Humanist Disaster Recovery is Doing What Other Responders Aren’t Peter Bjork

In Orlovista, Florida, a diverse working class neighborhood in Orlando, the streets look like a war zone. Heaps of dirty furniture, broken household items, toys, and drywall are piled in mountains on the curbs. Muddy stripes on home siding show where flooding from Hurricane Ian submerged residents and all their belongings in three-five feet of water and sewage backflow. Residents in the neighborhood have had to discard nearly all of their possessions and their houses remain unlivable due to the toxic sewage, mold, and stench that bathes their homes. There is no safety net for residents who have nowhere else to go.

On Ronnie Circle in Orlvovista, residents had to discard nearly everything in their homes

In collaboration with Central Florida Mutual Aid (CFLMA), an unincorporated collective of individual volunteers and local nonprofits, humanist community Orlando Oasis is working in Orlovista to fill the gaps left by government and aid organizations. As soon as flood waters receded enough for volunteers to access the neighborhood, Orlando Oasis and CFLMA began working with residents on recovery. Supported by a grant from GO Humanity (formerly Foundation Beyond Belief), volunteers have been in the neighborhood daily, providing grants for emergency shelter; rolls of quarters and transportation for laundry; food and water distribution; interpreters for Spanish-speaking and Haitian-Kreyol-speaking households; and assistance with cleaning, gutting, and rebuilding. Orlando Oasis also operates a storage locker for residents to store any items they were able to salvage so they can work on restoring their homes without leaving their possessions in the yard.

CFLMA sets up regular clothes closet popups for residents who lost most of their clothing

GO Humanity works through local GO Teams like Orlando Oasis to build local, shared power in communities that might otherwise slip through the civic safety net. Shared power means that impacted communities have a say in how service teams operate in their neighborhoods and participate in directing the relief and recovery efforts. Orlando Oasis collaborates with CFLMA because its organizers belong to impacted neighborhoods and approach disaster resilience work through a horizontal power approach where trust and equality are critical. As a reflection of its humanist values of radical inclusion, the collective puts no conditions on aid and unlike other charity groups does not require residents to show documentation proving their need. This is particularly important in a neighborhood that distrusts government agencies and has many undocumented residents.

“We’re in the neighborhood every day. We see what the needs are. We don’t need proof,” says Robin, a CFLMA organizer and Orlovista resident. Robin says she’s been really turned off by the church groups walking around saying they’ll help but requiring people to provide personal information to prove they need it. “When you put conditions on aid, you’re trying to put yourself over the people who need assistance—you’re saying ‘I get to decide if you’re worthy of my help.’ CFLMA says, ‘You’re our neighbors and we’re here in solidarity because your struggle is my struggle.’”

Volunteers rip out bad drywall and then dehumidify homes to combat mold

Residents say that the occasional church group has visited on weekends to help throw trash away, while county officials have walked the neighborhood to take photographs with homeowners. But in terms of addressing the dire need for food, shelter, repairs, transportation, and cash assistance, Orlovista resident Maricel says Central Florida Mutual Aid is the only real presence in the neighborhood.

“No one comes,” Maricel said. “To talk to me? Before you? No one.”

Maricel had major abdominal surgery before the flood and stood with her incision covered by toxic flood waters for hours before her family was evacuated from their home. Nearly everything in the interior of the house needed to be discarded, and although Maricel was instructed by her physician not to do any lifting while she is recovering from surgery, she says there is no one else to do it. She and her husband have both lost multiple days at work due to the storm and Maricel’s surgery, putting an extra financial strain on the family.

CFLMA and Orlando Oasis are aiding in cleanup at Maricel’s home, providing grants for personal care items and the electric bill to help ease some of the financial stress. She told organizers that their flood insurance will cover new drywall and appliances, but not any electrical or personal possessions. The family had just paid off their furniture last month.

Oasis and CFLMA volunteers take a lunch break and socialize with residents

Another resident, Janet, received a few hundred dollars in FEMA assistance, but it is not enough to cover the needed repairs or secure alternative housing. She lost her car, on which she is still paying, but insurance does not cover it. Janet is angry at the way county infrastructure failed her family. “The county has millions of dollars in FEMA grants to stop our neighborhood from flooding. They received millions after Hurricane Irma [in 2017], and this wasn’t supposed to happen again. But here we are.”

Janet said the county never told residents to evacuate during Hurricane Ian, and by the time rescue teams arrived in the neighborhood, she thought she was going to drown in her home with her teen daughter. “We couldn’t get out the windows. When we opened the door to try to get to the evacuation boats, the water came in like rapids. I just held onto my baby’s hand, just trying to keep her calm and not let her get pulled away by the water. We got on top of the car and waited for hours before they could get to us.”

Some of the most important volunteer work in the neighborhood is listening to residents as they process their trauma. “Drowning in your own home with your children? That’s literally everyone’s worst nightmare,” said one volunteer. “It’s heavy, but we need to listen to these stories before we can go into people’s homes and work. These aren’t just construction sites, they’re horror scenes. We need to understand what these spaces represent for residents.”

Orlando Oasis rented a heavy-duty floor stripper to remove flood-damaged flooring

Media coverage on the flooding in Orlovista has been sparse, and unlike Florida’s coastal areas which have national aid groups like Red Cross setting up shelters and providing for immediate emergency needs, working class neighborhoods in the Orlando area are left to fend for themselves. Orlando Oasis volunteers worry that news stories about public officials helping in areas decimated by heavy winds give the impression that residents all over Florida are receiving the assistance they need. Yet CFLMA and Orlando Oasis volunteers working in Orlovista daily see infinite and urgent unmet needs in every single household.

There’s a misconception that after a natural disaster, people left with nothing will be cared for. Volunteers with Orlando Oasis insist they are not seeing that care; but humanists who are committed to human wellbeing and social justice can help fill in this massive care gap.

In addition to its daily presence in Orlovista, CFLMA and Orlando Oasis work in collaboration with other local groups—including Blue Trunk Garden Network, The LGBTQ+ Center Orlando, Qlatinx, OURS, and Midway Specialty Care Center—to organize larger events, including a laundry day, clothes closet popups, and mucking and gutting crews. All of this work is supported by donations through GO Humanity.

Donations to GO Humanity for Hurricane Ian are being put to immediate use through GO Team Orlando Oasis. Funds go directly to hurricane recovery in disenfranchised neighborhoods and to emergency needs for local residents. It will be a long process to make these families whole, but Orlando Oasis is committed to Orlovista for the long haul.

“This community needs help to rebuild, to replace their belongings, to make their homes safe to live in,” said Robin. “But they also need infrastructure justice. This never should have happened. We’re growing local power and neighborhood  sovereignty to take care of ourselves and each other.” That’s humanism.

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Humanist Disaster Recovery volunteers in Florida are doing a lot with very little.
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