By Christine Griffith and Carol Jeffers, Sarasota County Health and Human Service, and Patrick Gardner, University of South Florida
Located on the Gulf of Mexico in southwest Florida, Sarasota County is no stranger to extreme weather and natural disasters. But as Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane says, “You don’t have to be hit by a hurricane to be impacted by one.” In addition to direct blows from Mother Nature, Sarasota must also be prepared to receive evacuees from other areas affected by disasters.
Following Hurricane Charley in 2004, evacuees from neighboring counties arrived in Sarasota when their shelters were destroyed. Sarasota County emergency shelters were immediately opened until longer-term housing was located. With homes destroyed, a vacant mobile home park was filled with FEMA trailers and a make-shift “trailer city” grew overnight for this displaced population. This created a multitude of needs, including public health, transportation and security. County leaders were obliged to develop communication plans, collaborative partnerships, and recovery decisions in real time without a formalized strategy.
On the heels of the 2004 hurricanes, Sarasota County became the recipient of hundreds of families fleeing the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. These families arrived needing food, housing, healthcare, replication of lost identification, school entry for children, and other basic requirements for relocation.
USF Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice director Dave Rogoff points out, “Disaster survivors who have had to leave their homes and possessions are newly-arrived residents in need of services and support.”
To address these needs, Sarasota County Health and Human Services requested assistance from local non-profit agencies, faith-based organizations, the school board, hospitals, etc. and, within three days, developed a “one-stop shop” for services. Families were able to meet their needs through make-shift offices set up at the Health Department. In addition, employment counseling, food stamps, Medicaid application and cash assistance was made available. The lesson learned was that immediate response and recovery to any disaster is a local responsibility.
So began the development of an all-county, collaborative response and recovery coalition, the “Sarasota Community Organizations Active in Disaster” (Sarasota COAD). This unique model owes much of its success to the active participation of Sarasota County Emergency Management and Sarasota County Health and Human Services and their leaders. Sarasota COAD is a key member of the county’s disaster management system, is among the first to receive notification of potential disaster-related events, and is included when planning for recovery. It operates under the support of the Community Alliance of Sarasota County and the National Incident Management System. It has multiple subcommittees and strike teams which facilitate disaster recovery efforts with an emphasis on addressing the needs of specific groups needing assistance (such as elder care, behavioral health, etc.). The coalition was activated during the H1N1 pandemic and Haiti Orphan Airlift. Strike team activities during “Blue Sky” periods have included work to enhance the counties’ 2-1-1 system, streamlining access to resources via the web, publishing an Emergency Resource Guide for the developmentally disabled, and creating a directory of community mental health services.
The Sarasota COAD model has become a best-practice model for meeting community resilience and post-disaster workforce development goals. In addition, Sarasota County Health and Human Services and Emergency Management personnel have travelled to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas to showcase the coalition and explain how it can be duplicated to cement the local partnerships essential for an effective post-disaster community recovery.
Most recently, the Sarasota COAD has partnered with the University of South Florida’s Preparedness and Emergency Response Learning Center (PERLC) in its College of Public Health and USF Sarasota-Manatee to offer CDC-funded trainings to other Florida counties. . These trainings assist with the formation of local community-based disaster coalitions or the strengthening of existing ones. The teams are composed of staff from county health departments, human services, and emergency management, as well as non-profit agencies. These groups attend kick-off training in Sarasota and receive web-based presentations and on-site support for two years. To date, representatives from 18 counties have attended the kick-off trainings and are moving forward. Additional 2012 kick-off training dates have been scheduled for May, June, July, and November, with a hiatus during hurricane season.
As Pat Gardner from USF put it, “The purpose of the Coalition Project is to build and strengthen disaster coalitions and train people so they can help others in their time of need.”
For more information about the Sarasota COAD, visit www.sarasotacoad.org. Additional information regarding the USF PERLC trainings can be found at: http://health.usf.edu/publichealth/clphp/programs/cdpc/index.htm.