Region 1 External Affairs Officer Andre Bowser shares how connecting with the local community can expand outreach efforts.
Less than a month after President Biden approved an emergency declaration for Vermont, FEMA opened a disaster recovery center and staff knocked on doors across the state to help register people for disaster assistance. While these efforts were effective, FEMA staff knew a deeper need to reach people remained.
In July, floods decimated the state, leaving destroyed roads, bridges, homes and more. Identifying the damaged areas where help was needed was easier in the beginning of the disaster: all responders had to do was look around.
But months into FEMA’s response to Vermont’s historic flooding, additional outreach is necessary to get help where it is needed most.
Dennis Pelletier, who is coordinating outreach by FEMA workers, said that knocking on the doors of Vermonters in the affected areas wasn’t enough.
“We still wanted to do more to reach Vermonters in need of assistance,” said Pelletier. “Our first big community engagement event was in July. Next, we started attending other community events, such as the fairs and eventually, a tip led us to engage with the community at local farmers markets.”
The idea came from Vermont Alternate State Coordinating Officer Ben Rose who suggested that FEMA look at farmers markets, due to their popularity across the state.
“In Vermont, farmers markets are where you find people; it’s a hyper-local way of reaching out to Vermonters who may be in need,” he said.
Rose, who works closely with FEMA for the state, said the county fairs were also effective, but not all Vermonters would have the time or the extra resources to attend the pricey gatherings. “The farmers markets, on the other hand, are free and offer an excellent source of affordable, healthy and local produce for everyone.”
To date, Pelletier said FEMA has attended four fairs, 14 farmers markets and three community events across the state.
Katheryn Mesa and Matthew Arcovio, both FEMA operation directors in Vermont, work with Pelletier on outreach efforts.
“Connecting with Vermonters initially required some door knocking in the towns hosting the farmers markets,” said Arcovio. “Phone calls and emails to the event organizers weren’t working — so we went to the impacted towns and connected with the organizations hosting the farmers markets. They were all eager for FEMA and other federal agencies to attend.”
On Aug. 31, staff set-up a table at the farmer’s market in the Waterbury town green – less than a mile away from the Disaster Recovery Center. The team also attended the farmer’s market in Jericho on Sept. 21. “We might not have made that connection if we didn’t drive to the town and track down the market’s organizers,” Arcovio said.
Pelletier said many of the staff at fairs and farmers markets are part-time and seasonal, which initially made it tough to connect. But once they narrowed down the community events and started asking around, they found that all of the organizers were eager to have FEMA resources at their events.
Mesa coordinated with the different sections attending the outreach events. FEMA staff at the fairs included representatives from Hazard Mitigation, Disaster Survivor Assistance and Environmental and Historic Preservation, as well as federal partners from the “Save Your Family Treasures” team and the Small Business Administration.
“With this local approach, our goal is to be in the towns to assist survivors on the day of the events, but also to raise awareness about our continued presence,” said Mesa.
The efforts in Region 1 highlights the importance of understanding local culture in communities affected by disasters. FEMA response personnel in the region were able to learn more about the local culture and use this information to help reach as many Vermont survivors as possible.