It’s been several weeks since Hurricane Ian made its destructive path through Florida and the sting remains just as strong.
Christa Remington, assistant professor of public administration, just returned from the Fort Myers area as part of a study she’s conducting on the value of social capital in a disaster. She’s focusing on what’s called a “zero responder” – individuals who are first on the scene, before firetrucks and ambulances arrive.
"The destruction is unreal."
Neighbors and small, community-based connections and organizations have worked tirelessly together to pull people from flood waters, search through rubble and provide meals and shelter to those in need. Many of these efforts have occurred outside the official channels of government and prior to the availability of assistance from larger, non-profit organizations.
Remington grew up in Arcadia in DeSoto County, which suffered serious damage during Hurricane Charley in 2004. She was without electricity for a month and had friends with homes that were torn apart with them inside – causing them long-term PTSD. This experience is what inspired Remington to pursue a career in disaster research. She’s remained connected to the region through various channels and saw the power of “neighbor helping neighbor” on social media.
“What I saw was so many people saying, ‘I’m stuck in my home with flood waters, the waters are rising, and I don’t know what to do,’ and then seeing someone say, ‘I have a boat, I’m on my way.’ We saw a lot of that happening and it was more in my experience as a disaster researcher than other years,” Remington said. “I think what we’re seeing after COVID-19 is more of a self-reliance on communities, rather than the government. People have integrated into those smaller units, which is encouraging, because that’s something that has been lost in our culture in the U.S.”
While in Fort Myers, Remington met with public officials, FEMA personnel and local nonprofit leaders to discuss how they can leverage social ties and build greater synergy between them, and the grass-roots efforts led by local volunteers. As her research continues, she will conduct a social network analysis, using special software that identifies what people have posted online and when, as well as information collected during focus groups with individuals impacted by Hurricane Ian.
She visited a FEMA disaster recovery center and spoke with first responders who were serving their community on the job while grappling with personal loss and the destruction of their own homes. It’s an aspect that also strikes a chord as Remington’s husband is a firefighter/EMT, who like other first responders, had to leave his family ahead of the hurricane and prepare for the unknown.
Remington also distributed emergency supplies, such as food, drinks and cleaning supplies to the Fort Myers Police Department through the Tampa-based non-profit, Peacekeeper Initiative, which she serves on the Board of Directors. It was founded by one of her former students and offers peer support from first responders to other first responders. This was the group’s second visit to the area, previously donating tarps, gasoline for generators and other essential supplies.
“We rely on first responders when disasters hit our community, but often forget that they are victims of the disaster, too. Witnessing how these men and women show up to serve their community despite their own loss is inspiring,” Remington said.
There are many USF students who’ve also been negatively impacted by Hurricane Ian. To support them in this time of need, click here.
USF Health is also collecting donations to support on-site relief efforts. You can learn more about their efforts here.