal Emergency Management Agency pays 75 percent of recovery efforts while state and local governments each pay 12.5 percent. A special legislative session called by Gov. Phil Bryant allowed $17 million toward the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and approved state tax money covering all costs normally paid by local governments impacted by at least 20 tornadoes nearly two weeks ago.

However, documented volunteer hours could mean less state and local tax dollars needed that would otherwise reduce resources for other priorities. A FEMA disaster assistance policy allows donated resources, including volunteer time from nongovernment entities, to replace up to all costs state and local governments must share.

“A lot of these volunteers don’t realize the work they do can be given a dollar amount to help with the local match,” said David Mallery, executive director of Volunteer Mississippi, a state agency that oversees national service programs and encourages volunteerism. “This can offset costs in a big way.”

Melinda Tidwell, executive director of the United Way of Northeast Mississippi, said an estimated 3,000 volunteers have documented their time when pitching in to help areas hit by the April 28 tornado.

The value of a volunteer hour is based on how much the work would cost if done by a paid worker. The nonprofit organization Independent Sector estimates a volunteer hour in Mississippi in 2013 to value $19.35.

Documented volunteer hours can add up to savings for state and local governments. For example, if 3,000 volunteers each averaged three hours removing debris or other recovery services, it would translate into $174,150 toward recovery efforts.

Local and state leaders are encouraging volunteers to document their time and sign up to help through the United Way. Volunteers who already completed work but didn’t fill out paperwork can still get it documented. As long as proof exists the work happened, the time can count toward local and state shares of recovery funds, according to MEMA spokesman Greg Flynn.

With preparations for debris removal to begin this week, more space soon will be available to move more debris for pickup. City and county debris removal is limited to front yards.

“We’re still accepting volunteers,” Tidwell said.

©2014 the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo, Miss.)

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