By Thomas Kennedy
In the last couple of weeks, Floridians have struggled with Hurricane Irma and its aftermath. Foreseeing the impact that this storm would have on low-income communities, a coalition of various community organizations came together to form the Community Emergency Operations Center (CEOC).
The CEOC helped people directly impacted by Hurricane Irma not only in South Florida but also in other Florida Counties, with staging areas in the Florida Keys, Naples and Tampa. In Miami alone, the CEOC was in twelve different neighborhoods distributing food and supplies to over 12,000 residents. Overall these efforts provided relief for over 20,000 Floridians.
I personally helped these efforts in Miami-Dade County, and while on the field I saw things in my community that unsettled me deeply. Whole apartment buildings, like the Buena Vista Complex in Little Haiti or the Joe Moretti senior center in Little Havana were without power. People across the county were dealing with extreme heat, little access to food or water, no cell phone service, debris filled streets and of course, no electricity.
— Tomas Kennedy (@tomaskenn) September 17, 2017
What was apparent was that the response from Miami-Dade County towards those living in the poorest and most marginalized neighborhoods was inadequate. Most places we went, folks told us that they had no contact with officials and were struggling to find basic things such as ice to cool themselves down.
“It is clear that Miami-Dade County and our energy utility Florida Power & Light (FPL), are not properly prepared to handle a crisis should a category 5 hurricane actually hit the city.”
These conditions manifested themselves into tragedy when eight seniors died at a nursing home in Hollywood, despite being located next to a hospital and nursing home staff having called a hotline established by Florida Governor Rick Scott, but receiving no answer.
In the South Dade Center, a farm-worker community in Homestead, residents felt abandoned after the center flooded and lost power during the storm. “This community seems like it’s been forgotten,” said Salma Jaramillo whose grandfather lives in the center and who herself grew up there. “There’s still a lot of trash here. It’s really, really hot. The houses are made from cement blocks, so they heat up really fast.” Jaramillo also described fallen trees still wrapped around power lines, as well as children, not work crews, removing debris from the street.
— Tomas Kennedy (@tomaskenn) September 17, 2017
After days of heat so extreme that forced residents to sleep outside and get bit by mosquitoes, resulting in a pregnant woman seeking medical attention, activists from immigrant rights groups such as the Florida Immigrant Coalition and WeCount blasted the City of Homestead with social media posts and calls. These efforts resulted in cleanup crews showing up hours later and power being restored the next day.
“We need our elected officials to stop making excuses and start taking responsibility for the wellbeing of all their constituents.”
What is perhaps most unnerving of all is that Miami did not even suffer a direct hit by Hurricane Irma. It is clear that Miami-Dade County and our energy utility Florida Power & Light (FPL), are not properly prepared to handle a crisis should a category 5 hurricane actually hit the city.
Furthermore, when Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez was criticized during a budget hearing over his response performance, he chose to smear the very same organizations providing relief rather than take constructive criticism. “I’ve never heard of these people,” said Gimenez during a break in the hearing. “So, their claim of feeding people, etc., etc., I don’t even know if it’s true. I know the county response was very good. In the street, we get complimented all the time.”
An equitable emergency response plan must be developed and properly funded to address the needs of low income communities in Miami-Dade County, and policies to protect vulnerable immigrant communities must be implemented to make sure that there is trust between the public and law enforcement in these times of emergency. We need our elected officials to stop making excuses and start taking responsibility for the wellbeing of all their constituents.
Born in Argentina, Thomas Kennedy came to the United States with his parents at the age of ten, settling down in Miami. After living as an undocumented immigrant for over a decade and seeing the struggles his parents overcame in order to have a better life, Thomas became involved in student activism and immigration reform advocacy. He is an International Relations major from the Florida International University and works with the Florida-based immigrant’s rights organization FLIC Votes.