Interorganizational Coordination and a Vulnerable Population During Hurricane Irma in 2017

A Qualitative Case Study on Joint Efforts for Undocumented Immigrant Disaster Safety

Jungwon Yeo
University of Central Florida

Publication Date: 2018


This qualitative case study aims to gain a greater understanding of the interorganizational coordination that assisted undocumented immigrants in South Apopka, Florida, during and immediately after Hurricane Irma in 2017. In-depth, semi-structured interviews served as the primary data sources. In addition, relevant documentation was analyzed to triangulate the interview data and identify converging themes. For data analysis, qualitative data was structured through multiple coding steps: open coding, using the language of informants; axial-coding, using labels created by the author; and core-coding, using central themes and constructs of the study. The following themes are identified as common descriptors of the coordination patterns in the context: heterogeneity, constituents, mediators, and collaboration. In addition, six themes emerge as factors of the coordination: acquaintance, boundary, communication, dedication, events, and flexibility. The author further discusses the themes and suggests policy strategies to encourage community coordination to protect the lives of vulnerable people from institutional blindness in disasters.


In the United States, hurricane information is highly visible both before and during hurricane season. Every year, multiple agencies and academic institutions forecast and update information related to scales and paths of tropical storms. In addition, the most up-to-date storm information is disseminated to the public through multiple channels of highly developed media systems. Such information has supported the decision-making of states, cities, organizations, and individuals during storm preparations and responses.

Yet, there are many residents who are both voluntarily and reluctantly isolated from the nationwide disaster preparation and response efforts. Among those isolated residents, undocumented immigrants have been some of the most vulnerable (APHA 20061). Most undocumented immigrants experience the genuine difficulty of making informed decisions given social barriers that include language, culture, and transportation (Rivera and Kapucu 20152; Farmer and Moon 20093; Donner and Rodriguez 20084). Most of the available disaster information is not culturally and linguistically precise. Thus, remaining in their comfort zone, many undocumented immigrants rely on information from family or friends who are in the same situation, and who may not have the most accurate and up-to-date information during disasters. Furthermore, their lack of immigration status becomes another barrier for them in seeking protection during storm seasons. First, the issue of immigration status adds additional dimensions to their definition of disaster “safety.” In general, their priority is to continue to live in the United States, remaining unnoticed by formal institutions. These undocumented individuals are concerned about their temporal and physical safety from hurricanes during storm seasons. However, when a situation threatens their internal security, they voluntarily choose to risk physical injury from storms. Second, the status of these individuals creates a huge dilemma between humanitarian assistance and legal and administrative justice. Their undocumented status limits these individuals’ access to much disaster assistance, thereby further marginalizing them during disaster preparations and responses.

The safety issues facing undocumented immigrants were intensified during the 2017 hurricane season. First, the major hurricanes of the year, Harvey and Irma, ripped through many communities populated by large numbers of undocumented residents (Cheng 20175; Trotta 20176). Second, the growing anti-immigrant sentiments following recent presidential orders and political debates drove undocumented immigrants to give more weight to their internal security than physical safety. Third, with the lack of federal guidelines regarding basic humanitarian assistance to the population at risk, public organizations sent out inconsistent messages regarding immigration enforcement during disaster operations. As a result, greater numbers of vulnerable people experienced injuries and hardships created by the storms in order to maintain their lives in the United States (Mathew and Kelly 20087; Torres 20178; Chuck and Stelloh 20179).

While the debate continues in the public sphere, many community organizations have assisted the undocumented immigrants in their communities with disaster preparation and response practices (Andrew 2009; 2010). These community organizations include community associations, faith-based organizations, and immigrant advocacy coalitions. With a general mission to support undocumented immigrants in their communities, these organizations have provided support to the community members during disasters (Aldrich 201010). However, given limited or insufficient resources and information, these community organizations work with other organizations collectively to protect and defend undocumented community members’ safety during and after the disasters. These coordinated actions have encouraged vulnerable community members to be more resilient to disasters (Rivera and Kapucu 2015).

With respect to growing social concerns about humanitarian justice and the emerging social impact of community intervention, understanding the details of coordinated actions to protect the vulnerable population is timely and an important topic for disaster management research. Coordination/organized intervention has been well studied in disaster and crisis management studies (Nowell et al. 201711; Pålsson 201712; Yeo and Comfort 201713; Chen et al. 200814; Comfort 200715; Waugh and Streib 200616; Comfort et al. 200417). However, the context of most studies has been the majority of the population, and little exploration has been done on coordination relevant to the disaster safety issues of marginalized people with undocumented status. Therefore, limited evidence is available regarding interorganizational coordination to promote the safety and security of undocumented residents’ in disasters.

This research explores interorganizational coordination for disaster safety of undocumented migrants in South Apopka, Florida, during Hurricane Irma in 2017. In particular, this research asks two questions: 1) How was the coordination organized in this context? and 2) How was the coordination advanced or challenged in this context? Findings from this research contribute to emergency management literature by developing new theories and propositions for future studies and practice by addressing normative social issues of specific unmet needs during disaster preparation and response efforts. In this report, the author reviews relevant literature, explains the research design and methods, discusses the findings, and concludes with some suggestions.

Patterns and Factors of Interorganizational Coordination

This study adopts Comfort’s (2007) definition of coordination—"aligning one’s actions with those of other relevant actors and organizations to achieve a shared goal” (p. 194)—as a guiding definition to explore patterns and factors of interorganizational coordination in the specific context of this research.

Patterns of Coordination

The patterns of coordination indicate characteristics of the coordination. Research demonstrates coordination patterns in many different ways. However, in reviewing the characteristics of coordination, four common elements emerge: attributes of participants, motivations of coordination, structures of coordination, and operations.

First, characteristics of coordination have been described by attributes of organizations and the diversity of attributes in their coordination (Yeo and Comfort 2017; Bryson et al. 201518; Gerber et al. 201319). The organizational attributes include the sector, jurisdictional scale, and organizational missions or main service or focus. Previous studies demonstrated that coordination can be very exclusive to organizations with very similar attributes (Gerber et al. 2013; Fredericksen and London 200020). Alternately, joint action can be very inclusive and scale-free, where organizations from multiple sectors, jurisdictions, and missions work together to achieve a common goal (Yeo et al. 2018; Bryson et al. 2015). Additionally, the coordination may be composed of a moderate mixture of similar and different participants.

Second, coordination patterns have been understood based on the content of the coordination (Lee et al. 201221; Feiock et al. 201022; Comfort 2007). The content, here, implies the fundamental reason for the joint effort, which sets the identity of the overall coordination. The rationale will reflect the superordinate goal that emerged in a particular context and social setting (Comfort 2007; Hara et al. 200323). Coordination can be a means to obtain extra gains for resource-dependent organizations, such as resources, information, reputation, credit, stakes, knowledge, and power (Feiock 2010 et al.; Lee et al. 2012). Or, joint efforts can be made to support or pursue social or public value, certain perspectives, norms, or orientations.

Third, coordination patterns have been examined based on the structural characteristics of the coordination (Nowell et al. 2017; Lee et al 2012; Granovetter 197724). These structural characteristics range from relationships between any two actors to those across all actors. All involved organizations may have relationships with each other. Or, a single actor may dominate all the relationships. It is also possible that organizations may have a relationship with certain actors through whom all others are indirectly connected (Burt 200425).

Lastly, coordination patterns have been explained by the operational typology of coordination in practice (Lai 201226; Rossignoli 201527). Studies identified different types of coordination based on operational practice. The operational mechanisms include collaboration, cooperation, control, or cooptation. Collaboration indicates voluntary and mutual arrangements, and open and participatory decision-making with shared responsibilities and power (Mattessich and Monsey 199228). However, cooperation includes more submissive and passive joint action to achieve an agreed-upon listed common goal (Rossignoli 2015). Cooptation indicates imposed or assimilated joint actions of inferior organizations by superior organizations.

These four elements of coordination patterns serve as a guide to uncover the unique patterns of interorganizational coordination that emerged in the context of disaster safety of undocumented migrants in South Apopka, Florida.

Factors of Coordination

The factors of coordination denote the facilitators and barriers to emergence and maintenance of interorganizational coordination. Factors of coordination have been demonstrated in many different ways. Some studies explained the impact of specific contexts, such as the nature of events, rules, regulations, culture, norms, and socio-economic conditions on the formation of coordination (Yeo et al. 201829; Ostrom 200530, 2010; 1990). Others examined the relational patterns among actors or processes of partnership as antecedents of overall coordination structures (Lee et al. 2012; Gerber et al. 2013; Feiock et al. 2010). Still others find some coordination factors from individuals’ cognition, needs, attitudes, behaviors, and adaptation (Comfort 2007). Lastly, some studies support the social traits of actors, such as trustful, trustworthy, reputation, leadership, authority, accountable, and responsible, as the factors of coordination formation (Ostrom and Walker 200331; Dirks and Ferrin 200132; Putnam 200033).

Yet, in practice, each factor is not totally independent of the other factors. Rather, many are interdependent. Multiple factors at multiple layers and levels might interact and simultaneously affect the strengths of other factors, as well as the shape and type of joint actions among different actors. Some might reinforce the impact of other factors, while other factors might be weakened in the presence of other factors. In addition, depending on the actors, the impact of certain factors on coordination formation may vary.

Given the contextual complexity of the problem, this research takes a broader theoretical approach that helps explore many factors of joint actions in the specific research context.

Research Design and Methodology

This is a qualitative case study. A case study method was adopted for this study because of the exploratory focus of the research, the tight relationship between interorganizational coordination and contextual conditions, and the impossibility of making an intervention on the focal phenomena (Yin 200334).

Action Arena: South Apopka, Florida, during Hurricane Irma in 2017

This study explores the case of interorganizational coordination to protect and advocate for the lives and rights of undocumented migrants in South Apopka, an unincorporated area of Orange County, Florida, during Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Undocumented Migrant Community in South Apopka Endnote 1

The South Apopka area is a major agricultural/rural area in Central Florida. Historically, citrus and vegetables have been the predominant crops of the area’s farming industry. The farming industry is very labor intensive and does not require high-level skills, cultural understanding, language proficiency, or education of laborers. The wages are comparably low; thus, this industry is avoided by citizen workers. The nature of this labor market has attracted an immigrant population to the community. In addition, the initial settlement of first generation undocumented immigrants in the area attracted more immigrants, many of whom are/become either undocumented themselves or have undocumented families and friends.

Since the recession in 2008 and 2009, local farming industries have become less stable than before, severely affecting the financial status of the undocumented immigrants in the South Apopka community. As a result, many undocumented immigrants have been taking other jobs that require some level of skills, such as construction and landscaping. However, the jobs available for this population are heavily labor intensive and low wage, requiring longer work hours for them to make a living for themselves and their families.

Undocumented Community Residents During Hurricane Irma Endnote 2

The unstable income and lack of documented immigration status have affected the disaster preparation and response efforts of the undocumented residents in the community. Most of the immigrants could not take time off work and often worked longer hours before the storm. Thus, their ideal time window for preparation was often constrained. During the storm, their evacuation was either delayed or not considered as an option given the risk of detention and deportation at the public shelter. These individuals could not respond effectively to the storm in ways that those with more financial resources and legal status could. This is because of their income structure and lack of status, as well as improper preparation. Even though some were eligible for public assistance, they were afraid to receive these services because of their undocumented families. Overall, undocumented immigrants were, and are, marginalized from the preparation for and immediate responses to natural disasters.

Efforts of Community Organizations

Based on observation of the lack of systems that were accountable and responsible for the undocumented population during disasters, community associations have worked with other groups to create a greater coalition to advocate for, empower, assist, educate, and defend the undocumented immigrants’ disaster safety in South Apopka (Rivera and Kapucu 2017). In particular, these community organizations and associations observed similar problems and issues during the 2017 hurricane operations. Thus, these groups have been collectively working to address unmet needs in the community, draw public/social attention to the community, and cope with the multiple problems, such as informing undocumented immigrants about hurricane preparation, encouraging them to take refuge in shelters or find/offer some alternate safe places, and mobilizing resources for providing immediate relief to the population after the storm Endnote 3.

Research Source: Documentation Reviews and Semi-Structured Interviews

While semi-structured interviews served as the primary research instruments for this case study, the author included information and sentiments from e-mail exchanges, and analyzed relevant documentation in order to triangulate the interview data. This allowed the identification of convergent themes among the data, and the collection of additional information regarding the research context (Baxter and Jack 200835; Knafl and Breitmayer 198936).

Preliminary documentation review (secondary data I)

First, the author analyzed multiple public documents, such as news articles, books, and journal articles relevant to the research context. The public documents provided contextual information regarding relevant community actions in practice. In addition, from the preliminary documentation review, the author identified a list of organizations that were involved in protecting undocumented migrants in Apopka during the hurricane.

Semi-structured interviews (primary data)

Second, the author conducted semi-structured interviews to collect data to answer research questions. The interview protocol was designed to identify antecedents that either facilitated or inhibited coordination among local organizations across sectors and scales for protecting undocumented immigrants in South Apopka, Florida, during the response to the Hurricane Irma. The semi-structured protocol includes questions regarding the following themes:

  1. General information—organizational roles/efforts to protect undocumented immigrants in South Apopka during the hurricane:
  • Motivation of the organizations in assisting undocumented migrants in the community during the disaster
  • Organizational actions taken to assist undocumented migrants in the community during the disaster
  • Organizational strengths/challenges in assisting undocumented migrants in the community during the disaster
  1. Coordination during the hurriane preparation and immediate response:

* Coordination with other organizations during preparation (yes/no)

If yes,

  • list 5–6 partner organizations and content coordinated
  • describe coordination processes/benefits/challenges
  • roles of the organization during coordination processes
  • share experiences/strategies to overcome coordination challenges

If no,

  • list several organizations with which coordination would have been useful
  • explain why the relationship would have been helpful
  • describe the barriers/challenges for coordination with such organizations
  1. General perceptions/ideas regarding coordination
  • Need for coordination
  • Factors/conditions that facilitate coordination
  • Factors/conditions that inhibit coordination
  1. Additional thoughts and/or questions: While the protocol provided guidelines for making structured and coherent observations, the author also incorporated an open-ended format that allowed interviewees to provide additional information regarding their experiences in order to understand unnoticed nuances and information regarding participants’ actions (Baxter and Jack 2008).

Additional documentation review (secondary data II)

Third, the author identified additional sources of information, such as relevant e-mail threats, organizational newsletters, websites, internal reports, and administrative memos regarding Hurricane Irma. These additional documents reflected organizations’ disaster response experiences and provided essential contextual information to triangulate the interview data and to improve the reliability of the case study.

Fieldwork: Interviews Endnote 4

Informant identification

Informants in this study were bound to the contextual conditions, and thus, purposefully and conveniently selected based on informants’ relevance to and experiences with the context (Murphy et al. 2017). From the preliminary documentation review, the author identified 12 organizations that provided assistance to undocumented immigrants in South Apopka. Initial e-mail contact was made with all 12 organizations. Then, from the first four interviews, the author identified 11 additional organizations, and these organizations were included in the organizational roster. In total, 23 organizations were contacted multiple times for the initial interview invitation, follow-up for non-responses, identification of informants, and set up for a final interview.

Interviews and Interviewees Endnote 5

A total of 11 people from 8 organizations Endnote 6 participated in the semi-structured formal interviews. Final interviewees were representatives of either public or nonprofit organizations. Table 1 summarizes details about the interviews. In the table, the participating organizations are grouped based on their operational scale: community-community specific issues, metro community-multiple community issues, and beyond-issues of multiple cities around the community. In order to protect the confidentiality of interviewees, no further information about participating organizations is revealed.

The interviewees were either those who were contacted by the author or selected/referred by specific organizations. All interviews were conducted at interviewees’ preferred locations, using their preferred methods of communication (the latter resulted in two phone interviews and six face-to-face interviews). The length of interviews ranged from 38 minutes to 1 hour and 28 minutes.

Pic Description
Table 1. Interview details

Upon consent of the interviewees, interviews were noted and/or recorded by the author. Sometimes, experiences and perspectives of the interviewees were too intense and overwhelming for the author. Thus, the author often wrote interview exit and reflection papers to vent out and process the complex thoughts and emotions related to the interview content. These reflection notes were helpful when the author was identifying and organizing themes during the data processing and analysis phases.

Data Processing and Analysis: Qualitative Analysis Based on Grounded Theory Approach

For data analysis, this exploratory case study adopted the data-driven “grounded theory approach” (Glaser and Strauss 196737). While responding to research questions and referring to existing literature, this study focused on understanding, “Verstehen,” and engaging with multiple data regarding the actions and behaviors of organizations’ engagement in their respective community coordination efforts and their interplay with the contextual setting during the specific time frame. Through this approach, the research discovers the social reality of the focal case and offers new propositions for future research (Gioia et al. 201338; Fendt and Sachs 200839).

In a qualitative study focusing on “understanding,” the data collection, processing, data analysis, and findings occur in concurrent and interactive manners (Yin 2003; Lacey and Luff 200140). In this study, the data coding/processing and analysis include: iterative listening and transcribing recorded interview files; iterative readings and synthesizing interview transcripts; iterative comparisons and integrations of transcribed interview data, interview reflection notes, and secondary data; identifying converging patterns of ideas across datasets; and categorizing the converging patterns as themes corresponding to the research questions and redefining/clarifying the themes over time. In the meantime, the author structured the processed data through multiple steps of coding: open coding, using the language of informants; axial-coding, using labels created by the author; and core-coding, using the central themes and constructs of the study (Charmaz 200641; Gioia and Chittipeddi 199142).

Findings and Discussion

“How Was the Coordination Organized in this Context?”

Several themes emerged as main descriptors of coordination for the disaster safety of undocumented immigrants during Hurricane Irma. These include: heterogeneity, constituents, mediators, and collaboration. Details of each theme are described below.


Heterogeneity indicates the diversity of organizational participants. The interorganizational coordination was not limited to certain sectors, scales, and jurisdictions. Participating organizations were multi-scale, in terms of the organizational staff and budget size, and multi-sector, including all public, nonprofit, and private sectors. Participating organizations had diverse organizational missions beyond disaster management and relief or undocumented immigrant population focuses, including labor and human rights, public and/or community services, faith, education, culture, training, and local/national businesses and companies. In addition, while coordination emerged in South Apopka, participating organizations were not only from the specific geographic location but from wider jurisdictions that extended to the national and international level.

“Help was offered from everywhere, and people brought donations from all different kinds of places...”
“I don’t have the number of cases, but there were a lot (of partners and donors).”


Constituents—undocumented immigrants—appear to be the main motivation of the joint efforts in the action arena.

“We worked with and want to work with anybody and everybody who sympathizes with this population…”

Organizations coordinated to support the wellness of the undocumented migrants before and after the storm. Organizations have different organizational goals during non-disaster situations. For some organizations, working with/through other organizations might not be the best approach if they care to receive their own credit in the action arena. Despite little advantage, many organizations worked together or supported other organizations that agreed with the core value of assisting the vulnerable population and responding to their unmet needs in the community before and during the disaster.

“We were out there even if we did it through another organization, helping them do it...For us, it is not about getting credit. Of course, it was challenging...But, for us more important was...helping people who were there... that was the most important part. So, even though the people (undocumented immigrants) might not know where it came from but that’s okay...”


Joint actions across all actors appeared to be managed by a few community organizations, which can connect mobilized resources to disaster victims in practice, and which could introduce some organizations to other organizations. In particular, at the center of the action arena, a few community organizations were mediating joint efforts. The community organizations had limited resources to cope with the situation. However, they were capable of identifying unmet needs in the community, reaching out to other organizations to mobilize information and resources, and distributing collected information and resources to the people. Thus, through these mediating organizations, most of the involved organizations and their efforts could reach out to the undocumented people in South Apopka.

“In Apopka, I think, we (community organizations) were probably on the top three list of organizations that people knew and they wanted to work with...”
“They are right there...right in the community, we serve the community, but we are not right they have a lot better feel for the community population...and they can be our eyes and ears...”

Other organizations reached out to the community organizations, acknowledging the strengths, extra resources, and weaknesses of community relationships. Thus, by working with/through community organizations, they contributed to protecting the undocumented immigrants in South Apopka.

“Having that local information (through community organizations) was really valuable. They maybe have done things in the past, but they were just simply out of supplies, but we were getting more stuff from our it was really a great partnership.”

Given limited knowledge and resources, and the primary role of supplying provisions, the majority of organizations worked through community organizations, not caring much for building extra relationships with other actors involved in the action arena.

“For most of the organizations, they were not like our competitors, so it did not really matter for us not working’s just a matter of, you know, there were so many organizations...involved in the geographic area...there are too many relationships to we were okay with not working together with so many others...”


The arrangements between organizations appeared to be more collaborative. While there were a few central organizations that dominated relationships, they did not dominate decisions or enforce certain rules or norms on their working partners. Participation was voluntary. Joint efforts were arranged, and contributions were made within the range of individual organizations’ capacities. Therefore, involved organizations seemed to have a fair share of collective responsibilities for the situation.

“How was the Coordination Advanced or Frustrated in this Context?”

Six main themes emerge as factors that either facilitated or inhibited coordination in the action arena. These include acquaintance, boundary, communication, dedication, events, and flexibility. Details of each theme are discussed below.


Acquaintance appears to be important leverage for organizational level coordination in the action arena. In many cases, interorganizational coordination emerged because of existing relationships/friendships between individuals who belong to these organizations. If a person in an organization knows a person in another organization, coordination between these two organizations could be arranged/initiated as easily and quickly as through a simple phone call or conversation between the two people.

“You need to know them…being aware of who’s doing what out there…”
“An international company and a big local chain restaurant, they came to us with two thousand meals… (how did that happen?) Oh the wife of the company rep., she is a friend with the wife of X (a representative at an organization in Apopka), so they were talking, and the wife told her husband, X, and X contacted us, to help getting these meals out.”

This also highlighted the importance of relationship maintenance. In fact, if individuals associated with the organizations lost contact with their acquaintances or lost track of their relationships, they needed to start all over with acquaintance building to get their organizations coordinated.

“As people change...You have to reestablish (personal) relationships.... that’s an ongoing process... You think you have a relationship with another organization and you call the organization, but you realize that the person you knew is not there anymore. Then, you restart... figure out who to talk to and how this works...”


There seemed to be layers of perceptual boundaries demarcating organizational relationships. These boundaries were shaped by many factors, including organizational identity, institutional stances, cultural and contextual understanding, and perception toward coordination. Coordination was easy and fast among the organizations within a boundary. In particular, common identities became the foundation of solidarity and collaboration among different organizations in the action arena.

“We were not representing or assisting someone else, it’s about us, so we are for us...we stood together for us, our community.”

Also, coordination burgeoned between distinctive organizations when the organizations within a boundary had a formal, common affiliation.

“I am a Hispanic pastor, and we are serving the Hispanics, but we received donations and help from so many white communities... it’s because we belong to the (same) diocese.”

Sometimes, an additional boundary appeared to be established by general misconceptions about existing partnership content, and the boundary dwindled coordination opportunities.

“We are working with X... but we don’t receive funding from X...and we are not managed or run by X...Anyway, we are completely separate and run completely independently...I think we have been around forever…so for a lot of people they just think that those things go together and somehow we are affiliated…the undocumented folks and their community, especially given the current (political) climate.”

In fact, cross-boundary coordination was most unlikely in the action arena. In particular, coordination was not considered if partnership offers were outside of cultural and institutional boundaries. For example, despite the need for extra resources for disaster operations, some organizations shunned some collaboration opportunities because of cultural incompetency or inappropriateness of potential offers in the given context.

“I would say Imperialism...was the main barrier to may have a list of things that seemed needed...but you need to check with the people...we often reject some offers...because they were useless...many called us to pick up the food that our people would not eat...or clothes that were not appropriate...yes we accept things and offers...but not anything...”

In addition, organizations whose actions abided by fixed standards and guidelines were not active in coordination at all.

“There is a qualification issue...we needed to meet the yes we were aware of the unmet needs, but we could not do much...officially...”

In the action arena, most community organizations would not cross the formal qualification boundaries, especially given that their identity and action could be associated with the undocumented constituents, which was often against some formalities.


It was evident that communication enhanced joint efforts among organizations in the action arena. In particular, informants who described frequent interactions prior to the hurricane encouraged timely coordination among organizations.

“It was easy because ...all agreement was made ahead of time...”

Ongoing communication strengthened the coordination by helping organizations focus on their own comparative strengths while working with their partners in the action arena.

“One of the concerns in Apopka, with us, just going and setting up to help folks... a lot of times the people are a little bit nervous sometimes about coming out to us... uh... and so we spoke with a community organization to help more people come out... and some of the things we did was we just dropped the things off at the organizations. And they distributed and let us know if they needed more...then we dropped more.”

In particular, as new problems emerged continuously, insufficient communication created confusion and delayed overall disaster coordination among involved organizations.

“I saw many organizations came trying outreach to the community after the hurricane.... but things were not the same every day...everything changed dramatically.... some had concentration of helpers but others did not have enough... coordination was really challenging ...we needed internal communication.... spreading all the words internally (among partners), you know...who was working in what areas, what kind of efforts we were coordinating, and what’s the capacity that’s taking the supplies out to people...”


Dedicated organizations appear to receive more partnership and donation offers from other organizations in the action arena. In particular, organizations with long-term involvement with either undocumented immigrants or disaster management were regarded as trustworthy partners in the action arena, resulting in more partnerships. The central position of community organizations was explained partially by their dedication to the undocumented migrants in the community.

“We are the recognized face in Apopka... (Many offered help to us because) We have been here, serving the community more than 40 years now…Everybody knows that what we are doing for this community so we had so many long-term partners come out.”

For the same reason, organizations either lacking or with narrow dedication to subjective matters tended to be regarded as less attractive partners in the arena.

“Smaller organizations they were more likely to change their focus...what they was good and know, so it took more time to build relationships with these organizations because it was harder to know what they were doing at the moment...”


Multiple degrees and types of political and natural events that emerged during the study period created both challenges and opportunities for joint efforts in the action arena. First, the storm, especially the large scale of the hurricane, inhibited coordination among kin-organizations during the preparation for and immediate response to Hurricane Irma. The storm overwhelmed multiple branches of a community organization or previous local partners that used to come down to assist, resulting in loose coordination between those organizations.

“You know, the other thing that was really different about Irma? Hearing from the history, natural disasters normally hit one area at a time…but Irma hit every place, all at the same time! So, it was a totally different ball game.”

Yet, the large-scale storm had some positive share in coordination. The overwhelming scale attracted extra public attention that brought unexpected donations and support from other organizations that had not been as involved in community affairs previously.

“From what I heard... this year…they are much better…they were timely and more friendly…we did get assistance from the organizations, like X and Y, maybe…The size...that might have contributed to them being better centered around...because there were much more statewide and nationwide attention during Irma.”

Second, some joint efforts were disrupted by other natural and political events that emerged during the study period. Multiple large-scale disasters, such as Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, and their devastation before and after Irma extracted resources and attention from state and national organizations that could have brought extra resources to the community organizations.

“It’s not only us, Texas was affected, then us, then all the evacuees from Maria came… Everybody was affected…everybody was in need... All were stretched … not only Apopka, but also everywhere in Florida, as well as across countries.”

In addition, coordination was also impeded by political events around the same time, in particular debates and decisions regarding phasing out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The events exacerbated the conflict between the internal security and physical safety of undocumented immigrants during disaster operations. A great portion of potential partners and their resources withdrew from the action arena.

“We had been working very closely with them for a long time...But we had a little bit of lapse on that because of so much other stuff going on out there, especially first immigration... especially under current administration...”


Sometimes, interorganizational coordination was possible given the flexibilities of organizations in terms of disaster operation and decision making in the action arena. Organizations often identified that some of their plans and approaches did not work very well in the community context. In particular, after the hurricane, focal problems changed daily, and unexpected problems emerged. Involved organizations realized their weaknesses and strengths and those of others in the context. Many organizations adjusted their ways to assist undocumented immigrants by working through/with other organizations and minimizing their actual presence at the disaster operation sites. After joining the coordination, these organizations became more flexible as they communicated and built stronger relationships with their partners based on common goals and continuity of operations. Thus, flexibility improved coordinative disaster operations.

“It was challenging (working through community partners) but...the change was actually great because that extended our reach to the community, and it helped other organizations as well.”

In addition, the flexibility obtained through community organizations assisted some public organizations in overcoming the main dilemma between legal operation and humanitarian assistance. While their formal response operations were based on standard/formal procedures, they could informally link or redirect disaster assistance/resources from other organizations to those tightly involved in the action arena.


The problem of disaster safety of undocumented immigrants went viral in 2017, when there were several large-scale disasters (i.e., floods, fires, and hurricanes), as well as strong political storms that ripped through many undocumented immigrants’ communities across the United States. However, the issue continues to be marginalized in disaster policies and research. The study population receives limited formal disaster support from public institutions given their lack of documented immigration status. In addition, given the lack of status, undocumented immigrants have intentionally withdrawn from available resources and assistance. A lack of federal policies on humanitarian disaster assistance has confused local disaster operations that support local undocumented immigrants. Furthermore, the majority of current disaster studies have been conducted on the disaster safety of the legal majority, or at best, on documented minorities.

In practice, many community organizations undertook efforts to assist undocumented community residents during disasters. In particular, many of them worked together to cope with the issue in different and creative ways. Some focused on mobilizing donations and goods, while others undertook efforts to connect organizations in need and/or to deliver supplies to people in need. The collective efforts promoted the disaster safety of the vulnerable communities. Yet, less is known about interorganizational coordination in this specific context.

Responding to the gaps in policy, practice, and research on the topic, this research proposed to explore interorganizational coordination promoting disaster safety of undocumented migrants in South Apopka, Florida, during Hurricane Irma in 2017. In particular, this research asked two questions: 1) How was the coordination organized in this context? and 2) How was the coordination advanced or challenged in this context?

Findings indicate that multiple and different organizations actively engaged in assisting disaster preparation and response for undocumented immigrants in South Apopka. The interorganizational coordination was structured as reciprocal joint efforts between a few community organizations and many diverse organizations concerned with the disaster safety of undocumented immigrants. Some of the joint efforts among organizations were easily arranged and continued when: people already knew each other, organizations had common identities or affiliations, organizations communicated with each other continuously, organizations had strong reputations for assisting undocumented immigrants or disaster relief efforts, focus on the event created more public attention, and involved organizations allowed flexible disaster operations. Yet, coordination appeared to be delayed or hampered by lack of interpersonal relationships, misconceptions about organizational identities, lack of communication, too many distractions, and lack of flexibility.

These findings support the notion that coordination shines when the problems are complex and rapidly changing (Comfort 2007). Through coordination, individual actors could obtain extra resources and information and build collective and synergic response capacity that was greater than the sum of individuals’ capacities in the given situation. Yet, the findings also emphasize that coordination requires substantial time and effort to develop well-defined, joint actions among organizations (Hara 2003). Disaster coordination and joint efforts did not emerge all at once, as might have appeared to be the case. They were either built based on, or extended from, well-maintained previous relationships among organizations and the people that belong to those organizations. In particular, not all willing or capable organizations could join the disaster coordination. Through existing relationships, fundamental attitudes, or beliefs, actions of partner organizations were screened prior to the focusing event. Thus, many organizations could become meaningfully involved in the disaster coordination. In addition, due to the sensitivity of the social and institutional status of undocumented constituents in the community, those who were willing to adjust their attitudes and actions toward the main constituents became new, meaningful coordination partners for disaster operations in the community.

In summary, coordination requires constant and significant efforts for adaptation and alignment among individual organizations’ actions and priorities, even before the focusing event (Comfort 2007). Sometimes, adaptations may be misunderstood, as there are individual interests, credits, and values at stake. Yet, most required adaptation was related to operational procedure, identifying the best approach or methods to service the specific community, rather than the adaptation or change of organizational core values or identities. Depending on the level of interaction and adaptation, joint efforts among organizations emerged, continued, or disappeared. In addition, factors that were once effective became ineffective and vice versa. Therefore, the formation and maintenance of such coordination among organizations were conditional on their continuing communication and adaptation to the contextual conditions.

What, then, does adaptation to contextual conditions mean? When it comes to discussions about disaster safety and disaster resilience of minority communities, studies emphasize cultural competencies, such as learning the cultures and languages of the constituents that organizations are serving. During coordination and joint efforts, organizations were required to have some basic attitudes and level of respect for the undocumented constituents. However, research findings suggest that not all organizations must be culturally competent in terms of language and culture. Rather, some organizations focused on what they were already good at and adopted some methods of operations in practice. There may be enough culturally competent organizations that are already well-connected to the people in their areas and know their communities’ situations. These organizations might opt to be the coordinators of the overall disaster operations in their areas. Yet, these organizations sometimes need extra support and resources from other organizations in order to cope with emerging needs. Thus, willing organizations may want to invest in communication and relationship building with culturally competent organizations prior to disasters, in order to enhance the resources for those community organizations during disaster operations. In this way, supporting organizations may respond to community needs more effectively and efficiently, as well as better position themselves within the coordination efforts to promote the disaster safety of undocumented immigrants in the United States.


Endnote 1: Information in the first, second, and third paragraph is provided by multiple interviewees.

Endnote 2: Information provided by multiple interviewees.

Endnote 3: Information provided by multiple interviewees.

Endnote 4: IRB approval: On November 16, 2017, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the University of Central Florida approved the exempt status of this study (IRB no. SBE-17-13588).

Endnote 5: During the fieldwork period, many local organizations were busy assisting Hurricane Maria evacuees in relocating from Puerto Rico to the city of Orlando. Thus, only eight (organization) interviews were conducted, and communication with other organizations was limited to supplementary data exchange through e-mail.

Endnote 6: While the number of interviews is very small, the author could observe some level of ‘theoretical saturation’ from the last few interviews.


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Suggested Citation:

Yeo, J. (2018). Interorganizational Coordination and a Vulnerable Population During Hurricane Irma in 2017 (Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Report Series, Report 278). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder.

Yeo, J. (2018). Interorganizational Coordination and a Vulnerable Population During Hurricane Irma in 2017 (Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Report Series, Report 278). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder.