Let’s get a first take out of the way.
There were too many empty seats inside the Great Hall at First United Methodist Church last Saturday as the Citizens of Gulf County Recovery Team held its first public meeting.
Yes, there were more than 50 residents present and a decent demographic sampling of citizens, but, a central theme of the morning was certainly the need for more participation from the committee’s title group: citizens.
And the reason was succinctly spelled out by committee chair Vicki Abrams.
“We are a small community, we have limited resources,” Abrams said. “We need to maximize our resources and not duplicate efforts.
“Please get involved. It will take all of us to repair and rebuild our community.”
As the first public town-hall-styled event, the meeting was largely an introductory to the committee, comprised entirely of volunteers, its sub-committee structure and its mission.
“We are here to address the recovery needs for those most vulnerable individuals who lack the resources,” Abrams said.
In particular, the committee’s focus is on those in the community with “unmet needs that other organizations do not help with.”
The committee will serve as a spoke for outside resources, linking agencies and organizations with the unmet needs in the community.
Several of those organizations, ranging from FEMA to Life Management, were on hand last week, providing something of a “recovery fair” at the conclusion of formal presentations.
In the short-term, a key milestone arrives next week when World Renew, a faith-based non-profit, begins a survey of community needs.
World Renew will be in the county April 8-19.
With that data, the committee will be able to better focus efforts.
The broader committee is divided into sub-committees: spiritual and emotional care, community assessment, case management, finance and donations, construction and housing and volunteer coordination.
Aided by a grant from the United Way, Abrams said the plan was to hire a coordinator/administrative assistant to help handle paperwork, communications, etc.
Additional focuses will be gleaned from effort.
“This is a developmental process and we will learn every step we go,” Abrams said.
The committee is pursuing non-profit status and has a fiscal partnership in the meantime with United Way, but a host of challenges, from grant writing to coordination of efforts to assembling the resources for recovery, lay ahead.
Consider just one sub-committee’s task.
“We had a critical housing shortage, critical housing needs, before the storm,” said Dr. Pat Hardman, chair of the sub-committee on housing and construction.
Hurricane Michael damaged 6,500 structures and 8,100 property insurance claims were filed.
“How do get an entrepreneur or philanthropic person to come in and build affordable workforce housing?” Hardman pondered, adding that a “long-term” plan will be needed.
And that leads us to a final component of the committee’s effort: telling the stories, of the community and committee.
Abrams noted that too many living outside of the area have forgotten about the Forgotten Coast, that the extent of the damage has not been reflected in the level of outside resources which have flowed into the area.
Outstanding organizations have come to help, but overall donations to major organizations for post-Michael relief pale in comparison to the devastation from one of the worst storms to hit the U.S.
“We want people to know we are still struggling and we still need resources in time, people and money,” Abrams said.
And, in time, the storytelling will turn to recovery, to the rebuilding, and the successes.
But to get there, Hardman said, more volunteers, more community participation, will be needed in the months ahead.
“We want to celebrate our success,” Abrams said. “We need (residents) to be part of this. We need you at the table.”