Meet the ‘secret weapon’ that helps distribute money during the COVID-19 pandemic

A passerby walks along a nearly empty street in the Downtown Crossing neighborhood of Boston, on March 24, 2020. AP Photo by Steven Senne

The COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted damage throughout the U.S. To guide the flow of emergency funding for the people and businesses in New England that need the most help, the federal government has turned to Northeastern’s Global Resilience Institute, known as GRI.

“GRI is our secret weapon,” says Jim McPherson, the COVID-19 Recovery Task Force Leader for Region 1 of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “They’re doing a service to our country.”

The Northeastern institute has received funding by FEMA to help each of the six New England states identify areas of need and provide the documentation necessary to qualify for federal emergency funding. Both steps—defining and documenting the needs—have been complicated by an emergency that is unprecedented.

Stephen Flynn, director of the Global Resilience Institute. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“We have 50 states in crisis—we’ve never had that before,” says McPherson, whose region encompasses New England. “We’re all stretched right now.”

FEMA and other federal agencies typically offer emergency support after communities have been struck by natural disasters—hurricanes, tornados, wildfires. The pandemic has complicated assistance efforts because the effects of COVID-19 are both far-reaching and ongoing. Vaccines that may quell the coronavirus won’t be widely distributed for many months—which leaves the U.S. to face a winter of illness that scientists forecast will be more severe than the initial surges of the spring and summer.

“We have a public health emergency that is all-consuming—and at the same time we have this profound economic disruption,” says Stephen Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute. “From the start, there was a need to really step up quickly and identify the most urgent needs that will support recovery. But COVID-19 is different from a hurricane, it’s different from an earthquake, because the pandemic is ongoing, and we don’t know when it will be over. 

“So the question becomes: How do states and municipalities document their needs when the crisis is still unfolding?”

In order to simplify the New England analyses, each state has asked the institute to perform a deep investigation of three cities or towns. The analyses of those three communities are then extrapolated throughout the state and across the region.

“Drawing on extensive research, GRI has identified over 75 ‘resilience indicators’ that help us to assess the degree to which communities are resilient,” Flynn says. “If a community is doing well on all these indicators, they will likely recover quickly; if not, the community may not be able to bounce back when disasters strike.”

Those 75 indicators cover the economic, social, and physical infrastructure elements of a community.

Since April, when it began the analyses, the institute has highlighted areas that need urgent federal assistance. In Maine, says Flynn, the closure of restaurants in response to the pandemic resulted in a precipitous decline in demand for fresh fish.

“We found that the fisheries industry was imploding,” Flynn says. “In response to our early data collecting in Portland, Maine, FEMA was able to mobilize an interagency response to bring in the Department of Agriculture, the Small Business Administration, the Economic Development Administration (EDA), and the Department of Labor—all looking for ways in which they could essentially provide a lifeline to the commercial fishing industry.”

A similar alarm was sounded in Connecticut, where the childcare sector had largely shut down in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, leaving hundreds of small providers with little to no financial means to reopen. 

“We were able to get 163 childcare centers funded with $10,000 grants,” says McPherson, noting that the availability of childcare enabled parents throughout the Connecticut economy to keep working. 

GRI’s relationship with FEMA Region 1 predated the COVID-19 outbreak, when the institute began collaborating with FEMA, EDA, and the state of Maine on guiding disaster recovery after several federally declared disasters.  

Flynn oversees a dozen researchers and staff at the institute. During the pandemic, the institute enlisted additional support from nine Northeastern professors and 25 students, who have provided expertise across a variety of areas.

The people of New England have moved to the front of the assistance line because of the institute’s efforts, Flynn believes.

“We can safely say that the New England states are going to be in a much better position to access up to $2 trillion of federal resources that are tailored for economic recovery,” Flynn says. 

The relationship has been so successful, says McPherson, that FEMA may ask the institute to help identify and document needs in other regions of the U.S.

“It’s been a very, very busy time,” Flynn says. 

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