Fighting complacency post-Irma

Jesse Hollett
Posted 10/4/17

ORANGE PARK – Disaster preparedness coordination last spring helped organize area church and volunteer response prior to the destruction brought by Hurricane Irma rather than after the damage was …

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Fighting complacency post-Irma


ORANGE PARK – Disaster preparedness coordination last spring helped organize area church and volunteer response prior to the destruction brought by Hurricane Irma rather than after the damage was done.

A roundtable held in May between area pastors and county emergency officials organized by the nonprofit network Clay SafetyNet Alliance helped forge a lasting discussion regarding the county’s disaster response that not only marshaled more volunteers for storm relief, but allowed for heightened coordination between agencies that in the years prior seemed sequestered from each other.

André Van Heerden with the Clay SafetyNet said the response has been humbling.

According to Van Heerden, roughly a dozen churches and 19 out of state entities have helped or continue to help with cleanup and relief from Hurricane Irma. This is compared to five volunteers Van Heerden said helped after last October’s Hurricane Matthew.

“A lot of the churches have stepped up providing homes, a lot of churches are providing volunteer groups to help muck out, to help cleanup, to help the elderly trim trees that are around their home and its really been an all hands-on deck for the community. It’s been a great showing, the community has really stepped up.”

According to John Ward, Clay County Emergency Management director, the hurricane damaged 858 homes and destroyed 275 of them.

Ward concurs with Van Heerden in that the May meeting help create a new level of awareness among the Clay County faith community.

“We still have a lot of outside national-level volunteer groups that are in-theater in the county assisting us, but I think with that meeting that we had – that Pastor André coordinated – it was a new level of local support getting involved earlier rather than post and then coming in to help. I think they were involved much earlier,” Ward said.

Ward praised churches efforts of talking at the beginning of hurricane season rather than waiting until after a storm hit to discuss how to mobilize teams of volunteers.

“They started to have a lot of conversations as to how they were going to get involved and how they were going to build their teams as to how they would get involved,” Ward said.

Deep into the repair process, Van Heerdan said he hopes to map each affected home using a digital tool that can determine the services each homeowner needs.

As the county moves from relief to recovery, it will mean resources such as the American Red Cross will eventually lessen. This, Van Heerdan said, is an important step – ensuring the local community has the resources to replace that gap in service.

“I’ve learned over the years that most communities already have the resources they need to solve many of their problems,” said Tom Bussey, campus pastor for Christ’s Church of Fleming Island and volunteer organizer.

Bussey said the key to making those resources available is ensuring the agencies that provide those services are connected and can coordinate properly.

The public complacency present after Hurricane Matthew transformed over the course of a year, Van Heerdan said, from networking into planning prior before the storm.

“If you know who the players are at the table during blue skies, when gray skies come, you don’t have to start creating that, it’s already there,” Van Heerdan said.

Van Heerdan said after Clay SafetyNet Alliance invited county emergency officials to sit in with them in this networking session, his organization was invited to fill the role of what is called Emergency Service Function 15 for the county, essentially volunteer and donation coordination.

There is concern that the public will grow complacent now that Hurricane Irma has passed and the electricity switched on for most.

“This is a 100-year record event. It hasn’t happened in 100 years,” Van Heerdan said. “that both the north and the south forks of black creek flooded to in excess of 20 feet…80 percent of our county did not get affected, and within days they were back in school. Back in school, back in their jobs…they went back to work and they really weren’t affected, but 20 percent were absolutely devastated.”

“How do you get a community to rally around just a 20 percent devastation when 80 percent are kind of back to normal again and don’t really know what’s going on at ground-zero,” Van Heerdan said.

Out of state teams have provided immediate relief and some still provide their services to the community, but those teams won’t be here forever.

He said, at that point, it’s up to the community to help the community. This has become the crux of the problem. Clay SafetyNet Alliance is attempting to remove the coming community malaise via social media, traditional media sources and word of mouth.

He said despite his attempts, the inevitable has arrived.

“The complacency is already here,” he said.


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