In the early hours of December 11, 2021, a group of tornados cut a violent path across six U.S. states, traveling over 250 miles, injuring hundreds of people, and, tragically, taking 77 lives. The town of Mayfield, Kentucky was “devastated” — hundreds of homes, businesses, and other buildings were destroyed, and debris was thrown as high as 30,000 feet into the air.

After the tornados passed through their homes and neighborhoods, civic leaders in Kentucky literally got up off the ground and immediately went to work rebuilding their communities together. One leader told us that “we wanted to jump in and be able to assist other people and organizations to make sure that they are heard.” Most talked about the “huge problem” of displacement and worried about those individuals and families who could fall into the gaps between disaster assistance programs. Civic leaders were also concerned about the ability of Kentucky residents to access support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), noting that many people “get discouraged after they get turned down initially and do not follow up and reapply.” They also warned that FEMA’s “allocated amounts for items are not realistic given today’s costs.”

We’ve been inspired by the stories we’ve heard about how coalition partners are supporting underserved people in Mayfield and the surrounding communities. In speaking with the leaders of these and other organizations on the ground, a few important lessons emerged.

First, we learned that more must be done to invest in infrastructure in rural areas. CADT described Western Kentucky as an “infrastructure desert,” lacking in access to affordable, quality food, healthcare, Internet, and other key services. This lack of access made the response to and recovery from a natural disaster even more difficult. CADT and its partners are trying to seize this opportunity to build meaningful, sustainable infrastructure at the local level.

Second, donations should be directed to grassroots and community-based organizations whenever possible. In the first six weeks after the storm, 11,800 Kentuckians applied for FEMA assistance, but only 14% of those requests were approved, according to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. And even as relief funds poured into the state from private and non-government organizations, Kentuckians found them difficult to access. By directing their funding to organizations that had been working on the ground for years, CADT was able to deliver aid to communities often left out of traditional relief efforts.

And finally, disaster response efforts must be equitable, holistic, and built for the long term. The five organizations that The Rockefeller Foundation supported have thus far succeeded in meeting the short- and longer-term needs of the affected communities.

Read the full article about building stronger communities by Eric Pelofsky and Charlotte Tweedley at The Rockefeller Foundation.