Florida community foundations make preparations for permanent disaster funds as Atlantic hurricane season begins

Rebecca Fishman Lipsey recognized the need for a complete revamp of her organization’s disaster response efforts after the collapse of a condominium tower in North Miami in June 2021.

As the CEO of the Miami Foundation, the city’s primary community foundation, Fishman Lipsey immediately took action to rally support for the victims of the tragic incident that claimed the lives of 98 individuals and devastated the 136-unit building. While there was a great willingness among funders to offer assistance, a challenge emerged.

Corporate partners reached out to her, assuring their support by saying, “We are in, we are with you. Simply complete this application, and the funds will be available within six weeks.”

As Fishman Lipsey and her team scrambled to raise and disperse funds, they couldn’t afford to wait too long, knowing that those who had lost their homes and loved ones were in urgent need. In their efforts to provide assistance, the team also anticipated the possibility of another crisis on the horizon.

“It won’t be just one building in a secluded neighborhood,” she emphasized. “It will be a climate catastrophe, and I won’t even have internet access to complete an application. Waiting six weeks for the check to clear is not an option. I require everyone’s ACH information immediately. I need to know what resources people require ahead of the disaster.”

The Miami Foundation embarked on a mission to develop an innovative approach to crisis response in order to address these demands. In collaboration with Citadel, the Miami Heat, and other generous partners, they established the Miami Disaster Resilience Fund. This fund operates on a sustainable model, with its earnings dedicated to providing assistance to a network of nonprofits in Miami throughout various stages of a disaster.

The Miami Foundation has taken a proactive approach to disaster relief by creating a permanent fund. This fund enables the foundation to promptly distribute grants at the start of hurricane season and provide swift assistance in the event of a storm. The money in the fund continues to grow through investments, ensuring that it remains available when needed. Remarkably, the Miami Disaster Relief Fund has experienced a growth of over 17% in the past year, reaching a total of approximately $8 million. Fishman Lipsey proudly stated, “We now have $1 million available for relief efforts without relying on external donations.”

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Community foundations are nonprofit organizations that are responsible for managing various funding sources and distributing them to different groups and individuals. While their primary focus is on supporting their local communities, they also play a crucial role in responding to crises. With the increasing frequency and intensity of climate events, community foundations are being called upon more frequently to provide assistance and support.

In 2020, the United States set a new record for the highest number of disasters causing damages surpassing $1 billion. Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association released a forecast for the upcoming 2024 Atlantic hurricane season, which is set to start on June 1. According to the forecast, there will be a minimum of 17 named storms and four to seven major hurricanes.

According to Patty McIlreavy, president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, foundations are in need of new strategies to better prepare for future disasters. She emphasizes the importance of setting aside funds and taking a proactive approach. McIlreavy encourages all types of foundations to acknowledge the imminent threats facing communities and explore ways to address them.

Being prepared in advance can not only save money but also potentially save lives. By having funds readily available, foundations have the ability to allocate resources towards preparation efforts. According to McIlreavy, this proactive approach can significantly reduce costs. It is much more challenging and expensive to recover from a disaster than it is to mitigate and prevent it from happening in the first place. Therefore, investing in preparedness measures is a wise decision that can yield long-term benefits.

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The Miami Foundation is taking proactive measures on the first day of hurricane season by awarding grants to support educational programs for residents. These programs aim to educate residents about the importance of stocking up on essential supplies, preparing their homes, and knowing when to evacuate. Additionally, the grants will help provide residents with necessary protective equipment such as sandbags and tarps.

About 100 miles north of Miami in Stuart, Florida, the Community Foundation Martin-St. Lucie is preparing to launch its own permanent disaster fund. With a goal to raise $500,000 by mid-summer, the foundation has already raised $300,000 for its Local Disaster Relief Fund.

CEO Elizabeth Barbella found a connection with Fishman Lipsey’s speech during a gathering of community foundation leaders last year. The frustration of being unable to provide assistance promptly during a crisis resonated with her.

According to the Associated Press, Barbella explained that during times of crisis, he would typically take action by reaching out to clients and friends to inform them about the situation and express the need for immediate assistance to frontline organizations. After the chaos subsided, he would then contact various organizations to request a simple application and distribute the necessary resources.

The foundation is taking proactive measures to enhance response time by establishing partnerships with six local nonprofits. These organizations will be responsible for providing essential resources such as food, medicine, and housing in the aftermath of a storm.

House of Hope, located in Martin County, Florida, started as a food bank four decades ago. Over the years, it has expanded its services to provide vital support to approximately 21,000 residents each month. In addition to offering food assistance, House of Hope now offers job and housing support to those in need.

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House of Hope, with the support of the Local Disaster Relief Fund, has secured a grant to provide hurricane kits to its clients during the summer. These kits will contain essential supplies such as food, water, and batteries.

Rob Ranieri, the CEO of House of Hope, emphasized the crucial role played by the organization’s assistance in enabling their clients to accumulate essential supplies. He expressed that without this support, many individuals would not have the means to allocate funds for such necessities, highlighting the financial impact it has on their already limited budgets.

In the event of a storm, the fund will provide assistance to House of Hope in replacing the items that clients have lost, such as perishable food that may spoil during a power outage. The organization primarily supports hourly workers, who are unable to receive income if businesses close down. Therefore, House of Hope will be prepared to assist them with expenses like rent and medical bills.

House of Hope faces the challenge of incurring significant costs when paying its own employees for working overtime or hiring temporary staff to address the increasing demand for services. However, the agreement with the community foundation instills confidence in Ranieri as it ensures the availability of funds to meet this need.

According to him, with the newfound ability to plan and secure resources, they can now ensure that everything is prepared and ready to go. This will enable them to effectively serve the lower income community almost instantly, as if flipping a switch.

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