COVID recovery group gets county approval


BAY MINETTE – Baldwin County relief agencies and officials plan to use their experience dealing with disasters such as hurricanes and the 2010 oil spill to assist residents and businesses hit by the economic impact of COVID-19.

The County Commission voted Tuesday to approve funding for Baldwin Together, a long-term recovery group similar to efforts set up after other disasters. The group will operate out of the offices of Prodisee Pantry in Spanish Fort.

Baldwin Together will be a cooperative effort by the County Commission, Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency, Economic Development Alliance, local chambers of commerce, Baldwin Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster and other organizations.

Dana Jepsen, VOAD chairwoman, said the economic effects of the coronavirus have hit the local economy hard.

“Our county is suffering from high unemployment,” Jepsen told commissioners. “Our businesses are suffering from lost revenue. Our social service agencies are doing their best to meet the needs of the community.”

Jepsen, who is also south Baldwin director for Ecumenical Ministries Inc., said 54 percent of requests for assistance to EMI in April were related to COVID-19. In May that number was 76 percent. Households assisted by Catholic Social Services in March, April and May of 2020 increased 70 percent compared the same months in 2019.

“Many of our new needs are from people we’ve never seen before, folks who have never experienced hardship are having to reach out to the social service agencies and we’re all doing our best to meet those needs, but it’s come to our attention that in order to continue, even though our community has been generous with us but in order to sustain this assistance, we’re going to need a method for collaborative case management,” Jepsen said. “We’re going to need to come together and work together even more than we already have.”

Jepsen said that while the COVID-19 pandemic is unique, VOAD and other agencies have long experience dealing with disasters in Baldwin County.

“Long-term recovery groups generally respond to disasters and this is a disaster even though it’s a different type,” she said. “We have prepared a plan for a coordinated countywide framework to assist and support the residents of Baldwin County in recovery from the economic, sociological and emotional impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re going to do this through long-term recovery case management. We will be able to access the current needs and provide referrals and assistance and identify unmet needs and track data. So, there will be good numbers coming out of this project, where our Baldwin County residents are and how we can help them move forward toward stability.”

Commission Chair Billie Jo Underwood said experience dealing with disasters will help Baldwin County during the pandemic.

“I’m confident that the people involved in this are the people who know what to do,” Underwood said.

The commission approved $50,000 to help pay the salaries of two part-time case managers. The workers will be employed by Community Action of South Alabama. Half the money will be approved immediately. Half will be paid in six months if the commission determines that the program is working.

Commissioners said the group is needed to help residents during the economic crisis.

“I just appreciate y’all getting this thing going and I think it’s going to be a great thing for our citizens to help them get some relief that they’re looking for and can’t find,” Commissioner Charles “Skip” Gruber said. “I appreciate y’all stepping forward.”

Commissioner Joe Davis said public participation and cooperation is a key to dealing with disasters.

“I think it’s very significant that in good times, bad times, questionable times, that we all volunteer and work together and don’t worry about credit or try to avoid blame, but try to move things forward,” Davis said.