For more than 15 years, SBP has helped families and communities recover and rebuild in the wake of unthinkable disasters. A key piece of this work is connecting impacted individuals to the support they need, including FEMA funding and other critical information regarding disaster recovery efforts. VoiceFoundry, a TTEC Digital company, leveraged the power of Amazon Web Services (AWS) — including Amazon Connect and Salesforce for Nonprofits — to help SBP build a fully remote, cloud-based contact center to help families immediately connect with the guidance and resources they need to recover, no matter their distance from a physical SBP office.
SBP is a social impact organization focused on disaster resilience and recovery that solves the challenges facing at-risk communities by bringing the rigor of business and innovation to drive social impact, create resilient communities, and streamline recovery. To shrink the time between disaster and recovery, SBP takes a holistic approach — reducing risk, increasing resilience, and improving the recovery process — to effect transformational change in the disaster recovery system and restore opportunity and security for people and communities.
After temporarily volunteering in Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish after Hurricane Katrina, Liz McCartney and Zack Rosenburg moved to the area permanently in March 2006 and co-founded the St. Bernard Project, now SBP. With the support of donors, volunteers, and corporate partners, SBP has grown from a local three-person volunteer team into a national organization headquartered in New Orleans. Since its founding in 2006, SBP has rebuilt homes for more than 5,000 families with the help of 150,000 volunteers in 15 communities across the U.S. and the Bahamas.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was founded in 1979 with the mission of “helping people before, during, and after disasters.” In times of emergency, U.S. households can apply for FEMA programs that provide grants, temporary housing, and other forms of support. But following reports of widespread fraud in federal relief programs after Hurricane Katrina, the agency grew increasingly strict with its application approvals. According to research by the Washington Post, of the six million households that applied for FEMA assistance between 2017 and 2020, four million were rejected. That downward trend continued into 2021, with only 13% of applications approved that year — the agency’s lowest acceptance rate yet.
While FEMA is one of the many tools of recovery for families struck by disaster, for many of the most vulnerable survivors, such as low-income and underrepresented households, it is often the only assistance they will receive. Appealing an initial decision is an increasingly burdensome and complicated process that most households choose not to pursue — if they’re even aware of it. When SBP filed its first FEMA appeal in Southwest Louisiana in December 2020, a formal FEMA appeals process did not yet exist. But the need clearly did.
Recognizing that need, SBP launched its FEMA Appeals Program in August 2021. As of September 2022, the SBP FEMA Appeals Program has helped more than 200 survivors access $1,056,737.40 in additional FEMA awards — an increase of more than 63% compared to the initial award decisions. The program’s success has relied on partner referrals and internal networking made possible by SBP’s long-term presence in Southern Louisiana. However, the challenges in accessing FEMA funding that survivors of Hurricanes Laura, Delta, and Ida faced are not unique to that region nor those storms. As a result, SBP needed a solution that would allow them to help all survivors navigate their FEMA appeals and take the first step on the road to recovery.
To be able to work closely with survivors across the country as they appeal their FEMA decision, SBP knew they would need to leverage technology and automation to scale their existing FEMA Appeals Program. Working closely with VoiceFoundry and AWS, SBP designed a remote disaster assistance contact center that is accessible nationwide through a single toll-free hotline. The solution is underpinned by the power of Amazon Connect to streamline the experience for agents and callers alike. When people call in, they select the specific support they need, from information on emergency housing and support in their area, to how to submit an initial FEMA application or appeal to maximize the support they receive. This holistic process ensures the call is routed to an available agent that can provide expertise on the topic most important to the caller.
On the other end of an incoming call, through deep integration between Amazon Connect and Salesforce Nonprofit Cloud, contact center agents receive an automatic screen pop on their desktop displaying all relevant information — including if this caller has reached out before — so they can identify, process, and support families and their needs efficiently. The Salesforce integration also provides SBP with the ability to locate and listen to previous customer call recordings directly from the Salesforce interface so they can revisit ongoing issues, or even generate ideas for agent training based on call feedback. A huge benefit of the system is that it allows agents to work from anywhere – home, local SBP office, coffee shops, literally anywhere with an internet connection. This was an extremely important feature, especially among nonprofits, in today’s expensive, high-churn, employee-driven market.
The new single-stream phone intake process ensures SBP can deliver on their mission to maximize their support to survivors with the added benefit of tracking hotline usage and results to continually reduce inefficiencies and improve their outreach after a disaster.
Launched in May 2022, the contact center immediately went to work to support Kentuckians impacted by tornadoes that ripped through the state the previous December. Having a single contact number on marketing materials meant that survivors could directly reach a FEMA Appeals Program agent to begin the intake process and receive the guidance they need to successfully appeal. The single number, paired with ongoing marketing campaigns, means the contact center has been able to assist clients in Kentucky — a new state for the organization.
SBP predicts the hotline and its agents will help 200 survivors of the Kentucky tornadoes and recent floods to access at least $500,000 in additional FEMA award monies by December 2022. As of September 2022, the call center has allowed 87 survivors to directly connect with SBP. And as more disasters inevitably strike, agents will be on standby to support more families across other states as they begin their pathway to permanence.
“Our FEMA appeals program — although effective at helping disaster survivors receive more funding from FEMA to support their recovery — was limited by our team’s in-person presence,” said Liz McCartney, co-founder and chief operations officer of SBP. “With the creation of the FEMA helpline, we are able to scale this offering to more disaster-impacted communities quickly. For survivors in under-resourced communities across the country, this will mean helping them access millions of dollars typically left on the table. We are grateful to AWS and VoiceFoundry for their assistance and are excited about this opportunity to leverage their partnership and technology to scale our reach and expand the positive impact we can make for disaster-impacted families to drive toward a more equitable recovery for all.”