It may come as a surprise to learn the many ways the arts can help communities recover after a major disaster.
When disaster hits, the arts can play an invaluable role in recovery efforts. The National Endowment for the Arts has a long history of responding to both manmade and natural disasters, including the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, the fall of the World Trade Center on 9-11, and the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as the recent California wildfires and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
As the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) focuses on preserving lives and rebuilds essential infrastructure, the Arts Endowment assists in other ways. This includes supporting projects that foster community healing; providing financial assistance in partnership with state arts agencies to help advance economic recovery for artists who have lost their studios and arts organizations that have been damaged; offering technical assistance; and working with other federal agencies, and public and private partners, to provide national leadership for policies and programs that strengthen and contribute to the resiliency of the arts and culture sector.
The arts are an important driver of state and community economies, so it is important to help affected artists and organizations get back to work serving their communities as quickly as possible. Sometimes, though, a community’s needs after a disaster go far beyond funding. That’s where the Arts Endowment is able to step in to provide technical assistance, or to support community healing projects.
In Puerto Rico, following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the Arts Endowment worked with the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriquena (ICP), the territory’s arts agency, in support of a behavioral health campaign undertaken at the request of the Puerto Rican Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Services Administration. This included support for a mural designed in collaboration with residents of the Cataño community, which was particularly hard-hit by the storms and saw a subsequent rise in suicide rates. The mural was constructed specifically to counter post-hurricane alcohol and drug abuse, depression, and suicide, and features imagery of Cataño’s pre-hurricane beauty. Located directly across from a ferry transit station, the mural is visible to people every day.
In addition, in Puerto Rico, staff worked with FEMA’s Joint Recovery Office (JRO) to assist with historic preservation efforts. Most people don’t realize that disaster relief assistance also includes assessing and repairing historic properties and collections of art or artifacts damaged by natural disasters. This is particularly important in Puerto Rico where the government identified its cultural heritage as a high priority for recovery. This is because it is not only a tangible resource that defines Puerto Rico’s culture and identity, but because it is an important factor in Puerto Rico’s tourism economy. The Arts Endowment supported efforts to assess damage to historic properties and collections, identify recovery priorities, and develop actions plans to assist with arts recovery, and help artists prepare for the next storm, including preparedness training and strengthening arts facilities to survive future disasters
Economic recovery, community healing, and protection of cultural heritage are critical ways the National Endowment for the Arts can help after a disaster.