Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

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.

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.

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