Words to describe how much of Miami-Dade felt after Hurricane Irma: Frustrated. Angry. Baffled.
The county did a good job managing the largest evacuation in our history, but at most, we got hit with a Category 1 or 2 storm. And yet the power grid was largely knocked out, school was canceled for more than a week, county government suspended normal work for a week, and cellphone and landline communication went down for many.
Irma should be a wake-up call. Are we prepared for the big storm when it does hit? No. Especially when it comes to our most vulnerable populations: the elderly and those living at or near the poverty line.
We need to talk about it.
Tuesday night was a public hearing on the $7 billion 2017-18 county budget, and the first public meeting since the storm. More than 100 residents showed up to give testimony on the budget, which lasted about five hours. Only transit came up as much as Irma, which was connected to calls for more funding for disaster response.
But what I saw, aside from a few commissioners who genuinely listened, was indifference to the locals who came to share their frustrations.
One of the key voices was the New Florida Majority, a local social justice organization. Led by organizer Valencia Gunder, they worked with several other grassroots groups to provide more than 21,000 meals to low-income and elderly locals after the storm as electricity outages and work and transit stoppages prevented many from buying something to eat. Many they helped said they hadn’t heard a peep from the county.
So when NewFM’s executive director Andrea Mercado got her turn to speak, she was quick to criticize Mayor Gimenez for the county response – technically a breach of protocol. The commission bars singling out individuals for criticism (but not for praise…), so Commission Chairman Esteban Bovo cut her mic, urging her to “be respectful.”
And after the public hearing, Mayor Carlos Gimenez had this to say to USA Today about the county’s efforts:
“I’ve never heard of these people…So their claim of feeding people, etc., etc., I don’t even know if it’s true. I know the county response was very good. In the street, we get complimented all the time.”
I personally saw some of these community feeding events (that’s a picture from one of them above). So did WLRN reporter Nadege Green.
Later on in the evening, when the commission decided to hold a separate meeting to discuss the county’s Irma response, Commissioner Martinez had this to say:
Commish Martinez: Don't let the public speak at our hurricane "debriefing." "We heard enough today"
— Doug Hanks (@doug_hanks) September 20, 2017
That meeting, happening at 2 p.m. on Sept. 28, is open to the public, but folks won’t get a chance to speak because the commission doesn’t think it would be “productive.”
“What would be a productive conversation is something that leads to meaningful solutions and real dialogue,” Commissioner Bovo told me Thursday.
“What is not a productive conversation is for folks to get up there and use personal agendas to make this more of a personal criticism.… If they’re just going there to remind folks about how many people they served… I don’t know if that’s productive.”
To try to fill the gap a bit, Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava is encouraging community members to e-mail her office at [email protected] with their experiences so she can speak on their behalf at the meeting.
“I was amazed at how readily the commission decided to not make that a public forum. From my perspective, government is a partnership with the residents, and we need to always hear from the residents,” she told me.
We’re glad to hear that she’s taking this extra step – but it’s one she shouldn’t have to take.
We understand that the chairman didn’t want an Irma discussion to derail the budget process, which is already in a time crunch because of the storm.
But after Irma, Miami-Dade desperately needs an open conversation about it. And neither a hearing with no dialogue, nor a meeting in which the public can only listen, will cut it.
Where and when can this productive conversation happen?
The New Tropic wants to help make it a reality. If you do too, let us know how we can help.
We’re planning a Facebook Live convo on Irma in the coming weeks, and we’re eager to hear your thoughts on who and what should be included. Shoot us a note at [email protected] or comment below.
In our new Week in Review series, editor Ariel Zirulnick recaps big local news, and what we’re hearing from you.