Community Partner: East Harlem Emergency Preparedness Coalition (EHEPC)
We had a really vague idea of what to expect when we agreed to work on the issue of Emergency Preparedness in East Harlem. What emergency measures were in place already? What was lacking? Who was responsible for it? And most importantly what was our role in all this?
It was very astute of our mentor to point out that our first role was to “read, observe and listen” Having had theoretical discussions of the importance of engaging the communities we advocate for, it was easy to see how this crucial starting point could be easily forgotten by well-meaning activists, especially as we had already started making our own theories, and, even more so, after we discovered the daunting amount of resources we needed to familiarize ourselves with.
We soon learned that there were more acronyms for organizations involved in East Harlem’s emergency readiness than we were ever going to be able to keep straight. We learned that Sandy’s disaster in 2012 had unearthed a lot of the lapses in the adequacy of the current measures. But we also learned that there was a coalition of CBOs (Community Based Organizations) that had recognized these gaps long before Sandy came along. Some of their members had even carried out research studies that showed that East Harlem, on a scale 1-9, was at level 2 for emergency preparedness. Moreover, they found that there was untapped potential for East Harlem CBO’s to better coordinate their resources to facilitate the Emergency Preparedness needs of the community as a whole, particularly as the Government was not going to do it all.
Our findings gave us more direction. It led us straight into the first board meeting of this fledgling coalition. Neither of us had observed the formation of a community board before but it was and continues to be an enlightening experience. Things were a little crazy during the first meeting. It entailed passionate personal recounts of the failed impromptu emergency plans during superstorm Sandy, discussions about government agencies that had failed in their role to protect the people from the disaster, talks about people and agencies whose interests had seemingly peaked after the storm, and also the foreseeable barriers to remedying the current problem.
After that meeting we got a better sense of the scope of East Harlem’s emergency preparedness problems and it became clear that there was no way we could tackle it all; certainly not all at once. Fortunately we have a great mentor who we suspect knew we were going to feel this way from the beginning and perhaps had even planned for it to happen. It was important for us to see the struggles that go into organically solving real life community problems. The process is very messy and requires a lot of attentiveness, patience and innovation. With her help, we’ve narrowed the scope of our immediate focus while keeping in mind the overarching goal.
The plan is to outline the systemic misalignments between the city organizations (Office of Emergency Management, OEM) and the community based organizations (CBOs) in East Harlem. The OEM is one of the most important components for creating and disseminating emergency preparedness planning information in the city. They have the expertise and resources to not only create generalized emergency plans, but to teach individuals and organizations how to create plans themselves.
Our first step is to understand the existing relationship between OEM and the CBOs and to see where it falls short. To do this we have reached out to the various city funding agencies and are researching the contractual requirements these agencies have with the CBOs they fund regarding emergency preparedness. For example the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) requires that the CBOs they fund have an emergency plan and have regular drills. The DYCD also says that during audits of CBOs, they check that the emergency plan is in place and that the drills are actually run. The next step in this process is talking with the CBOs to figure out what they understand the requirements of their funding agencies to be and also to get their perspective on the adequacy of the provisions towards meeting their emergency preparedness needs.
The possibilities of how far-reaching the community’s grassroots efforts could be is very exciting and challenging at the same time. We think it could really make a difference in East Harlem and possibly even serve as model for others. We feel privileged to be able to contribute to this work and we look forward to the continued learning process.