Rainbows After Storms: John Hope Bryant Reflects on Importance of DHS/FEMA Alliance

April, 2011

IMG_0440  "The journey of a thousands miles, begins with the first step," someone once said.  And sometimes that first step is rooted in pain.  

Immediately following the civil unrest of 9/11 in America I found myself and Operation HOPE right in the middle of this crisis.  You see, Operation HOPE had an employee housed with Bankers Trust in Lower Manhattan, at 1 Liberty, right across from the Twin Towers.  When the Towers came down, our people found themselves running down the streets of Manhattan with countless others nameless survivors just trying to get enough distance to survive.  We gained that distance, and luckily our people survived, but we found ourselves in the position of needing to go right back in; to help the thousands of working class and unnamed survivors of 9/11 who escaped a physical death, but now faced a financial crisis.  

Mates of loved ones lost in 9/11, who could not now access even their bank account -- because it was in the name of their (now deceased) spouse.

Individuals with debts and obligations to meet, but no job to return to in order to pay them.

Individuals and companies in an economic and pyschological free-fall, unable to "deal" with the myriad of financial challenges that they now faced, daily -- insurance claims, mortgage payments, car loan and student loan payments, and just surviving.

And then a couple Operation HOPE directors stepped up -- Paul Irving, Esq, now with the Milken Institute, and Lynn Carter, now president of Capital One -- telling me "John, we can help, and we should."  Thus was thereafter born the vision of and for what we now call HOPE Coalition America (HCA).

Good intentions aside, we knew that dealing with individuals, families and businesses financial affairs is a sensitive affair in good times, but in times of crisis, well, we would need an added measure of unbiased credibility.

It wasn't long before I found myself talking to Larry Zinsinger from FEMA (since retired), explaining my vision for an emergency economic disaster response organization, or what we called "an economic Red Cross."  He didn't think we were crazy, but he did think we needed some seasoning, we we just got to work helping people.  

We helped hundreds of individuals and families following 9/11, and then numerous hurricanes the throughout Florida region, but the big response came in the backdrop of the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina.  To date, HCA has helped more than 100,000 individuals tied to Hurricane Katrina alone, and even worked with former President Bill Clinton and his Clinton Foundation as we provided more than $14 million EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit) assistance to the residence of Gulf Port, Mississippi (this done in response to a specific request from our friend, the late Dr. Dorothy I. Height).  We also entered into a landmark pilot national agreement with DHS/FEMA around emergency volunteer economic disaster response.


Next came the creation and development of the Emergency Financial First Aid Kit (EFFAK), working in close collaboration with DHS/FEMA.

When President Barack Obama came into office we approached Mr. Tim Manning, deputy administrator for DHS/FEMA, with a vision of deepening and enriching, and even rebooting our relationship -- with an aim of "doing more" for our nation and it's people; particularly her most vulnerable populations. Tim got it immediately, and for close to a year his team and mine, led by Fred D. Smith, Jason Yancey and Jena Roscoe from HOPE, worked through the myriad of details.  

This week I was so very proud to have none other than DHS/FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate himself to embrace our work, signing a historic national agreement between DHS/FEMA and Operation HOPE (for HOPE Coalition America) which further codifies the HCA role within and amongst the principal emergency response team and family.  You can see the details of this signing here.  A special thank you to DHS Assistant Secretary for Private Sector Douglas Andrew Smith, who attended and gave words on behalf of the White House, and Jena Roscoe, our HOPE chief of government relations and public policy, who helped to coordinate all signing details on our side.

Board members from Operation HOPE and senior leadership from FEMA pose for a group picture after the signing of a memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the two organizations.

And then of course, the devastating tornadoes ripped through several southern states, and it was time for everyone to get to work.  Administrator Fugate, to his credit, was on a plane the next morning to Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, and within a couple days he was back with President Obama himself.

Soon, HCA will announce its own response to help those impacted by these tornadoes in the southern states, working in partnership with our private sector HCA partners and HOPE Corps volunteers, but none of this would be possible if not for the vision of a "few good people" at and within DHS/FEMA.  Thank you.

A special thank you here to Alex Amparo, Elizabeth Zimmerman and the entire team behind the scenes at FEMA that made this happen.  Thank you -- Tim Manning.





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