The Walker County COAD, or Citizens Organized Against Disaster, is a nonprofit community organization formed from a mélange of emergency workers, community leaders and concerned neighbors who originally banded to-gether to help their fellow citizens with unmet recovery needs; now, their focus is equally tuned toward educating and preparing the public for the next bout of nature’s fury.
“When the event was going on, we worked closely with the faith-based organizations and some community lead-ers in the communities and built some strong relationships with those people,” said Walker County COAD president Curtis Creekmur. “As far as the emergency management, Walker County Emergency Management, we saw the need of the COAD and we saw all the unmet needs of the people that with FEMA, that didn’t get the help they needed or as much help as they needed, or they just didn’t apply for the FEMA help.”
Creekmur and others noticed that more than a handful of citizens were only able to partially repair their homes from the storm’s damage; often, the funds received from FEMA just weren’t enough, or extenuating circumstances got in the way.
“There was a lot of unmet needs out in the community, so we took it kind of upon ourselves with the blessing of the commissioner to organize a few of the key leaders that we worked with during the response to the storm,” said Creekmur. “We gathered those people up, had our first meeting, and started working on cases. That’s kind of how it came about.”
The COAD did not come about immediately, but rather from a slow realization of the need within the county. “The community people were still involved as well,” said COAD member Susan Gravitt. “Even though the federal people had left, the community was still really involved.”
“We were a little slower in the process, because as far as emergency management, we were still dealing with the recovery process and the cleanup,” said Creekmur. “And when we took a breath to kind of analyze what’s going on in the communities and saw those needs, it was a month or so after the fact that we started having discussions with the community people.”
Though the group started out strong and has helped a number of Walker County residents get their homes and lives a bit closer to normal after the tornado, the COAD is now suffering from a perception that the crisis is all said and done.
Of the 60-plus cases that were originally brought before the COAD, a few are still active; now, however, the group has shifted its attention toward awareness for emergency preparation among the community.
“What we struggle with at this point in time,” said Creekmur, “we have five or six people...I think our first meet-ing, we had maybe twenty people or so.
“And we’re trying to grow our COAD. We’re going around to different communities and kind of having a commu-nity meeting, kind of more of an informational meeting. We had one up on the mountain last month. We’re trying to plan one in the Chickamauga area this month. And it’s to get the interest up of the people who want to be involved for that future preparedness.”
To that end, the COAD is helping to provide emergency preparedness training for interested citizens.
“When you talk about future preparedness,” said Creekmur, “for the COAD, it’s looking at raising funds toward that next event. It’s looking at partnering with other agencies to help inform, train the people in the community on what to do. We partnered with the Walker County Emergency Services, with the fire department and we’re right now in the middle of a CERT training class on the mountain.”
The CERT, or Citizens Emergency Response Team, class is provided through the Walker County Fire Depart-ment and is available free of charge. Due to the high demand, the COAD is having to add more classes in the near future to keep the student-teacher ratio low and the classes effective. “We had 22 (participants) the last time,” said Susan Gravitt. “And we’re going to have our second one.”
“The fire department goes into the community and they give them information,” said Creekmur. “And they build the skills to help that family take care of themselves in times of emergency. And once they’ve taken care of them-selves, they can go out into the community and help their neighbors. With that said, that’s going on as the response of the local rescuers are coming in. That role kind of changes when the local people get in. The CERT team should have already assessed that little block area and should have that information. It helps speed up that response time. But it also, you know, helps the neighborhood kind of have a sense of security, a sense of comfort knowing what to do and how to take care of themselves and how to take care of their neighbors.”
“Until the pros get there, said Gravitt. “And then we step back. They provide us with the skills and the tools to mostly, I would say, be eyes at first, and do what minimally we could do.”
“And the fire department, when the training’s over, they supply them with a kit to go out into the community,” said Creekmur. Items such as hard hats, tools and a first aid kit are included in every supply pack. “And that’s all provided by the Walker County Emergency Services.”
In addition to the indispensable help provided by the Walker County Emergency Services, the COAD has other organization partners as well. Some of the agencies that have given assistance to the COAD include UMCOR, the Georgia Recovery Project, the Benwood Foundation, the United Way, the Salvation Army, the Good Shepherd Epis-copal Church of Lookout Mountain and Catholic Charities.
The COAD did have one fundraiser in the past year, at the Balloons and Tunes festival, and hopes to have more in the future.
“We have plans for (more fundraisers),” said Creekmur, “but our priority is to grow our membership.”
“That’s our goal,” he said, “to get some key people in the community to be a part of and to help promote this committee in order to be able to be in a better position the next event, the next storm.”
Despite all the focus on future preparedness, a few cases of assistance for storm damage recovery are still crop-ping up around the county.
“And we still are working on cases,” said Creekmur. “We still have some open cases...We’re down to about 17 open cases. And we still have a few cases that are trickling in that we run across when we’re in the community. There’s still a need out there, there’s unmet needs from that storm that you wouldn’t think.”
“We still need volunteers in communities, desperately,” said Gravitt. “Debris removal, that’s our biggest thing.”
As the dust seems to finally be settling, the COAD is discovering that many storm victims are just now confront-ing the emotional, rather than the practical side of the event.
“Georgia Recovery is coming in now and helping us with counseling,” said Gravitt. “You know, we’re realizing now at this time that a lot of people are just now dealing with the trauma of it.”
Hopefully, though, with the efforts of the COAD, if and when the next large disaster rocks the Walker County area, the trauma will be less, and citizens in neighborhoods throughout the county will be better prepared to deal with whatever Mother Nature might dish out.