Two of SBP’s Toyota Vehicles at a work site in flood impacted Denham Springs, LA — August 2016

What a car company had to teach a non-profit about rebuilding faster after natural disasters

Zack Rosenburg
4 min readSep 21, 2016

The first half of 2016 saw eight “billion dollar” disasters hit the United States. In July and August, historic flooding devastated West Virginia and South Louisiana, adding to that total. Since 1980, only 2011 had more billion dollar disasters in the first six months than did 2016. Disasters today are more frequent, inflict more damage and occur in places with no previous history of disaster. According to a 2013 study, since 2007, nearly 80% of the US population–243 million people–live in counties that experienced at least one weather-related federally declared disaster. What has not been nearly as consistent, however, is the pace, predictability and transparency of recovery efforts following these disasters. This is a pressing problem in urgent need of an innovative, effective solution.

The longer a disaster recovery takes, the more suffering occurs. We see it time and again–when retirees’ golden years and savings are exhausted trying to rebuild their home; when the formative years of children and adolescents are disrupted for a prolonged period of time, their behavior and academic performance decline; when parents, no longer able to afford to pay both mortgage and temporary rent, make the desperate decision to move back into to a damaged, moldy home with their children to the detriment of the family’s health and safety.

For the past 30 years, the Unites States has deployed a disaster recovery model which time and again has proven to be inefficient, ineffective and does not provide predictability to those whose lives have been turned upside down. In New Orleans, even 11 years later, upwards of 3,000 families own homes that they cannot rebuild without help. In New York and New Jersey, thousands of homeowners remain displaced four years after Sandy. In South Louisiana, where 70,000 homes have recently been destroyed by an unprecedented 1,000 year flood, the recovery is just beginning. People can be resilient to a point, but without predictability they reach their breaking point.

Shorter, more efficient and predictable recoveries can help people avoid having to make gut wrenching, desperate and ill-informed decisions which ultimately lead to their suffering. Simply put, in disaster recovery, time is of the essence.

Nearly 80% of the US population–243 million people–live in counties that experienced at least one weather-related federally declared disaster.

What role then, could the world’s largest automaker have in solving this problem?

In 2011, SBP, the nonprofit organization I co-founded with my then girlfriend (now wife), Liz McCartney, was invited to join the Clinton Global Initiative. Since founding SBP in 2006, six months after Katrina, we’d rebuilt more homes than any other organization in New Orleans utilizing a combination of volunteers and AmeriCorps members. Eschewing the traditional recovery model, we’d begun rebuilding when officials and other organizations had insisted that construction was a, “phase two if not phase three activity.” But five years after SBP’s founding, despite having shown impressive results, drawing funding and volunteers from across the country, we were struggling to maintain our pace of building, cost effectiveness and quality.

At the CGI Annual Meeting, Liz and I met executives from Toyota, who recognized an opportunity to share cultural values and the “Toyota Production System” (TPS) with our small but growing organization. Through CGI, Toyota partnered with us to launch innovative, collaborative projects that have enabled SBP to become a national leader in long-term disaster recovery.

A portion of the White Board in SBP’s national Headquarters in New Orleans

Working with Toyota advisors, we transitioned to a visual white board system which allows us to track the progress of each project in real time. Anyone in the office can walk up to the board and see how far ahead or behind we are, and can implement protocols to resolve any issues. We implemented Toyota’s cultural value of “Kaizen”, or continuous improvement, constantly correcting small issues and developing our process based on our successes and failures. The results were breathtaking. We reduced our construction time per house from 116 days to 61–a 48% reduction. Today, SBP has rebuilt more homes than any other organization in New Orleans and more homes than any other organization in every community across the country we have worked in, for approximately 40% the cost of market rate contractors.

While we are proud of that fact, it is of little comfort to the thousands of homeowners impacted by disaster that we simply cannot reach. In the corporate, for-profit world, if you have a trade secret you hold it proprietary. But in the people serving world, if it works well, you have a responsibility to share it. Through Toyota’s value of “Yokoten”, we realized that in order to truly have an impact on disaster recovery, SBP has an obligation to share its model, best practices and lessons learned with our ostensible “competitors”, thereby increasing their capacity and efficacy so that more families can be served promptly after disaster.

Today, SBP is actively training other rebuilding organizations including affiliates of Habitat for Humanity, All Hands Volunteers and Rebuilding Together in South Carolina, West Virginia, and Louisiana. In doing so, SBP’s proven effective model is being put to use across broad swaths of disaster impacted regions which SBP wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise. It is still early in those states’ recoveries, but in sharing the SBP model, we aim to significantly shrink the time between disaster and recovery for impacted residents. If SBP and our partners succeed, SBP and our disaster impacted clients will have Toyota and the relationship forged at CGI, to thank for it.

To learn more, visit and find SBP on Twitter and Facebook.

Originally published on Quartz



Zack Rosenburg

SBP co-founder, lawyer, government advisor. Program developer in disaster recovery, affordable housing opportunities and high-impact innovation.