Voices from the Field: How to Survive the Big Storm
Alejandro DeMario, the IRC's financial education coordinator in Miami, graduated from Florida International University with a degree in International Relations. Among the many activities he has undertaken during his term as a VISTA volunteer with the IRC, Alejandro coordinated IRC's Free Tax Preparation Program last winter. His hard work helped the refugees he assisted claim $200,000 in returns in 2006. In his narrative, Alejandro describes weathering hurricanes and working to prepare clients for natural disasters.
As Tropical Storm Ernesto roared across Florida, we were again reminded of the terrible toll hurricanes take on people and property. Indeed, we were still coping with fresh memories of Katrina and Wilma, the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic basin. Their destruction was unprecedented. Entire communities in southern Florida reeled from the consequences. Nevertheless, some good came out of these disasters. Many people felt compelled to volunteer their time, offer money even risk their lives to save others.
At the International Rescue Committee in Miami, our work in resettlement allowed us to assist many survivors of Katrina and Wilma. Our basic programs provided the framework for resettling hurricane evacuees: we were able to locate apartments, secure furniture, enroll children in school and provide cash assistance.
Our experience with the 2005 season offered new lessons about emergency preparedness. Natural disaster caseworker Zoila Guevara and I conducted a survey so we could get a better idea of the needs of those affected by hurricanes. With this information, we put together a comprehensive guide to help clients understand the threats posed by these storms and what to do when one approaches. The guide provides emergency numbers, shelter locations and other useful information. We also distributed flashlights, can openers and first-aid kits, among other items. This new program has proved very successful and many people have participated, including evacuees from New Orleans.
One Family’s Odyssey
Among the many people who came to the IRC for assistance last fall were a family of four fleeing New Orleans without any belongings or connections. At first, the Lidelcidas requested only cash assistance while they planned their return home. However, as the situation in New Orleans deteriorated, the family began to contemplate staying in south Florida. They knew their lives had changed forever.
The IRC was able to provide the Lidelcidas with financial and material support during this difficult time, helping them to furnish their apartment, for example. The family also enrolled in IRC’s Free Tax Preparation Program, which helped them stabilize their finances. And they received over $600 worth of school supplies to prepare their children for the school year. Most recently, the family received hurricane preparedness education in anticipation of the 2006 hurricane season. Today, the IRC is working to enroll the family in a federal home-buying program in south Florida.
The Lidelcidas are thankful for the help we were able to provide them. Their story is inspiring, not only because they were able to weather the adversities they faced fleeing Katrina, but because, shortly after their arrival in Miami, they endured Hurricane Wilma as well.
With determination and a little bit of help from the IRC and Americorps*VISTA, this family, like many others, has prospered.