The Monday morning after Hurricane Irma made landfall, Valencia Gunder woke up feeling hopeless. Her house in Liberty City had flooded. Power was out across her neighborhood and would be for days. Though cell service was spotty, texts from her neighbors kept jolting her phone. Everyone was asking Gunder the same thing: "When is help coming?"
That morning, Gunder rushed to a warehouse in North Miami owned by EcoTech, a co-working space for entrepreneurs specializing in climate change. The 34-year-old community activist had spent the weekend before the storm helping to clear out space so emergency responders could store food and supplies there. But as she sat in the empty warehouse, watching the clock tick by September 11, Gunder realized help wasn't coming fast enough.
“It took 72 hours for emergency management to respond,” Gunder says. “Seventy-two hours is too long. People will not be able to survive... I kept thinking, these communities that I love so much are gonna die from hunger.”
So Gunder took matters into her own hands. She went home, grabbed her grill, and made a few phone calls to other activists she knew. In the week and a half after Irma struck, she amassed a team of 300 volunteers to cook over 20,000 meals for people across Miami-Dade.
“Our people needed help, and they needed it now,” says James Mungin, a Liberty City activist who has worked with Gunder for the past four years. “So we said this is what we're gonna do: We're gonna go hood to hood, and we're gonna feed the people.”
This hurricane season, Gunder and her network aren't waiting to be disappointed when assistance doesn’t come fast enough. With a grant from the Miami Foundation, she's opening a Community Emergency Operations Center in the same warehouse, located at 670 NW 113th St. in North Miami. The space will be used to store donations and organize grassroots assistance whenever another hurricane comes.
“This is just the beginning,” Gunder says, standing in the middle of the 6,500-square-foot warehouse. “We served 23,000 people with two days of preparation. Imagine how many folks we can respond to now?”
Born in Liberty City in the 1980s, Gunder says she knew violence fueled by the crack epidemic was hitting the neighborhood hard. But she remembers an idyllic childhood spent playing the flute and listening to her neighbor, an attorney, as the woman sat on her porch telling stories of what it was like to travel the country.
Gunder returned to Liberty City after college to work as a secretary in her family's business. She began volunteering as an activist after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when she organized a donation drive, going door-to-door asking people for water and canned goods.
“That’s when I knew it was passion more than anything,” she says, laughing, “because I went broke doing it, and I was happy about it. I would do it again over and over if I could.”
Gunder — who began organizing for the New Florida Majority, which works to increase the political power of marginalized groups — eventually turned her attention to climate change, after a CLEO Institute meeting in Liberty City in 2014 convinced her it would make every struggle her community faced worse.
“Many folks of color think that climate change is not a people-of-color issue,” Gunder says. “One thing about climate change, it doesn’t care about your race, your gender, or your class. Everyone catches it when Mother Nature wants to send her wrath.”
With a grant from EcoTech, Gunder in 2015 started Make the Homeless Smile, a nonprofit that serves meals across Miami-Dade. When Irma hit, she already had a Rolodex of people who knew to call her if they ran out of food.
Mungin says the warehouse was pretty much empty when he met Gunder and the other organizers she had called for help that Monday afternoon. “There were minimal supplies,” he says. “It was enough to sit in the Walmart 20-items-or-less line.”
Gunder went to buy what she could find the next morning. Two days in, as they fed more and more people, she had maxed out her credit cards. She was buying so many supplies that a manager at a Walmart in Miami Gardens tried to stop her from buying a cart full of water. “He was like, ‘I can’t sell you all this water,'” she says. “I’m like, ‘Sir, I’m feeding thousands of people. Why are you holding me here?’”
By Wednesday, Gunder says, her team had fed nearly 2,000 people. Mungin had posted on Facebook asking people who were hungry to comment with their location, which the team used to make a map of the areas most in need of food. At night, Mungin would bike around to identify the areas that were still without power.
“This was bigger than just this girl grilling around town,” Gunder says.
But they were running out of money. Eventually, in tears, Gunder called the Miami Foundation and explained what her and the other volunteers had done. “Thirty minutes later, they gave me a check,” she says.
With the grant, Gunder’s organization began to expand. Her volunteers spread across South Florida, from Allapattah to Florida City, to set up community barbecues.
“I would tell people, ‘Send me your address,’ and an hour later, we’re there,” Gunder says.
Once it’s completed, the Community Emergency Operations Center will have a designated space for each neighborhood in Miami-Dade. Each neighborhood "hub" within the center will be run by local volunteers.
Before the center officially opens September 1, Gunder is asking people to donate and sign up if they want to volunteer. “This space will be our central command hub,” she says. “We’re going to stockpile supplies all the way to the roof.”
Storm or no storm, the center will remain open until hurricane season ends in November.
“Oh, I hope a hurricane doesn't come,” Gunders says, “but if it does come, we’ll be prepared.”