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Florida County Taps Faith-Based Community for Preparedness

Miami-Dade County’s Communities Organized to Respond in Emergencies initiative engages faith-based and community organizations in disaster preparedness and response.

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Illustration by Tom McKeith
Tom McKeith
Miami-Dade County, Fla., emergency management officials have been praised for their effective preparedness and recovery in a hurricane-and flood-prone area. Now the county is serving as the pilot for a federal program to better engage members of the community who haven’t been as easy to reach.

Communities Organized to Respond in Emergencies (CORE), a program launched by the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, is designed to better engage faith-based and community organizations in planning for, responding to and recovering from disasters.

Experts agree that engaging the whole community in emergency preparedness is necessary to truly make the country more resilient. Faith-based and community organizations have the resources to shelter and feed hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people and offer other services at a time when government and traditional emergency recovery groups have limited funds and resources.

Since the concept hasn’t taken hold around the country, officials are using Miami’s efforts to learn what’s effective in engaging and maintaining relationships with the most diverse, hard-to-reach populations, and how they can translate those lessons to apply to every city nationwide.

Getting off the Ground

CORE launched last March and has since affiliated 25 new congregations — a total capacity of about 250 additional community volunteers. The emergency management team has identified 8,000 new methods of providing support during a disaster, nine potential new feeding and sheltering sites, five new point of distribution (POD) sites, and CORE members themselves have identified 65 potential new stakeholders.

“In the past, we thought faith-based and community groups were only useful in the human services realm mass care, sheltering, feeding, housing and human services,” said Sherry Capers, emergency management planner with Miami-Dade, through email. Capers works closely with CORE members.

“We have found that some of the larger faith institutions have the capacity because of skilled volunteers or equipment to be involved in logistics management, mass communications in their roles as trusted messengers, or in being secondary points of distribution in communities where people might have difficulty getting to the main POD.”

Part of the pilot’s success thus far can be attributed to the willingness of the emergency management team, which is one of the main reasons FEMA sought Miami-Dade for the task. The county’s risk of natural and man-made disasters, proven emergency management track record, the potential to work with the broader community and the diverse populations were other important factors. 

“[Language barriers] can be a disadvantage for a number of services post-event,” said Curtis Sommerhoff, director of Miami-Dade’s Office of Emergency Management.

The goal was to target difficult populations, like non-English speakers, that have had barriers in getting help. Others groups include the elderly, people with access and functional needs, immigrant populations, children and youth, the minority faith community and nonprofit organizations that serve low-income people.

This approach of engaging the entire community is part of the “whole community” concept that FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate publicized in 2009. The idea is that government alone cannot adequately prepare for, respond to or recover from disaster; it takes the whole community to create resiliency.

If the country ignores valuable resources like faith-based and community organizations, it’s weakening the community’s resilience to and ability to recover quickly from disaster.

FEMA’s ongoing initiative called Building Resilience with Diverse Communities focuses on connecting community organizations along the emergency management continuum. The findings in Miami-Dade will fulfill one of the goals to establish a model for other communities to use in strengthening resilience.

Sommerhoff and his team sent surveys to more than 100 organizations to get a better idea of each facility’s recovery capabilities, whether it’s providing spiritual care, translation services, shelter or food.

Based on its emergency support functions, the organization is matched with a traditional response group for training. For example, if a church can support volunteers and donations, Sommerhoff’s staff connects it with the Adventist Community services, which does a lot of donations management in south Florida.

Baptist Health South Florida hospital has trained 80 to 100 pastors on spiritual care, stress care and how to provide care for a loved one, Sommerhoff said.

Florida International University has also been a big partner, developing damage assessment applications and providing services at the university for sheltering people with special needs.

“This is about collaboration and partnerships to maintain community resilience, not dollars and cents,” said Sommerhoff. “The only cost to us is time.”

Getting the Country On Board

The whole community approach may sound like a simple concept, but getting cities to actively participate isn’t so easy.

Progress is being made, but slowly. Capers said “It’s just been challenging for emergency management to even think about working with faith-based organizations, houses of worship — which stand up silently when there is a disaster to see how to make them fit.”

Many congregations don’t run typical workday hours because of other responsibilities to the organization’s members. Often, there’s a time lapse from emergency management contacting them and when they can respond.

“You have to change your approach to how you work with them,” Sommerhoff said. “It’s about when they are available, versus what’s good for you.”

Cole County, Mo., Sheriff Greg White, a longtime advocate of faith-based disaster preparedness training and an ordained Southern Baptist minister, said the concept of working with these organizations is uncomfortable for many people. “You have to partner with people you may not be comfortable with,” he said. “People have to get out of their comfort zones.”

Once an organization is on board, it’s another challenge to keep members engaged during times of no emergencies and when there’s turnover in leadership.

But maintaining constant involvement benefits the organization as well.

The majority of churches that refused services to the public after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 have since shut down, said White. The churches that embraced the community are thriving.

“People believe that they can turn to a church for help; the ones they could [turn to] are doing better. That’s a big deal,” he said.

Kansas City, Mo., has also done a great job promoting the whole community, White said. And some of those members have passed the information on to counterparts in Kansas.

“We found that for us to be resilient, the counties around us need to be resilient,” he said.

Other cities have also been longtime advocates. In San Francisco, a nongovernmental group called Community Agencies Responding to Disaster (CARD) has been providing free disaster preparedness services and resources to community and faith-based organizations since 1994.

In Vermont, relationships between the American Red Cross, AmeriCorps, National Civilian Community Corps and local faith-based groups proved to be key in creating the post-Hurricane Irene Vermont Disaster Relief Fund. Community businesses also helped, including a bakery in Bennington that used social media to spread the word about community needs.

“We do need these other people,” White said. “Nobody’s prepared to shelter 10 percent of their population.”

Looking Ahead

Miami-Dade officials have shared their learned lessons with other cities mainly through word of mouth and publications, Sommerhoff said.

One of the greatest lessons in the first year has been that getting organizations interested, and keeping them involved, is ultimately about building  solid relationships. Sommerhoff and his team plan on maintaining continuous communication through periodic calls, email, newsletters and meetings.

“The commitment to engagement, training, and ultimately, affiliation must be part of the central message of whole community,” he said.

To successfully incorporate this approach nationwide, the emergency management team believes three elements are needed: those reaching out to the community understand and respect cultural sensitivities of the groups they seek to reach; existing standard operating procedures are held against the lessons learned from communities at each step along the way to see if they reflect the whole community; and where there is a conflict between the goal of implementing
the policy and the jurisdiction’s comprehensive emergency management plan, emergency management staff should seek to work it out with input from key trusted partners.

“This intensive approach can and should work in any emergency management community in the nation, allowing for flexibility based on each respective community,” Capers said.

The team is currently putting together a “how-to” document, covering the most effective ways to reach out to prospects.

Jannah Scott, deputy director of DHS’ Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, visits a couple of times a year to meet with the team, Sommerhoff said, and hear what some of the successes and challenges have been. “Hopefully we can share this with the rest of the country,” he said.

Moving forward, Capers hopes private businesses will get involved to provide financial support to the community organizations, offering discounts on materials for post-disaster cleanup like removing debris or rebuilding homes.

She said, “It would be a real support for community resilience.”

Lauren Katims previously served as a staff writer and contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.