In late August, the Community Foundation of Collier County held a meeting with other community partners to plan for the possibility of how to collaborate in the event of a disaster, be it an attack or an act of God. Little did we know that on September 10th our lives would be changed by Hurricane Irma—her havoc and destruction forever leaving a mark in our hearts and minds.
So together with the United Way of Collier County, we immediately jumped into action, literally from our respective shelters during the storm, and formed the Collier Comes Together Disaster Relief Fund to provide assistance to Hurricane Irma victims in Collier County, Florida. According to Collier County Emergency Management, Irma’s direct hit has incurred $64 million in recovery costs to date, caused 42,000 people in Collier to need some form of housing help (either in rent or hotel stays), placed 256 people in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers, and has racked up more than 4 million cubic yards of debris to be removed. The cost to replace sand on our beaches, our biggest tourist attraction that supports our economy, is estimated to be $35 million. But we are not just talking about Naples. Collier County, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island, also includes Marco Island, Everglades City, Chokoloskee, Goodland, Golden Gate, East Naples, and Immokalee.
We were able to grant $75,000 to Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida a few days after the storm to provide immediate relief for hurricane victims. Around 494,045 pounds of food and water were distributed to families, children, seniors, and other Collier County residents. Also within the first few weeks of the recovery effort, we distributed over $250,000 through 1,200 gift cards valued from $150-$250 through the Salvation Army Naples and Catholic Charities, trusted community organizations known for their careful vetting processes, to residents of Golden Gate, Immokalee and Everglades City who were affected by Hurricane Irma. The blend of grant funding to organizations and direct relief to individuals was important to us because we needed to help those who were in dire need, and also have a broader reach working with partners that are familiar with each area’s needs. This helped to speed up relief efforts as nonprofits did not have to go through a grant process. Decisions on where the money was needed most were made in collaboration with the United Way of Collier County.
So far, we have raised over $1.3 million and have distributed about $800,000 to more than 20 area nonprofits that are structured to help with basic necessity and housing needs.
Now that immediate recovery needs are being met, our focus is expanding to long-term housing needs of the many that have lost their homes or have been displaced pending extensive repairs. For example, this week we found out that 350 children in our local school system who have been homeless since the storm are losing their FEMA housing assistance and will be evicted from the local hotels they have been staying at with their families. So we granted $35,000 to Collier County Public Schools whose homeless liaison will determine how to quickly disperse these funds so these families have somewhere to live until a permanent solution can be found.
We also partnered with FEMA to educate our nonprofits on Small Business Administration (SBA) loans to help them receive low–interest loans to repair their organizational structures and are holding short-term employee disaster relief funds for corporations that want to help their employees who were affected by the storm — all without any administrative fee. One hundred percent of donations are distributed to hurricane victims. We are able to do this because of our foresight in meeting with our community partners and formulating a plan of action. We knew it was just a matter of time before we were faced with a crisis situation in our community.
So what is the silver lining to disaster? It’s the amazing way a community comes together in the time of a crisis to help people they have never met. Individuals and organizations, large and small, are holding events to benefit this cause and make a difference. Our community foundation, like so many others, are in touch with the needs of our community through our connections and have the power to step in to collaborate with other organizations to help when a disaster hits. We feel this is not only an option, but this is our obligation to step up as a leader. We are inspired by the outpouring of support we have received and will continue to find ways to rebuild our community and to provide help and hope for those in need.