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Louisiana group eyes future disasters

BY JOSHUA LEWIS | HOUMA, LA | May 23, 2000

HOUMA, LA (March 23, 2000) -- When tornadoes tore through this south Louisiana city and outlying areas last week, damaging some 200 homes and businesses and claiming two lives, members of the disaster response community were ready largely because of an interfaith and interagency organization known as the Terrebonne Readiness and Assistance Committee (TRAC).

Born in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, which struck the southern part of the state in 1992, TRAC has flourished long after many such organizations would have dried up, having completed the recovery for the specific disaster they were created to address.

Instead of disappearing, TRAC transformed itself from a simple response organization to one of proactive involvement in the community, working to prepare people for future disasters-especially hurricanes-that will surely come again to this low-lying area of the Louisiana coast.

"TRAC sort of turned itself into not only a disaster response but a disaster preparedness and mitigation agency," said Robert Gorman, director of Catholic Social Services, Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux. "So it's done education work each of the last seven hurricane seasons and got some federal grants to do that."

TRAC annually produces a 64-page guide for each of 13 southeastern Louisiana parishes titled "Surviving the Storm, A Citizens Guide to Emergency Preparedness" and has produced several videos on the subject, including one called "Cooking Up a Storm," demonstrating how to prepare and store food in times of disaster.

The videos are available in each of the parishes' libraries and also as "free rentals" in more than 160 area video stores. Libraries also use a children's program created by TRAC as part of their summer schedule.

The organization has produced public service announcements in four languages, as well as educational materials for the home health care industry that particularly touch on issues for the elderly and disabled.

"What we did also is we registered with the Council on Aging every person over 62 years old in Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes," said Associate Director Velma Watson. "They know who's in the family, if they live alone, what medications they're on, who's their doctor-they've got everything in the computer on them. And when a storm's coming, they'll spit those out of the computer and they'll know which ones need rides, which ones need evacuating, and so on."

Many of TRAC's grants have come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and from numerous church-related organizations, Watson said.

In 1995, FEMA named TRAC one of its models for the United States and published a summary of the organization in their Exemplary Practices in Emergency Management annual guide, said Kay Goss, associate director for Preparedness Training and Exercises at FEMA.

"I think it's truly exemplary, and so we've held it up as a national model to encourage other communities to have that approach," Goss said. Indeed, FEMA has used one of the videos produced by TRAC in many communities nationwide, she added.

TRAC is an example of a community accepting "local responsibility" for disaster preparedness, mitigation, and response, she said.

"At a time when everybody was looking at the negative side of Hurricane Andrew, this community decided to make it a positive opportunity for them and created TRAC."

TRAC helps churches and agencies coordinate their services, Gorman added. "What it does for Catholic Social Services is that it helps prevent the duplication of our services, and so we can help a lot more people."

With TRAC as coordinator, relief groups save time and money. For example, instead of having five separate damage assessment teams, there can be one, he said.

"And if everybody gets that same information, then you've saved money there. And then you save money because one agency or church might get in some bedding or plywood and then that's something you don't have to buy. You can use your money for something else. So it's just worked really well."

Gorman and other members of the Unmet Needs Committee noted how quickly the group convened after the recent tornadoes and credited TRAC.

"You've got a very cooperative spirit here," said Carolyn Shell, an American Red Cross volunteer and member of the Louisiana Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD).

The various agencies, faith-based and secular, built a lot of trust during the Hurricane Andrew response, Gorman said. "They saw that each church and each agency could maintain its own program and its own identity but work cooperatively."

The cohesion in the community is enhanced by the fact that many of the response agency representatives are also involved with the VOAD, Shell added.

TRAC's example is relevant not just for communities that annually face hurricanes but for others around the country as well, Goss said. "We believe that if you prepare well for a hurricane, that you're also probably well prepared for a flood or a tornado or an earthquake-maybe even a terrorist event."

So the TRAC model translates well into any community and that's why FEMA showcased it, she said. "It's a real common sense, low-cost approach to community responsibility. And it builds individual responsibility as well."

Goss noted how TRAC encouraged planning at every level: individual, household, neighborhood, and community. "You know, that's the ultimate in planning," she said.

She cited TRAC's production of guides, videos, and other programs as ways of reaching a maximum number of people. "I just think they have something for everybody in their overall program," Goss said.

Posted March 23, 2000

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