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NY ponders 'lessons learned'

An odd plea rang out to New York's disaster responders: "Don't prepare for another 9/11."

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

"As we move away from 9/11, it becomes more difficult to remind people of the need and press onward."

—Brian Richardson

An odd plea rang out to New York's disaster responders: "Don't prepare for another 9/11."

Instead, advised Kevin Smith - director of emergency disaster services for The Salvation Army in Florida - prepare for what you never expect.

"And when you think you're prepared," he said, "go back and start over again. Because when you think you're prepared - that's complacency."

Smith, who attended the First Annual Disaster Human Services Conference in Albany, N.Y., is also past chair of the Florida Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) coalition.

Bringing his recent experience responding in Florida to four hurricanes, he encouraged New Yorkers to keep up the momentum they were building.

"You will find people's interest will wane," he warned. But, when another disaster comes, the interest springs back to life. "Now, at VOAD meetings in Florida, there are organizations I haven't seen in six years."

In non-disaster times, he said, it's a different mentality. "People say, 'I don't want to go to that meeting because all they do is talk about bylaws.' That's not true - but that's the mentality."

New Yorkers are already noticing that it's hard to keep disaster planning on everyone's radar screen. "As we move away from 9/11, it becomes more difficult to remind people of the need and press onward," said Brian Richardson, coordinator of the Long Island VOAD, which is celebrating its first year anniversary.

"We need to keep asking ourselves - what type of understandings and agreements need to be created between agencies?"

Each disaster-related issue often involves coordination among multiple agencies - both public and private.

Les Radford, human services branch chief for the New York State Emergency Management Office, said there are a lot of good examples to follow.

In Florida, Radford saw that some 3,800 people with special needs were moved from the Florida Keys to Orlando - one small part of thousands of people with special needs that were evacuated. "They did it. The feds did it," he said. "To me it was amazing. I mean, we couldn't establish one in Rochester for 60 people. We need to work on that."

And New York isn't the only state that needs to work on it, he pointed out. "Our country is aging significantly," he said.

Radford used a personal example. "Mom is on oxygen. Dad has a little dementia. They are not quite homebound - but almost. Where do they go during an emergency? What do they do so that an EMT doesn't have to come to their house?"

Local churches could help in that situation, pointed out Michael Vincent, chair of the West Virginia VOAD and director of Catholic Community Services in southern West Virginia.

During nine different flood events since July 2001, "local churches were crucial in immediate response," said Vincent. "The first 2 to 3 days, folks naturally went there."

Disaster planning has to involve separating - or at least clarifying - the role of the government and how it fits with the role of faith-based and voluntary groups, response leaders agreed.

By pulling in volunteers sooner after a flood event, communities might be able to reduce the probability of secondary damage, said Radford - like mold.

"If you don't clean it up soon enough, it gets in the wood. Well, how many state workers are authorized to go into private dwellings? Very few. How many are authorized to go in and mud out a house? It's not going to be us."

Faith-based and voluntary groups have to be aware of issues that may be very specific within a community or state, said Joann Hale, a disaster response and recovery liaison from Church World Service who shared her experience in multiple states.

Insurance delays, she said, are a big problem after almost any large-scale disaster. "We saw this after the California wildfires, after Hurricane Andrew, after this season's hurricanes. Insurance companies say they're going broke. They are fighting people over replacement costs."

In California, she said, groups helping to rebuild homes have to take into account the increased cost of building materials and housing. "A three-bedroom, one-bath home there was anywhere from a quarter million dollars to 1.5 million. The cost is unbelievable."

By talking honestly about lessons learned, New York response leaders hoped to shape the future of disaster response. "There nothing like a disaster to show you what doesn't work," pointed out Peter Gudaitis, executive director and CEO of New York Disaster Interfaith Services. "We still give away $40,000 to $50,000 a week to people affected by 9/11. It doesn't seem to be slowing up at the moment."

Communicating effectively can come down to simple logistics - like telling state emergency management officials what supplies you need as a voluntary group.

"You want water to run a meal station? Great. But if I put 5,500 gallons of water in your community, and it freezes - which has happened twice - do you know the paperwork I have to go through when that happens?" said Radford.

Communication with the state is important, agreed Richardson, but so is communication between voluntary groups. A regional VOAD is a good venue to promote open communication, he said.

"Try to be as inclusive as you possibly can if you start one," he advised. "Our initial information meetings did not exclude anyone. We invited major case management and mental health agencies, food banks, faith-based organizations, the American Red Cross, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, senior citizens councils, domestic violence agencies. You need to be inclusive. People will select themselves if they feel they don't have a role in the VOAD - and that has been the case."

Richardson also advised having one agency take the role of convener, and, during times of disaster, taking cues from emergency managers on the ground as part of a pre-arranged plan.

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