By Todd Cohen
GREENSBORO, N.C. — The Friday evening after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast last September, a handful of local government and social-service agencies gathered to plan setting up an emergency command center at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex to handle 250 to 300 Katrina evacuees expected to arrive by plane the next morning.
While the plane never arrived because the evacuees were taken instead to Charlotte and Raleigh, the planning to handle their emergency needs laid the groundwork for a collaborative effort to assist roughly 850 evacuees who arrived over the next few weeks.
That effort, known as the Guilford Crisis Resolution Council, is an ongoing network of roughly 45 nonprofits, government agencies and faith-based groups that aim to improve how they work together to address critical community issues, says Sam Parker, the council’s facilitator and vice president for community investment for United Way of Greater Greensboro.
The genesis and evolution of the council, Parker says, reflect the stops and starts of collaborative community initiatives, and offer lessons for groups to work together in the future.
Building on critical initial work by the Red Cross and the Volunteer Center of Greensboro, he says, the effort quickly expanded to include a broad range of partners.
“It was representative of all types of public-private partnerships,” including volunteers, nonprofits, government agencies, religious congregations and businesses, he says.
On the Sunday evening after the initial evacuee flight was expected, Parker says, roughly a dozen groups gathered at Christ United Methodist Church.
Convened by the Pulpit Forum, a group of local ministers, and by FaithAction, a coalition of local religious leaders, that meeting led to a preliminary plan to connect evacuees beginning to arrive in the area to temporary housing and other emergency services.
It also led to the launch the next day of a website at ncdisasteraid.org to serve as a resource and bulletin board for information about relief services.
Spearheaded by Nicky Smith, a church member who is CEO of carolinanet.com, and John Bletsch, associate pastor at the church, the website lets volunteers sign up to help, and features announcements, links and a guide to local human services.
At a follow-up meeting at the coliseum several days later, nearly 45 people from government agencies, nonprofits and congregations gathered again.
Finding that many evacuees were likely to remain in the area, the group reworked the initial plan to focus on finding permanent housing quickly and connecting evacuees to a range of services.
Key to that new plan was the creation of more than 50 “care teams, each with seven to 11 volunteers, including groups from congregations, businesses and other organizations.
With funding from Operation Greensboro Cares, a United Way emergency fund for Katrina relief, Raleigh-based Lutheran Family Services in the Carolinas was retained to manage the in-take process for evacuees.
Lutheran Family Services, FaithAction and the Greensboro Housing Authority trained and provided staff support for the care teams, and all three groups helped evacuees find housing.
“We built an infrastructure for disaster help,” Parker says.
The group also held a three-day event at Christ United Methodist Church, where roughly a dozen agencies met with evacuees.
IRS officials, for example, helped evacuees complete their tax returns, and some received their IRS checks the next week, Parker says.
Now, the council is looking for ways to help address other critical community issues.
In January, for example, it talked about lessons from Katrina at a housing summit sponsored by the Greensboro Housing Coalition at First Presbyterian Church to strengthen collaborative efforts to address housing needs in the community.
Parker says making a collaborative effort work requires reaching out, crossing sectors, involving experts and political leaders, and keeping people informed.
“You’ve got to make sure you bring people together,” he says. “You make sure you keep focused on the goal.”