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Wanted: disaster aid volunteers

Teams of residents would go into storm damaged areas and provide immediate assistance.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001

With hurricane season less than a month away, county officials are looking for volunteers willing to help in the aftermath of a disaster.

As part of a new program, emergency management officers are seeking residents to go into the community immediately after a storm, identify damaged areas and offer help to people in trouble until rescue workers can arrive.

Social services workers are also trying to organize volunteers who want to provide aid further down the line. For example, the county will need people to distribute food and water, clean up debris, collect donations and care for people with medical needs in special shelters.

"We're trying to get this information up front. We don't want to wait until after a hurricane strikes to start trying to find volunteers and figure out what they can do," said Bill Appleby, Hernando's emergency management director.

That was what happened when Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992, Appleby said. There was an outpouring of donations and volunteers from all over the state -- even the nation. But so little was organized that much of the help went to waste.

"They had mountains of clothes they had to burn," Appleby said. "People mean well. But so many people come forward . . . it's mass confusion."

Which is why Jean Rags, Hernando's social services coordinator, hopes those interested in providing disaster aid will attend a May 30 organizational meeting in the County Commission chambers of the Hernando County Government Center in downtown Brooksville. It will last from 9 a.m. to noon.

At the meeting, volunteers will learn the basics of how the county responds to a disaster. Then, they will fill out forms and be interviewed to determine their skills and interests so they can be matched with assignments.

For example, people with medical backgrounds are in great need to help care for the infirm and elderly, who may be displaced from their homes, she said. Drivers and machine operators can help transport supplies and move rubble. Others will be needed to take care of children, sort donations and act as translators for those who do not speak English.

People who want to work specifically in their own neighborhoods can sign up to be on those community emergency response teams. Unlike the other volunteers, who will wait to be contacted after a disaster for their assignments, members of the local teams will immediately fan out in their neighborhoods, said Mark Tobert, emergency management technician.

They will be trained to identify downed power lines, put out minor fires, turn off gas lines and do light search-and-rescue operations. Then, they can radio emergency workers to tell them where authorities are most needed.

The response teams are a new addition this year to the county's emergency network. Authorities say the partnership with residents will help get aid to key areas faster than government could do alone.

"They are the eyes and ears of the (Emergency Operations Center)," Rags said. "We don't have the resources to send our people out to look for these things."

Anyone interested in attending the May 30 meeting is asked to first contact the Retired Senior Volunteer Program at 797-7017 so county officials know how many people to expect. So far, the response has not been encouraging.

"Actually, I'm a little worried," Rags said. "We've had almost no response."

For information on the community emergency response teams, residents can contact Mark Tobert at 754-4083 or visit the Emergency Management Department computer Web site at and click on the CERTS link.

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