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Partnerships key to FL's future

Hurricane season ends today - but preparation for the next season is already beginning, said Florida disaster response experts.

BY SUSAN KIM | MIAMI, Fla. | November 30, 2004

"The economic impact has been tremendous."

—Lesli Remaly

Hurricane season ends today - but preparation for the next season is already beginning, said Florida disaster response experts.

And this hurricane season simply couldnít end quietly. Tropical Storm Otto formed far out in the Atlantic, some 810 miles east of Bermuda, on Tuesday. Itís not expected to threaten land, but it begs the question: What will long-term recovery in Florida look like by the time next hurricane season rolls around?

It depends on how well faith-based groups, local officials, nonprofits, and the business community work together, mused Lesli Remaly, a Florida-based Church World Service (CWS) disaster response and recovery liaison.

CWS, among many other faith-based groups, has been assessing needs and mapping out a long-term recovery in Florida.

Remaly wonders how many county-level governments, by next year, will have addressed the issue of affordable housing. Right now, she said, hurricane survivors and their advocates need to speak up about that issue.

One of the roles of long-term recovery committees - which are springing up at the county level all over Florida - is to urge local officials to look at affordable housing, since many hurricane survivors simply can't afford to rebuild.

But county-level officials - much as they know and care about their constituents - may not be able to anticipate the numbers of people who will be in need, cautioned Remaly.

Statistics about those who have applied for federal aid - high as they are - don't fully depict the numbers of people in need, she said, because many people didn't apply at all. "They didn't know how, or they didn't want to, or they weren't eligible," explained Remaly.

And many of those people - farm workers, for example - are folks who have also lost their jobs.

"The economic impact has been tremendous," Remaly pointed out.

Acres of citrus and other crops were destroyed. Tourists stayed away from theme parks and beaches. And the result was that thousands of people lost jobs.

That's why small business owners also need to partner with long-term recovery committees, urged Remaly.

"If a small business owner helps a long-term recovery committee with funding or other resources, it will help the whole community recover more quickly - and that's beneficial to that business."

There is also a concern that nonprofits - including those that provide social services - will not be able to get back into business, she said. "Direct services have been interrupted. One challenge that long-term recovery committees have is that they need the social service infrastructure and, in some communities, it's not there," observed Remaly.

Though long-term recovery committees are primarily focused on the recovery of individuals and families, building partnerships with local governments, businesses, and nonprofits is vital to recovery, Remaly said.

In communities where there was widespread poverty before the hurricanes - or in communities that were devastated down to their very core, such as Pine Island or Wauchula - building those partnerships can be very difficult, said Remaly.

"Long-term recovery committees are going to need help with developing these partnerships and with finding the resources," she said. "Leaders from national denominational response groups and leaders within the business or social services community can and should be integral in providing technical support."

CWS, working with Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster, is also offering a helping hand with a mid-December training event in Fort Pierce. Training topics will include how to manage donations, how to develop a financial plan and budget, housing and insurance issues, managing volunteers, construction and estimating, casework and staffing, organizing a board of directors, public relations and marketing, and many other topics of interest to budding long-term recovery committees.

Right now is an ideal time, Remaly pointed out, for long-term recovery committees to develop an infrastructure that will help handle resources efficiently. "There is an opportunity for these organizations to develop an infrastructure that's sustainable, including incorporation," she said.

And building a strong organization now, she said, could mean faring better next hurricane season. "We have the potential - as frightening as that may be - for subsequent storms."

Remaly said that the long-term recovery committees that are the strongest right now are those that had some kind of structure in place before hurricane season ever started.

And the stronger an organization is, the more its leaders can focus not only on recovery but on mitigation, too, she said. "There's a readiness component. All of these long-term recovery groups could get access to mitigation dollars."

On Pine Island, Father Tom Pohto is looking forward to building the strong organizational structure Remaly describes.

Right now, he said, he's also looking at emergency needs. "Some people are really in desperate straits."

Pine Island's long-term recovery committee - Beacon of HOPE - has just been created. HOPE stands for "Helping Other People Everyday."

"A lot of jobs were lost on the island," said Pohto, who serves at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Catholic Church. "There are 20 families that have nowhere to go, and another 20-30 also need something, too. We're talking about an emergency situation here."

Even while considering emergency needs, Pohto is considering a long-range plan, he said, "to get better housing on the island. It's just that right now feeding the hungry and finding homes is a real challenge."

Pohto's peer, Ann McLemore of St. John's Episcopal Church on the island, said she also anticipates emotional stress this time of year. "There are going to be mental health needs," she said. "It's the holiday season."

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