Who has not been moved by scenes of Hurricane Ida victims lining up for food and water and despairing at the loss of what were once their homes?
As we watch from afar and vow to be prepared, some of us may research whole house generators, or contemplate just-in-case reservations to hotels in non-evacuation zones. But most will stock pantries with staples and comfort food.
Don’t you wonder about those in our community who can’t afford to escape a storm or buy the bare necessities to ride it out? How will they cope if the worst hits Tampa Bay?
I posed that question to Kevin Chinault, director of social services for the Salvation Army of Clearwater and Upper Pinellas. He also happens to be chair of the Pinellas County Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD), a consortium of social service providers, government agencies and faith groups.
Helping the poor to get ready for hurricanes is important to area social service agencies. “We try to encourage them to take a little bit from each week’s budget” to prepare, Chinault said, but acknowledged the reality of persistent financial constraints.
“Unfortunately, the vulnerable will often fall through the cracks. Agencies like Daystar (in St. Petersburg) and the Salvation Army are there to prevent that from happening,” he said.
Agencies often give out extra shelf-stable foods as a hurricane approaches, an important “pre-event” response, Chinault said, since government resources from FEMA and the state aren’t released until after an emergency has been declared. “So, it’s up to the nonprofits to try to fill those gaps.”
Like the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, which emphasized hurricane preparedness in June – the start of the storm season — through its social channels and its FRESH Pantry Plus, which distributes fresh produce, meats and other foods to those in need.
The agency also handed out hurricane starter kits, each with a few non-perishable food staples, a can opener, the Pinellas County Hurricane Preparedness Guide and a Surviving the Storm at Home Checklist.
Chief operating officer Shaina Bent spoke about the agency’s concern for its clients, particularly during hurricane season.
“In terms of preparing, it’s not something that someone who is living paycheck-to-paycheck can always afford to do,” she said. While the county’s hurricane preparedness guide suggests having a one-week supply of non-perishable food on hand, “When you struggle to put food on the table, that’s not always attainable.”
A storm might also mean no work for a day or two, a week, or possibly more for low-wage workers, which means an even smaller paycheck, she observed. After Hurricane Irma in 2017, the Free Clinic saw that financial loss compounded month after month for its clients. “You don’t catch up,” Bent said.
In the aftermath of the historic hurricane, the Free Clinic – which works closely with Pinellas County EOC and local and state officials after a storm – provided vital assistance, including ice to homebound senior citizens and food and water to residents at a low-income apartment complex that had been without power and water for seven days.
Agencies collaborate during emergencies like hurricanes, Bent said. “We are able to respond and pull together. We know which food pantries, in what neighborhoods, are open, who is operational.”
It’s also a matter of finding out who has resources such as food, trucks and volunteers, she said. The Free Clinic supplies food, free of charge, to a network of about 50 to 60 other food pantries and community kitchens throughout the county from its food bank.
But hurricane preparation isn’t limited to social service agencies, of course. Congregations like Bethel Community Baptist Church are concerned about their members and the communities around them. At Bethel, two associate pastors minister to older members, but particularly keep in contact when a hurricane is approaching, Bishop Manuel Sykes said.
Besides leading his St. Petersburg church, Sykes also is state bishop for Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International. Church leaders have a relationship with the Red Cross and are on call to help during a disaster. “I have a team throughout Florida,” he said. “We are able, with the team, to better identify the local areas that need assistance.”
Last week, Chinault led a training session to help faith groups, social service agencies and other organizations prepare for disasters and work together to serve the community. The local VOAD also includes Pinellas County Emergency Management and Pinellas County Human Services. Additionally, it welcomes for-profit organizations, such as Walmart and Home Depot, which might offer financial resources or products during an emergency.
“It takes the whole community to respond to an emergency,” Chinault said. “The goal is to work together in a time of need to meet the community’s need.”
Friday morning, he planned to fly to Louisiana to help the Salvation Army’s relief efforts there. He’ll be in charge of operations out of the city of Gonzales and be deployed for 14 days.
“We currently have 40 mobile units serving in the Louisiana area,” he said. “So far, they’ve served more than 207,000 meals.“
His advice to us here in Tampa Bay? Be prepared.
For anyone wondering how to help those who might not have the means to do so, he offers this: “I would recommend for folks, whether they are in a faith community, or if they know of somebody who may be living on the financial edge, to prepare an extra bag of shelf-stable food and give it directly, or work through a faith community or nonprofit to make sure it gets to where it’s needed.”