In times of uncertainty, it’s comforting to know there are people prepared to deal with the worst. It’s the job of New Hanover Disaster Coalition to spring into action during emergencies. Normally, the worst looks like hurricanes in southeastern North Carolina, but nowadays it’s a global pandemic threatening our community. Executive director Audrey Hart and the coalition have been hard at work making a plan to deal with the rapidly changing face of COVID-19.
Hart, who has a degree in social work from UNCG, has worked in case management, politics and recruiting—all fields that require thoughtful multitasking and communications. (She even received UNCG’s Pacesetter Award for the Health and Human Services Department in 2015). She has been part of New Hanover Disaster Coalition since it formed in 2018 as a response to Hurricane Florence. As its first act, the coalition partnered with Just Florence Recovery to rebuild our community.
“Faith leaders, nonprofit leaders, and community advocates came together and figured out that it would be easier if we coordinate resources to help,” Hart says.
The focus during the aftermath of Florence was recovery, rebuilding, and providing safe spaces for those in need. The coalition helped relocate those with damaged homes into apartments. Its case management and unmet needs subcommittee helped citizens replace furniture, appliances and other necessities. Other subcommittees specialize in child welfare, communications and advocacy, construction management, spiritual and emotional well-being, and donations and resource management. The unmet needs subcommittee focuses on listening to specific, individual needs.
“One of the main things we work on is filling the gaps within the community, whether that’s financially or [being able to] access resources,” Hart tells. “Every month we meet to hear different case presentations, to see where we can help with their last piece of recovery.”
Ideally, the citizens presenting their need will have received assistance from the coalition’s extensive list of partners. Then the coalition will provide the final steps toward recovery. The committee has heard over 60 cases since its inception.
New Hanover Disaster Coalition is an open group that also partners with area nonprofits and organizations. Currently, the coalition has over 70 partners within the area, including religious groups, nonprofits and healthcare providers. These include American Red Cross, Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, The Harrelson Center, New Hanover Regional Medical Center, Nourish NC, Port City Community Church, Senior Center New Hanover County and Wilmington Housing Authority.
Although the coalition—and the surrounding community, really—has never experienced a disaster like the spread of COVID-19, it is making plans to support Wilmington. Unlike during Hurricane Florence, no one can say when the coronavirus will pass, so the coalition has to be vigilant in assessing needs.
“[In the past] we were able to pull resources, food, water, and volunteers from outside communities,” Hart says, “but now, as we’re socially distancing ourselves we’re trying to maintain that balance.”
Balancing how to allocate resources while keeping a safe distance from others is tricky, but the coalition wants people to know help is available. “It’s social distance, not social isolation,” Hart reminds. “We don’t want people to feel alone, or like they’re doing this all on their own because there is support out there.”
Figuring out what kind of support the community needs is the coalition’s next step. Maybe it’s as easy as a support call. New Hanover County has put together a help hotline at 910-798-6800, staffed Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Workers will be sharing information about different resources within the community that are still in operation and coordinating to meet individual needs.
“The plan is to identify needs that maybe nobody is able to address,” Hart says. For example, the coalition is working with the county to ensure those who work in home care, the Senior Resource Center and those registered with the special needs task force are being reached out to. The coalition is keeping an attentive watch on what these vital centers and occupations need, whether that be food, supplies, or staffing help.
“They do have a good handle on it because they have enough staff to help with meal preparation and distributions, but further on down the line, it may change. We’re keeping a close eye on what their needs are,” Hart informs.
The child welfare committee is currently focusing on getting the word out about organizations with food services available. Meals for children K-12 are being served at the Brigade Boys & Girls Club and at certain New Hanover County schools. The coalition’s Facebook page lists other resources: mental health hotlines, legal and financial assistance and additional food services. The coalition is prepared to keep its operations running throughout the duration of the pandemic, and to learn from it for future reference.
“A huge part of recovery is knowing how to respond better in the future,” Hart conveys. “I want to instill that emergency management means: Make a plan, stay informed, don’t panic. We are ahead of the game, and we’re doing all we can.”
Ed. Note: As of March 26, 2020, the coalition is accepting volunteers who can help them with donation drop-off to the New Hanover County Regional Medical Center. Click here for info.