For survivors of a disaster, particularly those already living paycheck to paycheck, time is critical.
“We’ll see families that are already hanging on by a shoestring, or even middle-class families,” says Kevin Peach, chief operating officer at Disaster Services Corporation (DSC). “When they lose everything, the economy for that family is no longer there. They’re very close to spiraling into homelessness or other forms of situational poverty.” At DSC, a sister company to the nonprofit National Council of the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP), the mission is to prevent that from happening, through sustained assistance that lifts people and families, helping them get their lives back in order.
Fundamental to this effort is the House in a Box™ program, which supplies furniture and furnishings to families that have endured catastrophic loss in a disaster. The challenge, however, is considerable. The sheer scope of things people need to rebuild a home—beds, dressers, tables, pots and pans, dishes, and more—combined with questions of last-mile delivery, cost, and warehousing have made logistics a consistent and considerable obstacle since House in a Box was established by SVDP in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “Historically, logistics to support international humanitarian aid and disaster relief can comprise anywhere from 40% to 80% of operational budgets,” Peach says. “You can raise money, you can get grants, but when the lion’s share of that goes to logistics, it’s a real problem.”
Every dollar DSC devotes there, he notes, is one it can’t spend more directly on people who need it the most.
While DSC employees are experts in providing support and services for those impacted by disasters, to maximize the impact of House in a Box, the organization needed an ally to improve its procurement practices. It turned to Amazon Business.
The impact was nearly instantaneous.
“Imagine you’re in Waverly, Tennessee, when it had a major flood in 2021. Everything has been destroyed. Your car is gone, or your pickup. You can’t get to Nashville, where the only available warehouse space for House in a Box could be located,” says Elizabeth Disco-Shearer, chief executive officer at DSC. “Amazon Business can make that delivery.” Addressing the delivery issue has had a tremendous impact on DSC’s relief infrastructure, alleviating the need for expensive (and often hard to find) warehousing space, volunteers to move things from point A to point B, and the insurance required to keep all those people safe and meet regulatory requirements.
"We immediately have access to whatever is purchased through Amazon Business in a dashboard. So from the donor side, the audit side, the survivor side, and the procurement side, the efficiencies gained by this process are life-changing."
— Elizabeth Disco-Shearer | CEO, Disaster Services Corporation
Utilizing the scale of Amazon Business also means relief comes at a much faster rate. Aid recipients can use a smartphone app developed by a DSC partner, AID:Tech, known as a “survivor wallet.” The app verifies the status of a beneficiary, disburses funds, and works with the Amazon Business API, allowing the survivor to make purchases that can be fully tracked and audited by DSC. “Before, from the moment we’d get an application or referral for the survivor, it could be six months before we’d be able to deliver those items,” Disco-Shearer says. “Now we’re able to do it in days.” Moreover, where previously DSC was unable to provide people with the ability to choose their own items, the breadth of offerings on Amazon Business lets them truly personalize a new home.
This, Peach says, is no small thing.
“When you lose everything, you’re grateful for anything you can get, but when people can pick out the color of their child’s comforter or the style and color of a new couch, it gives them dignity,” he says. “It makes them a participant in their own recovery.”
As the size and frequency of disasters accelerate, the demands on DSC are only increasing. Resources, however, don’t grow as fast. The logistical efficiencies Amazon Business provides help bridge that gap, benefitting the organization and the people it serves. First, it allows volunteers and staff to focus on providing additional services to people, rather than sourcing products or trying to secure warehouse space. It also brings significant financial impact. Peach estimates the integration could save DSC around $1 million annually. That translates to over 330 more families the organization can service through House in a Box.
Improved service for survivors also comes with improved transparency for DSC. The accounting and auditing tools of Amazon Business help ensure every dollar spent is done in support of the organization’s mission, by the people it is intending to help. “It allows for instant accountability,” Disco-Shearer says. “We immediately have access to whatever is purchased through Amazon Business in a dashboard. So from the donor side, the audit side, the survivor side, and the procurement side, the efficiencies gained by this process are life-changing.”
Additionally, tools provided by Amazon Business allow DSC to steer purchases towards local- and women-owned businesses, something the organization had not previously been able to do. Like many entities, DSC places a premium on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives around purchasing. But when it comes to disaster relief, those purchases aren’t just about feeling good. “Ensuring local economies and businesses are being supported is critical,” Peach says. “This is direct investment into local economies that are working to recover.”
Amazon Business, Peach says, is not a passive observer in this process.
“We don’t feel as if they’re a vendor,” he says. “They’re a true partner in helping us maximize the funding and serve as many survivors as possible, putting in time, development, and investment into making this program what it can be. They’re helping change the landscape on how disaster recovery can be done in the United States.”
Originally published in the WSJ.com.
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