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Simulated hurricane puts disaster responders to test

BY P.J. HELLER | MOUNT WEATHER, Va | October 14, 1999

Lura Cayton discovered just how difficult it can be to put together an interfaith recovery effort following a major U.S. disaster.

In the aftermath of a hurricane which slammed into the southeast coast of the U.S., not only did she have to try to coordinate meeting with faith-based leaders who were busy tending to the needs of their congregants, she also had to deal with different ethnic groups, a church that felt it could handle all of the community's recovery efforts on its own, and a host of rumors including one about the bodies of four tourists being kept in a frozen food locker at a local grocery store.

Fortunately for Cayton, the event was only a simulation, designed to train disaster response consultants (DRC) from Church World Service (CWS) on how to put together an interfaith recovery effort.

Cayton was one of more than 70 people who gathered Oct. 1-6 at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conference and training center here to listen, learn, and get hands-on experience in forming an interfaith at the annual CWS Consultant Skills Development Institute.

Between simulation exercises in which participants worked in small groups along with a more experienced liaison, there were presentations on topics ranging from cultural diversity and personal safety to the role of FEMA, how to use the Internet and e-mail to gather information on disaster response, and how to deal with the media.

"The purpose of the training was to give people an experience in organizing an interfaith and in making that first presentation (to an interfaith group)," explained Norm Hein, a CWS disaster response facilitator who helped design the workshop and simulation exercise.

Participants -- some of whom had never been involved in disaster recovery before -- and organizers said the program met, and in some cases exceeded, their expectations.

"I think it was an exceptional real-time experience that helped them see all of the pitfalls and possibilities," noted Donna Derr, who was then acting director of the CWS Emergency Response Office.

She added that the simulation -- of a Category 4 Hurricane Alonzo that hit the fictitious town of Bayport in the state of Columbia -- was also a learning experience for CWS staff.

"We actually got more out of this training than we as a staff expected," Derr said. "It's important for the staff to hear what it is that we're not clearly articulating to consultants about who they're representing, what their role is and why they need to be doing what they're doing."

Tina Westbrock, who also served as a facilitator for the program, described the disaster simulation as a "very effective tool" and predicted it would be fine-tuned in the future. This was the first year a simulation approach was utilized for training.

"There were a number of people who haven't been DRCs before and the information was new to them," Westbrock said. "We need to give them a little more background on the role of a disaster response consultant before they can actually jump into that role.

"I think all of us have walked away with a lot of knowledge from this," she added.

Harry Noftsker, Region VI voluntary agency liaison with FEMA, said the simulation allowed participants to practice in a non-threatening situation.

"It gave them an opportunity to learn not only from each other but from the folks who have been doing it [disaster response] for a long time," he said.

"It's certainly much easier to do it here than to do it once you get out into the field."

Hein, Derr, and others said that the training was designed to give consultants basic skills in organizing an interfaith group but that nothing could replace actual field experience.

"I'm confident that they have some of the beginning basic tools," Derr said.

"I think it simulation gives them a chance to begin to see some of the problems that can come up and that occur," Noftsker added. "The problem with simulation, of course, is that in real life there are a lot of external factors that would impact upon the people that are not present here."

Rafael Moreno of the Pentecostal Church of God international movement in Puerto Rico, said he felt the training prepared him for whatever disaster response he might face in the future.

"Right now, I personally feel so confident that CWS were to call me tomorrow or next week and say, 'Rafael, you have to go to Mexico, Latin America, or we just want you to come over,' I already feel sufficiently confident to come over and be an asset to the program," Moreno said.

He added that he not only learned more about dealing with others during the program, but more about himself.

"I grew up in a very hostile area, so I've always been very defensive," Moreno said. "So in my lifetime, I've had to learn to discipline myself, to control [myself]. In this chaos and crisis [of the simulation], I learned to control myself.

"I learned a little better about who I am, and what I need to better myself," he said. "That's very important to me, to be a better Christian, to be a better human being, to be a better person."

Cayton, with the Disciples of Christ in Oklahoma City, said she gained the confidence to make a presentation to an interfaith group. She said she also learned more about "the essential elements that need to be in that presentation."

Noftsker said faith-based recovery efforts were a major resource for FEMA.

"What I'll bring back to FEMA is the importance to foster and to continue the relationship with CWS representatives," he said. "FEMA expects the voluntary agencies to take care of the families, to be the hands-on folks, whether it's the food, clothing or shelter. FEMA is a funding agency. It doesn't have the resources to do one-on-one like the church and other voluntary agencies do.

"From my point of view, the reason I want an interfaith out there is that I know the interfaiths are going to have the skills of being casework managers and they're going to have access to money, manpower, and materials," he said. "I also know they're going to be there for a long period of time. I know there's a forum out there that can provide for some long-term assistance."

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