When Hurricane Irma passed through the state of Florida, it left a path of destruction not seen in these parts since Hurricane Andrew.
Utility companies and government bodies did the best they could to handle the immediate crisis, but they privately admit that they were never truly prepared. Democracy demands that we hold elected officials and other policymakers accountable for their decisions. But we also need to ask: How committed are our leaders to ensuring that the mistakes around Irma are not repeated?
As the hurricane was bearing down, community organizations with deep roots in places like Little Haiti, Liberty City, Allapattah, Overtown, South Dade, Florida City, Homestead and other communities across the state heard the call for help.
We came together to support low income neighborhoods where many families could not afford to evacuate and could not afford to prepare or purchase supplies, and immigrant communities where people were afraid to ask for help. Where we could, we helped bridge the gap between government’s good intentions and the reality on the ground.
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When people didn’t know what county shelters were available, we passed along that information and told people their evacuation route. After the storm, we ran pop-up barbecues, went door-to-door to see what people needed, and coordinated supplies, donations and volunteer requests.
Experiences like these show the gap between official disaster response — no matter how well intentioned — and the needs of communities that were struggling even before the storm. The county helped distribute more than 400,000 meals.
However, when the United Way reports that six out of 10 Floridians are struggling to cover basic necessities in normal times, we have to ask: was that enough? Hundreds of thousands of ice bags were given out at Marlins Park. But did we do enough to make them available to families that don’t have cars or couldn’t afford the gas to get there? How do we make sure that an 83-year old women in Little Haiti is not having to live in her car nine days after the storm because it’s her only source of air conditioning?
We should not let a zip code determine how equipped a community is to weather intense storms. With another potentially catastrophic hurricane always right around the corner, we need to act now so that next time, we don’t have elderly people and people with disabilities trapped in sweltering apartments for days, fewer families without access to fresh food or regular contact by county officials and agencies. Irma needs to be a shared wake-up call that we have to do more to keep all our neighbors safe.
We know that in an emergency, people aren’t concerned about divisions between the private, public, and nonprofit sector. They just want help. To ensure that all people have faith in our shared crisis response, we should have equity in emergency response and set aside increased funding for a needs assessment of the county’s vulnerable communities, increase outreach for the county’s Emergency and Evacuation Assistance Program, and grants to nonprofits to aid in preparedness and recovery efforts.
In addition, we should invest money collected by the county from the FPL franchise agreement into cooling and charging centers for vulnerable populations without power after a storm. It is also critical that we invest resources in mass transit, our current system was inadequate to evacuate Floridians and get residents to shelters.
And we must act on climate, more funding needs to be put into stormwater infrastructure programs, as well as the Weatherization Assistance Program. Lastly, the county should restore full funding for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to ensure all Miami residents have access to safe, storm-ready, affordable housing.
The road and tasks ahead are difficult. Grassroots leaders and individual citizens who have worked in low-income and other vulnerable communities for years and through Hurricane Irma have proven that they can come together to bridge the immediate needs of residents. But it was not enough. Will county government be a willing and honest partner in improving the systematic and institutional gaps that we all know exist? Or will this be a continued case study in how a lack of visionary leadership of some continues to keep too many communities at the margins of care and power.
Andrea Cristina Mercado is Executive Director of New Florida Majority.