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Post-Irma, Community Groups Prepare To Step In Where The Official Hurricane Response Fell Short

LaTonda James adds the name of a potential community captain to a list of possible post-hurricane resources for Miami's Brownsville neighborhood.
Kate Stein
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Hurricane Irma uprooted homes and lives in the Florida Keys when it tore through the state last September. The storm also wreaked less visible havoc in many of Florida's low-income communities, where people without cars or living paycheck-to-paycheck struggled to buy food and supplies, and experienced extended power outages.

Read more: After Receiving Emergency Food Assistance, Some Report That Their Cards Don't Work

In some of those communities, an informal network of non-profits and neighborhood leaders created " community emergency operations centers" that hosted barbecues and delivered supplies to people in need. As the 2018 hurricane season bears down, that network is laying groundwork for an even stronger response in neighborhoods statewide should another potentially catastrophic storm make landfall.

"We’re looking for storage space throughout these neighborhoods," Valencia Gunder, an activist and one of the leaders of the post-Irma response, told about 30 people gathered in a community center in Miami's Brownsville neighborhood on Tuesday night. "Hubs -- places where people can come and serve or get served. And then also community captains... People that live in the community that can respond."

The session was the fourth of five taking place in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Similar efforts are taking place in Jacksonville and Orlando. Gunder and other organizers say they're not trying to replace government help post-storm. But they want to ensure their communities can fend for themselves for several days if needed.

Officials at Tuesday’s meeting said they think that's a good idea.

"Your neighbor is your first responder," said Mark Moore, who oversees the city of Miami's emergency operations center. He said that after hurricanes, fire departments, police and rescue crews have their hands full, so what the groups are doing is "fabulous."

Some of the community leaders say they're making these preparations because they're skeptical city and county officials will be able to fill massive gaps exposed by last year's storm response. But during Tuesday's conversation, Gunder said it's part of an effort to make communities as resilient as possible, using all available resources.

The organizations have invited officials to be part of a hurricane response simulation on June 9. In Miami, city officials are hosting a community emergency response team training a few days later.

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Kate Stein can't quite explain what attracts her to South Florida. It's more than just the warm weather (although this Wisconsin native and Northwestern University graduate definitely appreciates the South Florida sunshine). It has a lot to do with being able to travel from the Everglades to Little Havana to Brickell without turning off 8th Street. It's also related to Stein's fantastic coworkers, whom she first got to know during a winter 2016 internship.Officially, Stein is WLRN's environment, data and transportation journalist. Privately, she uses her job as an excuse to rove around South Florida searching for stories à la Carl Hiaasen and Edna Buchanan. Regardless, Stein speaks Spanish and is always thrilled to run, explore and read.