NY responders swap tips

Mix evangelistic enthusiasm with New York-style candor, and you’ve got Les Radford doing what he does best: making disaster planning downright exciting.

BY SUSAN KIM | ALBANY, N.Y. | October 22, 2004

"We've got an exit strategy as soon as we come in."

—Les Radford

Mix evangelistic enthusiasm with New York-style candor, and you've got Les Radford doing what he does best: making disaster planning downright exciting.

Radford, human services branch chief for the New York State Emergency Management Office, can talk from experience, and not just because he calls himself "an old bureaucrat."

Since 1995, the state of New York has received 29 federal disaster declarations. The most visible was the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack, but the state has also coped with floods, tornadoes, and ice storms, among others.

Radford has learned to explain bureaucracy so that it's not a bad word anymore. What happens within the state after a disaster, he said, is more like structure.

"Well, we're big on structure, especially during disasters," he said. "We're constantly looking at plans."

And because the state never has enough resources to carry out its best disaster plans, Radford was scanning the audience for help: "I keep looking for more and more resources," he said.

On Friday afternoon, state officials, Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives, and leaders from voluntary and faith-based groups were swapping ideas at New York's First Annual Disaster Human Services Conference.

Government entities and nonprofit relief groups might work during different phases of a disaster but they have more in common than they realize, said Radford.

"Not many of us are in lifesaving," he pointed out. "We leave that to the police or to the firefighters or to the neighbors who help each other out. Most of us, we're in life-sustaining."

The state of New York has reached out to voluntary agencies in very visible ways recently, including providing funding for Friday's conference. "New York is also one of the only states that has a voluntary agency representative on its Disaster Preparedness Commission," said Radford.

When it comes to long-term recovery, state leaders said they rely on faith-based and voluntary groups.

"The state cannot do it alone," said James W. McMahon, chairman of the New York State Disaster Preparedness Commission. "We rely on your expertise. Thank you for your work in that."

"The state doesn't hang around forever," agreed Radford. "We've got an exit strategy as soon as we come in. Some of you show up three weeks late - and by that I mean three weeks on time - to do long-term recovery. We by definition are not long-term. Who's going to be there in the long run?"

Volunteers are, answered James W. Tuffey, director of the New York State Emergency Management Office. "I need to applaud each one of you. You provide assistance and support to your neighbors. You know firsthand what it's like to help families you don't even know. Your work and that of your organizations has made a difference for thousands of New Yorkers."

Response leaders in the state are looking at lessons learned from 9/11, said McMahon. "It has often been said that 9/11 changed our way of life and our way of doing business forever," he said. "We've learned a lot since then. We've got natural and manmade disasters and the ongoing threat of terrorism. We're working hard with local communities at that prevention function."

"More hazards are popping up," agreed Radford. "It's becoming a more hazardous world. We've got to come together and get that synergy going. It's going to happen through planning."

With that hope, New Yorkers were also fielding ideas from other states on how to collaborate and communicate across public and private sectors.

Response leaders from other states - there to share their lessons learned - commended state officials for genuinely reaching out to voluntary agencies. "You have a wonderful foundation here," said Michael Vincent, chair of the West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster and director of Catholic Community Services in flood-wracked southern West Virginia.

"The fact that the state is supporting a conference like this - you don't know how lucky you are," agreed Kevin Smith, director of emergency disaster services for the Florida division of The Salvation Army.

But - as good as the relationships are beginning to be - the state still has plenty of work to do when it comes to disaster preparedness, responders agreed. "We have to know each other and know each other's organization before disaster hits," said Thomas Ferraro, chair of the New York State Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster coalition.

More regional VOADs are needed across the state, he said, and "the ecumenical church community is so vital to anything that's ever going to happen in this arena."

Ultimately both government officials and voluntary groups find it difficult to watch people's needs go unmet. "There's an 84-year-old living in Delaware County," said Radford. "Her long-term could be a year. It could be five years. But if we don't fix her up soon she might not have a good couple years left."

Ferraro agreed that disasters leave a lot of pain among the most vulnerable people. "Disasters always disproportionately affect low-income people and people living in the margins," he said. "I have watched the impact of disasters on people who can least withstand the stress and the financial reality."

And Radford scanned the audience. "That's what I need to know. I don't have good eyeballs in the field. Is the community hurting? And how is it hurting?"

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