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U.S. responders challenged

"Responding nationally to disasters does not mean responding to 48 states."


"Responding nationally to disasters does not mean responding to 48 states."

Marilyn Shigetani gave that frank reminder at the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) conference on Tuesday.

Shigetani - who as a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) voluntary agency liaison has responded to disasters in places such American Samoa - said response outside the continental U.S. may not be easy but it's essential and it needs more emphasis.

"Over the last two-and-a-half years, the Pacific Islands have been hit by numerous disasters," she said, "and what you find is a challenge for agencies to even transport out to these areas."

Shigetani said she has found the level of donations and amount of funding is limited when disasters strike the Pacific Islands, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and other places far away from the continental U.S. and often far away from the minds of the American public.

"NVOAD members are used to responding domestically," she said to members of NVOAD's long-term recovery committee. "But when you say Guam or American Samoa, they say 'that's international.' People aren't really sure whether it's an international environment or a domestic environment."

In fact, FEMA responds to disasters in U.S. territories and other U.S. locations outside the continental states in the same way it responds in Kentucky or Iowa or Florida, said Shigetani.

"The fact remains you must look to how you're going to respond," she said. "It's a logistical challenge to get out to the Pacific."

Training communities for long-term disaster recovery - especially ones with a communal mentality not found in much of the continental U.S. - means more than just distributing training materials, she said. "You can't just develop a manual and hand it to someone. They have no idea what they're getting into. Long-term recovery is a scary thing.

"Response and recovery is very different when you're surrounded by water. The concept of recovery is a lot different."

For example, in an island village with a communal lifestyle, talking to a cousin means you are talking to the whole household. Traditional long-term recovery models usually focus on an individual and a nuclear family. "But maybe in some areas you don't look at the family, you look at the village," said Shigetani. "Because if you give me $5,000 in assistance, I'm going to turn around and give it to my chief or my mayor.

"Let's adapt long-term recovery. Because a traditional approach that looks at the individual's needs will cause people in communal cultures to turn around and say: 'what do you mean, you're only looking at me?' We have an opportunity in long-term recovery."

Several NVOAD members attended a Pacific Islands Long-Term Recovery Seminar at the University of Hawaii Windward Community College in December. The seminar focused on disaster response and recovery in Guam, The Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands and American Samoa.

In response to recommendations developed during the seminar, and in response to advocacy from Shigetani and others, the NVOAD long-term recovery committee created a task force on Tuesday that will address issues associated with disaster response outside the continental United States. Eventually, task force members hope NVOAD will create a standing committee that reports directly to the NVOAD board and the NVOAD membership.

In addition to developing new long-term recovery training - or altering existing materials with an eye for cultural differences - recommendations following the December seminar included providing a mentor for long-term recovery committees as needed. Church World Service (CWS) and other national faith-based disaster response groups have already had success with offering mentors who provide technical expertise.

Also recommended was that FEMA host conference calls among existing Pacific long-term recovery groups to sustain regional networking.

After the American Samoa was struck by a cyclone shortly after the December seminar, responders to that disaster were able to act on some of those recommendations. FEMA funded and NVOAD organized calls between NVOAD members and a fledging long-term recovery group. CWS sent a representative to assist with formation of an interfaith disaster recovery organization. And NVOAD began listing meetings and training sessions on its Web site in case islanders are able to take advantage of existing training. The hope is that the interfaith group will eventually grow into a VOAD akin to state and community-level VOADs in place across the continental United States.

NVOAD is a coalition that aims to streamline planning efforts by many voluntary organizations responding to disasters. The goal is to provide less duplication in service by communicating with each other before disaster strikes. Once disasters occur, NVOAD or an affiliated state VOAD encourages members and other voluntary agencies to convene on site. NVOAD helps a wide variety of volunteers and organizations work together in a crisis.

NVOAD members began their annual conference today in Louisville, Ken., and will convene through Friday. Participants are attending workshops covering topics such as managing unaffiliated volunteers in times of disaster, spiritual care in long-term recovery, developing an emergency plan for your workplace and disaster fundraising, severe weather awareness, coordination and cooperation via the Internet, and national disaster policies and legislation.

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