Take 5 with Audrey Hart

taking action on her calling

AUDREY HART is passionate about her work and believes that one should respond to the call to service.

Hart, who has worked for years in case management, politics, and recruiting, stepped up immediately after Hurricane Florence made landfall in the area last September. She started volunteering with The Harrelson Center and Catholic Charities, offering her help to connect people to services, unload trucks, go door to door, and even make phone calls to FEMA.

She recognized firsthand the vast need that was there, saying, “The thing that kept me coming back was the need. There’s so much more need than there are (people) volunteering.”

There was also a need to plug in would-be volunteers, she adds.

“A lot of people wanted to help but didn’t know how and where to get supplies, especially while we were still an island,” she says, referring to when floodwaters cut off major roadways into Wilmington.

Those needs birthed the New Hanover Disaster Coalition. In October, the coalition started with a conference call of faith-based and nonprofit leaders who saw the immediate necessity to collaborate and coordinate resources in response to Hurricane Florence.

Regular phone calls turned into meetings among faith leaders and nonprofits. With the guidance of the United Way of the Cape Fear Area and support from other organizations such as the city of Wilmington, Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, and New Hanover County, the group formed New Hanover Disaster Coalition. Its structure follows a long-term recovery group model under National Voluntary Organizations Active In Disaster (VOAD) guidelines.

In April, Hart was named the coalition’s executive director.

With a mission to connect residents with resources that aid in disaster readiness, response, and recovery, the coalition is working to educate residents on the importance of preparedness and building relief and recovery capacity throughout the community.

The coalition acts as a central clearinghouse for information about available resources and what various coalition partners are doing.

Once they organized last October, the partner organizations immediately responded to the families that needed help after Florence to muck out houses, clean up yards, and cut down trees. These organizations also went into shelters to provide crisis counseling and begin housing plans, and hand out food and water. They also brought essential supplies to residents who did not have transportation or couldn’t leave their house. And, they coordinated supply drops to the area.

When Hurricane Dorian once again threatened the region earlier this month, the group was ready, communicating with partners groups and staging donation and volunteer plans ahead of the storm in case the area was once again hit hard.

Fortunately, Dorian, which did cause widespread damage elsewhere, skirted the Cape Fear region, and the mobilization was not needed.

One year after Florence, the coalition continues to assist local organizations in filling unmet needs, coordinate construction rebuilds and repairs, and address spiritual and emotional needs. Its goal is to work with New Hanover County to improve emergency plans in donation management, volunteer management, and communication planning.

“No one person can do it all or know everything, and, because one person spoke up and asked for help, we were able to come together and make a huge impact on those individuals’ lives,” says Hart, adding that help might be something as simple as providing clean clothing.

The New Hanover Disaster Coalition, with seventy partners, is funded through several grants and agencies, including the United Way, First Baptist Church of Wilmington, New Hanover County and the city of Wilmington. The organization, along with other VOADs and disaster recovery groups, works alongside emergency personnel and can many times coordinate and mobilize faster than the time it takes federal agencies like FEMA to get here.

Even with many willing hands and coordinated resources, Hart realizes that it will take the whole community – and considerable time – to accomplish the work that is needed.

“Currently, the projected time that it will take our state to recover fully from Florence is about eight to ten years”, Hart says.

While the storm impacted the entire community, there are pockets that were more severely affected than others: the northern part of the county, downtown and the Ogden area, to name a few. The coalition also looks at populations that may need more help than others, despite their location. Those who had flood insurance may have already received their claim, made repairs, and moved back into their home, while others who didn’t have flood insurance are still waiting for resources and repairs to come through, she explains, adding that renters have a harder time accessing disaster financial assistance because they don’t own their home.

Hart points out the harsh reality: “More than 20,000 households applied for FEMA assistance, but that doesn’t mean that they all received the help they needed.”

While the coalition continues its recovery work, it looks ahead at ways to build a more disaster-resilient community.

Hart encourages area residents to  get involved in some of the coalition’s committees and be active in its collective efforts, saying, “We are all on the same page with our tagline, ‘Back to better, together!’”


Take 5 with Audrey Hart

What drew you to take this role?
“… My passion to help coordinate efforts to help the community. The community has a lot of needs, and we have great resources, so my passion to connect the two is a happy balance.”

What’s the greatest need still here for recovering from Hurricane Florence?
“We still have a great need of housing repairs and rebuilding. There is also a big need for furniture since a lot of it was molded from water, and it gets expensive quickly to buy new.”

How do you think the community is better prepared now to handle a major storm?
“The main way that we are better prepared is because we now know who everyone is and what we are all doing. We have created a network of community members to better communicate resources in preparation and response. We are working with the county and county emergency management for the emergency plans to continue to improve and grow.”

In what ways do you think we’re still not ready?
“We are still treading water – metaphorically – to reach the people that are still recovering and providing them with resources. There are still thousands of people displaced from the storm, and another storm would be disheartening this quickly.”

What do you keep in your emergency kit at home?
“My emergency kit includes a hand-crank, solar, and battery radio that can also charge my phone, a first-aid kit, an adult coloring book with colored pencils, battery packs, protein shake mix, batteries, lantern, hand sanitizer, case of water for me and my dog, the daily things for my dog. When I see something in the news that could come here, I add my daily personal items like toiletries, change of clothes, nonperishable food, important documents in a Ziploc bag, and sentimental items that I want to save.”


To view more of photographer River Bondurant’s work, go to riverbondurant.myportfolio.com.

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Categories: Features