The day after Hurricane Irma raked across Florida, advocates fanned out in the Miami neighborhoods that have traditionally been least prepared for disaster and last on the list for relief.
Volunteers went door knocking, running down a list of ways they could help: Are you hungry? Do you have mold? Do you need debris picked up? How are you doing on medicine?
What they found, said community activist Valenica Gunder, was dire. Elderly people in Overtown with nothing but “a can of tuna and a loaf of bread and a flashlight.” People so weak the volunteers had to hand feed them. Diabetics with no ice for their insulin.
“Irma decided to come right after rent was due,” she said, a bad time for a community largely living paycheck to paycheck. The latest census data show one in five Miami-Dade residents live under the poverty line. And the need wasn’t just in traditionally underserved communites; advocates helped people in Aventura and South Beach too.
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This year, that impromptu effort has bloomed into a grant-funded, proactive plan to provide resources to the communities where the social safety net is most frayed — in even more cities up and down the coast.
At the peak of hurricane season, when several storms are swirling in the Atlantic, Gunder and her team are busily stocking their hub, a 6,500-square-foot warehouse in Liberty City, with everything necessary to help a needy community for six days after a storm, from ice making to food preparation to legal services.
“I pray we don’t have another storm so I don’t have to use any of this,” she said.
Gunder, the 34-year-old founder of nonprofit Make The Homeless Smile, calls it “the community EOC,” a play on the county emergency operations center, where first responders and politicians coordinate efforts before, during and after a storm.
The best thing about the storm, she said, was the swell of community support. More than 350 volunteers gathered to support 18 communities a day, and some people brought their kids.
“I think that was one of the dopest things I ever saw,” Gunder said. “The government can take how long they want to take, but if we take care of each other, we can be OK until they get here.”
That’s her pitch with the community EOC project, which is funded by two Miami Foundation grants for $30,000. The first funds the central hub in Liberty City. The other is for additional supplies, like mobile hot spots and generators, with $10,000 cash on hand to buy food just before a storm hits.
During the next storm, Gunder’s team plans to expand into Broward and the Keys but maintain their roster of supply spots in Opa-locka, Overtown, Liberty City, Brownsville, Allapattah, Little Havana, East Hialeah, Coconut Grove, Richmond Heights, Goulds and Florida City.
She plans to coordinate daily with the county EOC and the Red Cross with information on where their resources could be most helpful.
Coordination between the government and community groups is not a new idea — nationally or locally.
In June, FEMA released a best practices guide for how county emergency departments should communicate with faith-based and community groups. It calls these groups “significant force multipliers” for connecting with historically underserved populations.
The report encourages counties to participate in large-scale mock disaster events, like the “Serious Games” event held in South Florida in July with groups that form the community EOC effort.
The report references a 2011 pilot project in Miami-Dade County that evolved into a program known as Miami-Dade Communities Organized to Respond in Emergencies, or CORE. The program loops more than 100 community groups (mostly faith groups) into the emergency management process through a regular newsletter and meetings.
Frank Rollason, assistant director of the county’s office of emergency management, said there are roughly 25 to 30 active community groups within CORE these days. Coordinating between those groups, some of which are a part of the community EOC effort, and the county can be a challenge, he said.
The county wants to make sure there’s fair and efficient distribution of its resources, which can be difficult when many of the community groups operate in similar neighborhoods offering similar services. Sometimes the groups don’t communicate with each other, or with the municipality they’re located in, which is the point of contact for the county.
Rollason worries that county resources can be strained dealing with the dozens of different groups with overlapping causes and regions of activity.
“It would be like us dealing with every single person whose electricity has gone out, all of them calling us to handle it. That’s not doable,” he said. “My primary objective is to get a singular position here in the EOC where the community-based organizations have a face right here in the operations where we can be with them one-on-one.”
The county understands its reach is limited. Not everyone feels comfortable interacting with government, whether it be because of immigration status, a language barrier or just not knowing the resource exists. Through these groups, Rollason said, Miami-Dade can help more people more efficiently.
With the help of CORE members, the county said it has the ability to provide 18,000 meals a day during a disaster and gather about 4,000 volunteers at any given time.
“Last year it came out like we were shaming the government. And we were,” Gunder said. “Last year it was a fight. It looks more like a partnership than a fight this year.”
Anyone can deliver supplies from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays at the Ecotech warehouse at 670 NW 113th St.