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When disaster strikes: How volunteer, faith-based partnerships can help your county

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Sonoma County, Calif. Supervisor James Gore stands in front of a NACo panel speaking to a crowd.

Sonoma County, Calif. Supervisor James Gore opens a discussion March 4 about resilient counties during a luncheon panel discussion at the NACo Legislative Conference. Looking on are panelists Jennifer Kiger, chief, Office of Public Health Preparedness & Response, Harris County, Texas; Phil Maytubby, director of Public Health Protection Oklahoma City-County Health Department, and Richard Waldhorn, contributing scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Photo by Jason Dixson

Before disasters strike your county, you should be certain about which local or regional faith-based groups you can work with to help provide temporary shelter, hot meals and other types of assistance to residents, said Gregory Forrester, president and CEO, Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. The national group also has state-level associations that you can contact to find faith-based groups in your area that help during disasters.

Forrester was part of a panel March 5 that discussed “Disaster Response and Recovery: Leveraging Community, Volunteer and Faith-Based Partnerships for Effective Disaster Response” at the NACo Legislative Conference. He also advised holding an event with local faith-based groups where “everyone can get together.” Linking faith-based groups to local government, nonprofits and businesses is also helpful.

Panelists Marcus Coleman, acting director, FEMA, DH Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership and Torey Powell, program manager, USDA Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said their jobs are to connect groups with communities. We are there to “help localities bridge those relationships before disasters strike,” Powell said.

AmeriCorps trains 18-24 year-olds for disaster careers at five campuses, said panelist Gina Cross, acting director, AmeriCorps NCCC. FEMA partially pays for the young volunteers to help at disasters, she noted.

Resilient Counties discuss public health impacts of natural disasters

County leaders should establish a network of specialized “disaster hospitals” in order to prepare for a number of possible catastrophes, a panel told NACo members March 4 at the Resilient and Healthy Counties Luncheon.

The discussion about strengthening counties’ resilience by addressing the public health impacts of natural disasters was kicked off by Ramsey County, Minn. Commissioner Toni Carter, chair of Healthy Counties.

Last year, 813 counties were declared disasters, said Sonoma County, California Supervisor James Gore, chair of the Resilient Counties Advisory Board. “It is the new normal,” he said.

Local governments are finding innovative ways to deal with public health. Phil Maytubby, director of Public Health Protection, Oklahoma City-County Health Department, said they were able to vaccinate 422 people for the flu in a “drive-through” event held last month at a casino parking lot.

Forming volunteer groups before disasters is extremely helpful, Maytubby said. When a tornado blows down fences “cows and horses get out. Who’s gonna round all them up? We have a volunteer team for that.” But he recommended not using “spontaneous” volunteers. When they tried it there and “arrested 10 of them for outstanding warrants.”

Jennifer Kiger, chief, Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, Harris County, Texas, said the county had its hands full with Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane that hit the coast Aug. 25. It was the third 100-plus year flood in three years and submerged 30 percent of the county. More than 100,000 homes were damaged and 36 people died.

Harris County’s Office of Public Health response included coordination with hospitals and healthcare systems, disease surveillance, health and medical operations at the NRG mega-shelter, mosquito control, environmental health (water systems, food establishments), mass health education campaign, large-scale disaster animal coordination and mobile service delivery.

Several members of the packed luncheon asked about the best way to help homebound residents during disasters and there were no easy answers. One concern was liability because often there are not enough emergency personnel to help evacuate the homebound.

“Liability is death to preparedness and community response,” Gore said.

Looking into some sort of neighborhood “buddy” system is one option, coordinating with durable medical device companies, Meals on Wheels (although privacy concerns are another issue, one county official noted), and transportation services for the homebound are other options that were mentioned.

Gore ended the hour-long discussion by asking members to make disaster-planning a priority and to collaborate with NACo and state associations. “Be a part of the movement,” he said.

Building relationships

After a flood hit Ellicott City in Howard County, Maryland. in 2016, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman said it was important for him to be out on the streets to find out what residents needed. The flood hit after 6 inches of rain fell in less than two hours.

“The lieutenant governor came, he lives in the county, and said ‘this looks like a disaster movie,’” Kittleman said March 5 in a panel discussion on dealing with disasters at the NACo Legislative Conference.

Kittleman said it is important to be on the ground communicating daily with residents and to quickly communicate with state officials.

Every day after the flood, Kittleman said he hit the streets in his jeans to meet with local business owners to see how the county could help. And at night, Kittleman said he and the county’s emergency manager would drive through residential areas and stop to talk to residents.

“I was on the streets for days,” he said. “We were responsive and I think that made a difference.” The flood also had a silver lining among local business owners who said they bonded over their challenges during getting back on their feet after the flood.

Kittleman, who was elected in November 2014, said that his staff told him shortly after his election that he needed a disaster plan, but he didn’t want to think about it. But they did review the plan and were ready when they were later hit with 28 inches of snow, and later a tornado and the flood.

Keeping the lines of communication open with state officials is key and contacting them immediately can only help a county when disaster strikes, Kittleman said. After the flood hit on a Saturday, he said a town hall was held on the following Monday with the governor.

Panel moderator Judd Freed, emergency manager in Ramsey County, Minnesota, said “even if you have a plan, you have to be able to adapt and change when needed.”

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