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Responders urge more diversity

Leaders from voluntary agencies are envisioning more inclusive disaster response and preparation this week at the annual National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (National VOAD) conference.

BY SUSAN KIM | RALEIGH, N.C. | May 10, 2006

Leaders from voluntary agencies are envisioning more inclusive disaster response and preparation this week at the annual National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (National VOAD) conference.

With National VOAD providing a forum, nearly 400 participants vowed to reach more diverse groups, better help elderly people and persons with disabilities, and form national collaborations that augment existing resources.

The positive force of National VOAD's collaboration could offset the nation's deep racial and social fissures that gap even further in the wake of a disaster, said participants.

When leaders from The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond shared how the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exposed existing racism, conference participants shared how this reality affected their own experience in the field.

Take, for example, diversity and emotional care, explained Oscar Morgan, senior vice president for policy and services at the National Mental Health Association.

"The nation's mental health system is severely lacking when it comes to diversity," he said. "About 93% of mental health workers in this country are white. Yet when you look at people in Hurricane Katrina who were affected, a lot of people were people of color. It's good to be able to respond to people you're familiar with. We need to be real. And there was no connection between the referral and the alleged provider."

More diversified disaster response isn't just a national approach but a worldwide vision, added Dr. Tomohide Atsumi, an associate professor at Japan's Osaka University.

"This National VOAD group should celebrate its accomplishments," he said. Through relationships forged by National VOAD leaders, Atsumi and his colleagues hope to bring about a new stance on volunteerism in their country.

Japan's long-held tradition was that the government responds to disasters - largely without the aid of the voluntary sector, explained Atsumi. Then the 1995 Kobe earthquake - one of the most devastating quakes ever to hit Japan - struck. More than 5,500 people were killed and over 26,000 injured. "At that time, ordinary people - like us - we did not imagine we could do something," Atsumi said.

Since his relationship with National VOAD leaders, that feeling has changed, he added. "Volunteerism has become vital."

As more diverse partnerships are formed country-to-country, they're also being honed at the local level. New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS) is piloting a "Houses of Worship Citywide Asset and Logistics Management" (HOW CALM) database that will track disaster-related information for houses of worship, religious schools and agencies in the city. "At a local level, this allows you to see who is in a flood zone, to see what houses of worship are near evacuation routes, for example," said Peter Gudaitis, NYDIS executive director and CEO.

While faith-based groups with ample national resources tend to distribute disaster preparation information, smaller houses of worship don't always have that advantage. "Anything that can help be an equalizer in the community is really vital," said Gudaitis. "One of the most challenging parts of Katrina was about individual houses of worship spontaneously opening their doors. Spontaneous acts of grace are really wonderful and important and necessary - but wouldn't it have been better if everybody already knew which buildings were along evacuation routes?"

The crux of disaster preparedness comes from information that already exists - but isn't shared equally and with diversity in mind, pointed out Gudaitis and others.

When National VOAD members gathered last October in the wake of Katrina, they began to form recommendations related to diversity and inclusiveness - and those emerging recommendations have formed the heart of this year's conference, said National VOAD Executive Director Ande Miller. "The significant increase of interest in our diversity and inclusiveness workshop track at our national conference this year is a confirmation of the importance of the recommendations."

A lot of lessons have been learned about disaster response, agreed Hillary Styron, director of the emergency preparedness initiative for the National Organization on Disability. But, she asked, when will we apply the learnings?

"We need to remember that the disability-related issues have been around as long as there has been civilization and disaster. They have been around pre-Katrina, and pre 9/11. What hasn't happened in every after-action report is that people need to take those actions learned or lessons learned and move them into lessons applied," said Styron.

Sometimes that simply means keeping an idea simple so it can be replicated and help more people, said Mike Orfitelli, a disaster services coordinator for The Salvation Army in the eastern United States.

Orfitelli and his colleagues have produced a user-friendly disaster preparedness program for elderly people that can be adapted by any voluntary organization. "I still go back to the fact that if we were doing this across our country, in all our churches, in all our service organizations - if we were putting together those churches and organizations with seniors," he said, "a simple approach could bring phenomenal results."

It can also boil down to simply remembering, first, that disaster survivors are human beings, not statistics. "There's the theory and then there's the reality down on the ground," said Ann Maclaine of the Advocacy Center in New Orleans. "Let's remember the human element. Just treat me like I'm a human being. Listen to me. We can't spend our lives sitting in committee meetings. I would much rather educate folks on how to treat people like people."

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