ORLANDO, Fla. -- Volunteers have proven indispensable in past disaster response and recovery efforts in Florida, and officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Florida’s State Emergency Response Team (SERT) are urging Floridians to consider how and where they might be of service this year – before a hurricane strikes.
Last year’s hurricane season was met with a wealth of donations and volunteerism from Florida individuals and organizations. In 2005, volunteers staffed phone banks, distributed emergency food and water, and cleared debris in response to Hurricane Wilma – and the other hurricanes that tested Florida residents during the 2005 season.
In many cases, volunteerism that was initially a response to Hurricane Katrina – both to the devastation along the Gulf Coast and evacuees who came to Florida after the storm – dovetailed with Wilma response and recovery initiatives. Volunteer efforts from past hurricanes, and the networks developed to speed those endeavors, proved vital – and were strengthened even further by last year’s response.
Close cooperation among federal and state officials and nonprofit organizations is critical to successful disaster relief and recovery efforts. For its part, FEMA uses Voluntary Agency Liaisons to assist voluntary agencies with federal assistance programs, coordination with other volunteer organizations, donation management, and identifying special needs populations.
The following are a few examples of how volunteers jumped at the chance to help their fellow Floridians in response to Hurricane Wilma, how they are prepared to help this year, and some suggestions for where to look for volunteer opportunities, both in and out of hurricane season.
American Red Cross to the Rescue
More than 500 volunteers seized the opportunity to assist the Lee County chapter of the American Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Of those, more than 400 were “spontaneous” volunteers who had not previously worked with the American Red Cross, said Chris Beddoes, emergency services director for the chapter.
After the new volunteers received basic training in emergency operations, 150 traveled to areas directly affected by the storm, while the rest helped feed, clothe and provide financial assistance and housing referrals to 375 families who evacuated to Lee County.
With some training and the Katrina experience under their belts, more than 500 Lee County volunteers were ready to respond after Hurricane Wilma struck South Florida. After Wilma, the chapter ran five emergency shelters that housed 6,600 people, provided 118,476 meals and gave out 1,320 comfort kits containing hygiene items. They also distributed 1,722 cleanup kits with items such as mops, brooms and disinfectant; made more than 1,000 mental health counseling visits; and provided referrals and financial assistance of more than $150,000 to 165 families with significantly damaged or completely destroyed homes.
At the peak of hurricane-response efforts, Lee County American Red Cross volunteers were devoting an average of at least 50 hours per week to their voluntary work, Beddoes said. One volunteer logged 496 hours in September and 480 hours in October. The chapter has seven permanent staffers, so such volunteer contributions were invaluable.
“For one couple, it was their first experience volunteering,” Beddoes said, referring to the Katrina response. “Now, they put in 30 to 40 hours per week volunteering with us. They are far enough along that they are assuming leadership roles in our volunteer organization.”
This year, 100 new volunteers have already signed up to assist with chapter efforts. Currently, the Lee County volunteers are undergoing additional training to further strengthen their ability to re...