Hurricane preparedness is expensive. Emergency managers look for a solution
This June, Valencia “Vee” Gunder’s organization, The Smile Trust, organized its first hurricane preparedness event. Gunder and her staff prepared 200 kits full of supplies like water, battery-operated fans and first aid kits. They planned to give these away to neighboring families of its Miami headquarters.
“We ran out of supplies,” Gunder laughed. “People were asking, when are you all going to come back?”
People generally know the list of things they're supposed to have stocked up for a storm, Gunder explained. But for low-income people and people in marginalized communities, getting those supplies is sometimes an unreachable goal. She is just one of many in Florida who are working to make hurricane preparedness more inclusive to all, regardless of cost or accessibility.
For Gunder, she considers much of the traditional hurricane preparedness advice Floridians hear every year to be outdated. She feels it is too inaccessible for people without money to spare or transportation to find those goods. “Go get food for this many people for this many days… that’s easy to say when you have a grocery store in all the proper places,” Gunder said, “so when someone offers a list of supplies you need to prepare, it also needs to go through a lens of class, access and mobility.”
“If I'm already paycheck to paycheck, if I already don't have access to a grocery store if I already don't have access to move around, what do you think I am able to do if a storm is on its way?” she asks.
She worries every year for those who will inevitably be caught without crucial supplies after a storm. “South Florida is playing hurricane roulette,” she said, “and we will be caught slipping. I can only imagine the amount of harm that will come.”
The national survey from the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) found that Americans are looking for ways to prepare on a reduced budget. Nearly 30% of respondents reported being willing to spend $50 dollars or less on hurricane preparedness. That’s double the number from 2021. Around 57% report they plan to prepare for this hurricane season, down from 80% who responded in 2021. Only 47% plan to strengthen their home before a storm, which is down from 65% in 2021.
The FLASH survey concludes that this change “may reflect tightening family budgets.” It’s evident preparing for a storm that may or may not come has become a lesser priority for many Americans.
David Peaton wants emergency managers to catch up to the times. Peaton is the assistant director of emergency management for Alachua County. “I think we have been talking about hurricane preparation to the public in the same way for so long. For decades we have been giving people the same message and we need to understand that not everyone absorbs the information in the way they used to, because they don’t have the same amount of resources,” he said, “so that’s the problem, we keep continuing the same message and yet disasters are getting larger in scale.”
Peaton wants people to focus on what he calls “common sense prep,” which are simple, low-cost alternatives to the typical bulk purchase of hurricane supplies before a storm hits. For example, instead of buying bottled water, he suggests saving soda and juice bottles, filling them up with tap water and storing them well before the threat of a storm arrives. He also advocates for rotating extra food in and out of your pantry. Instead of spending a large amount of money to buy a seven-day supply of food you may or may not touch this year, he said to buy a little extra with each grocery trip, use it, and then replenish it over time. Peaton also said that keeping your yard free of debris and other large objects that can come loose is a zero-cost way of reducing the chance of damage to your home during a storm.
Peaton is particularly concerned for those without the resources to evacuate. For many, filling up their gas tank, finding a hotel, and so on is a cost they can put on their credit card and move on from. “But for a lot of people, they just don’t have a way to pay for this.” This makes personal preparedness even more important if they won’t be able to avoid the storm.
“We want personal safety to be something regardless of income and regardless of financial needs,” he said. Peaton also emphasizes the importance of food banks and other local aid during a hurricane scenario. They often help fill in the gaps when people cannot make their own food purchases before or after a hurricane. “Our food banks don’t get enough credit,” he said.
Robin Safley is the executive director of Feeding Florida, an association of 12 food banks that serve all 67 counties in Florida. The organization works with smaller, local partners to distribute the food. Feeding Florida plays a large role before and after a hurricane and works closely with the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
“In blue skies, we distribute six million pounds of food on a weekly basis. We have the capability to respond to a natural disaster by ramping up to 300% in a short time,” Safely said.
Like Peaton, Safley said the main concern is for those who cannot safely evacuate. “Those who have the wherewithal are the ones who can vacate,” Safley said, “so we know the population we serve is those who have to stay in place.” Though anyone can access benefits from Feeding Florida, most of the people they serve work paycheck to paycheck.
Safley said they focus on handing out shelf-stable foods that don’t require cooking before a storm, so people can stock up. In the immediate aftermath, they distribute MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat. “We want to stabilize the family once they get back into their area, we come in with that food so they are not searching on a daily basis,” she said.
“The family who cannot afford to leave has a longer haul to get to where they were before the storm,” but Safley wants Floridians to know, they are not alone. “There will be food; You should do a lot to prepare, but if you find yourself in need, we will be there on the other side of the storm.” Though large organizations like Feeding Florida can effectively serve a huge amount of people after a hurricane, smaller-scale operations practicing community-based hurricane preparedness can make a significant impact, too.
When Hurricane Irma was on its way to Florida in 2017, Gunder was looking for a way to bring aid to her own community in Miami. She had been doing climate advocacy for many years but realized “we needed more than just advocacy. We needed an alternative for our communities to respond after a storm.” It started out of her house, just a small operation. But within four or five days, Gunder said The Smile Trust collaborated with 10 organizations in 18 communities, ultimately serving around 23,000 families. This kind of grassroots effort evolved into the Community Emergency Operations Center, or the CEOC.
The CEOC is a model of community-based hurricane response. Gunder has taken the model and trained other organizers on how to become first-responders in a storm event. For example, Gunder uses “wellness checks” in a natural disaster, in which organizers call local residents and ask for what supplies they need, and then contact the organizations on the ground to deliver those supplies.
For Gunder, the most effective way to help is to just get people what they need. “The best way is to bridge the gap,” she said.
A combination of government and grassroots aid may be the answer to that gap in hurricane preparedness. Nkosi Muse is a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of Miami studying climate hazards, especially for vulnerable communities. He also sits on the Climate Resilience Committee for the City of Miami. He says community-based action such as sharing supplies, information, and hurricane education can make a more immediate impact than something on the municipal level.
“It has to go through being passed, has to be written into city code, the mayor has to sign off on it, it has to be recognized. In a community, it doesn't have to be recognized. This is something that can happen amongst individuals informally,” Muse said. "Having people like that in your corner that you can reach out to are so important because they will never turn you down.”
However, he also emphasized the need to put pressure on local governments and continue to push for better resources for those in need. “Keeping our foot on the gas, making sure we are being heard, eventually it will make a change.” Nkosi said this is even more important regarding the climate in the long term. “Climate change and hurricane preparedness now go hand-in-hand, because these storms are getting stronger.”
Ultimately, both emergency managers and community organizers want people to feel empowered by information before a storm arrives. Once you can get stocked up, make a plan, Peaton said. Knowing who to contact before and after a disaster for aid and getting signed up for alerts from your local emergency management are critical steps. “The number one thing you can do is get educated before a disaster hits,” Peaton said. “That won’t cost you a dime.”
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