By Thomas Kennedy
In the last couple of weeks, Floridians have struggled with Hurricane Irma and its aftermath. Foreseeing the impact that this storm would have on low-income communities, a coalition of various community organizations came together to form the Community Emergency Operations Center (CEOC).
The CEOC helped people directly impacted by Hurricane Irma not only in South Florida but also in other Florida Counties, with staging areas in the Florida Keys, Naples and Tampa. In Miami alone, the CEOC was in 12 different neighborhoods distributing food and supplies to more than 12,000 residents. The organization says it has provided more than 20,000 meals in Florida.
I personally helped these efforts in Miami-Dade County, and while on the field, I saw things in my community that unsettled me deeply. Whole apartment buildings, like the Buena Vista Complex in Little Haiti or the Joe Moretti senior center in Little Havana were without power. People across the county were dealing with extreme heat, little access to food or water, no cell phone service, debris filled streets and of course, no electricity.
What was apparent was that the official response from Miami-Dade County towards those living in the poorest and most marginalized neighborhoods was inadequate. Most places we went, folks told us that they had no contact with officials and were struggling to find basic things such as ice to cool themselves down.
The most vulnerable end up paying the steepest price. In Hollywood, eight seniors died at a nursing home, even though a hospital was located across the street. The nursing home staff said they did all they could to protect the patients and called a hotline established by Florida Governor Rick Scott, but received no answer. On Wednesday, the state closed down the nursing home saying the staff lied in the medical records of the patients.
In the South Dade Center, a subsidized housing project for the farm-worker community in Homestead, residents said they felt abandoned after the center flooded and lost power during the storm. “This community seems like it’s been forgotten,” Salma Jaramillo told the Miami New Times. Her grandfather lives in the center. “There’s still a lot of trash here. It’s really, really hot. The houses are made from cement blocks, so they heat up really fast.” Jaramillo said she saw fallen trees still wrapped around power lines, as well as children, not work crews, removing debris from the street.
After days without power resulted in extreme heat and forced residents to sleep outside, activists from immigrant rights groups such as the Florida Immigrant Coalition and WeCount blasted the City of Homestead with social media posts and calls. These efforts resulted in cleanup crews showing up hours later and power being restored the next day.
What is perhaps most unnerving of all is that Miami did not even suffer a direct hit by Hurricane Irma. It is clear that Miami-Dade County and our energy utility Florida Power & Light (FPL), are not properly prepared to handle a crisis should a category 5 hurricane actually hit the city.
Furthermore, when Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez was criticized during a budget hearing over his response performance, he chose to smear the very same organizations providing relief rather than take constructive criticism. "I’ve never heard of these people," said Gimenez during a break in the hearing. "So, their claim of feeding people, etc., etc., I don’t even know if it’s true. I know the county response was very good. In the street, we get complimented all the time."
An equitable emergency response plan must be developed and properly funded to address the needs of low income communities in Miami-Dade County, and policies to protect vulnerable immigrant communities must be implemented to make sure that there is trust between the public and law enforcement in these times of emergency. We need our elected officials to stop making excuses and start taking responsibility for the wellbeing of all their constituents.
Thomas Kennedy is a communication fellow for the Center for Community Change.