How Inequality and Politics Influence Government Responses to Natural Disasters

By Fernando Tormos, Gustavo García-López, and Mary Angelica Painter

After a hurricane strikes, governments and electric utility companies go to work restoring a sense of normalcy to their communities. Typical disaster recovery efforts include providing food and shelter to the displaced and medical services to the injured, and turning the power back on. While governments and electric utility companies claim that they do not give preferential treatment to specific groups while performing these services, people on the ground have questioned whether such a claim is true in practice. Who is right? When disasters occur, do governments and utility companies place a priority on helping some while neglecting others?

The 2017 hurricane season provides ample evidence of the inequalities that mark disaster recoveries. Within one month, hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria devastated communities in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, making that season one of the costliest to date and one of the deadliest in U.S. history. Hurricane Maria caused a complete power outage in Puerto Rico, the largest blackout that America has ever incurred. This outage is a tragic natural experiment that provides a unique opportunity to understand prioritization during disaster recovery processes. Although a variety of factors determine the groups to which governments and utility companies are most responsive, our research shows that social vulnerability and support for the ruling party are key predictors.

Some Communities are More Vulnerable to Disasters

Everyone is vulnerable to disasters, but some are more vulnerable than others. Vulnerability refers to a community’s exposure to risk, loss, and harm; in particular, social vulnerability describes how resilient a community is, and how the attributes of a particular population will shape not just the impact of a disaster, but also dictate that population’s ability to recover from it. Socioeconomically marginalized groups exhibit marked social vulnerability: they tend to be less prepared for disasters, experience greater impact from those disasters, and—tellingly—also elicit less government responsiveness during disaster recoveries.

Our research shows that, in practice, socioeconomic conditions and partisan politics influence responses to disasters—even though governments and utility companies claim to prioritize the needs of critical infrastructure like hospitals and emergency operation centers. We employed statistical models to explain the distribution of power restoration crews after hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, and showed that communities with greater numbers of socially vulnerable people waited longer for crews to begin working in their neighborhoods. Our research also found that power restoration crews took fewer days to reach communities that supported the ruling party than those that did not.

How Can Governments and Utility Companies Improve Disaster Recoveries?

To create a more level playing field, governments and utility companies can take steps to achieve equity in disaster response, and save lives in doing so.

  • Prioritize vulnerable communities: Current disaster resource distribution practices tend to leave those in the greatest need behind. Governments and electric utility companies can reduce loss of life and suffering by officially prioritizing vulnerable communities, as they do with critical infrastructure.
  • Invest in disaster preparedness in vulnerable communities: Inequality during disasters is often a reflection of existing inequalities. Governments and utilities can enhance disaster preparedness through greater investment in vulnerable communities on flood prevention, modernizing electric grids, and transitioning away from a heavy dependence on fossil fuel for energy generation.
  • Monitor political disparities: Utility companies and governments tend to coordinate disaster recoveries without much oversight from the communities they are serving (since those communities without power and have a reduced capacity to communicate.) Increased monitoring of how disaster resources are distributed can bring public scrutiny to bear on disaster response, and reduce the tendency to give preferential treatment to communities that are politically supportive of the ruling party.

Preparing for and Recovering from More Frequent Extreme Weather

Climate change is expected to make extreme weather more frequent and damaging. When hurricanes strike, outages will ensue. These outages are more than just inconveniences; they tend to result in loss of life, increased hospitalizations, medical supply shortages, and disruptions of healthcare systems. Socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, and especially those people within them who rely on electricity-dependent medical equipment and procedures like ventilators and dialysis, are exposed to greater risks and tend to wait longer for restoration. Prioritizing vulnerable communities during disaster preparedness and recovery holds the potential to reduce loss of life and alleviate their burden of powerlessness.

How Social Workers Play A Role In Disaster Relief

Federally declared disasters have increased by 40% over the last 15 years, according to the Clinical Social Work Journal, and internationally, those numbers are higher. Over just the last two decades, natural disasters have doubled.

In the past, the term “disaster” was poorly defined, leading to emergency response plans that were a one-size-fits-all solution to multifaceted problems. This approach left survivors with fewer options for critical care, especially in the area of mental health.

The National Center for PTSD recently redefined disaster as “a sudden event that has the potential to terrify, horrify, or engender substantial losses for many people simultaneously.” It went on to further define disasters based on type, differentiating between natural and man-made disasters. If more widely accepted, this definition opens the door to opportunities for mental health care in these urgent situations, giving social workers a vital role in relief, recovery, and community resiliency.

Responses in Disaster Relief Social Work

Social workers can offer a variety of mental health services in the immediate aftermath of disasters. Traditional psychotherapy performed by therapists is known for its long-term approach involving session work and trust building, allowing patients to share their trauma narratives. However, when social workers are called up for active disaster relief, their critical and immediate intervention skills are far more necessary for psychological triage. Among them are:

  • Psychological first aid (PFA): PFA assists those in crisis in the aftermath of disaster. It relieves initial distress in an effort to promote short- and long-term coping. This sometimes includes crisis intervention and counseling.
  • Family care: Family social workers help families during crisis. They aid survivors in locating the services they need to overcome post-disaster challenges and repair their lives.
  • Mental health media communications: This field provides voices and vital points of view for under-represented or disadvantaged populations.
  • Resilient community capacity building: This includes creating response plans for various groups.

Above all, the pledge to “do no harm” is the first aspect of every skill.

Assistance During Disaster

Disaster relief programs typically consider the short-term needs of survivors in order to identify the best allocation of resources and promote beneficial coping in the aftermath of tragedy. Social workers assist in these programs in a number of ways, including:

  • Case management: Social workers locate appropriate resources for clients, making sure they receive the services they most require.
  • Case finding: Case finding involves providing survivors with information about the programs available to them. Many are unaware that such services are available or fear stigmatization for participating in them.
  • Outreach: Social workers performing outreach increase program locations in order to allow services to be more accessible.
  • Advocacy: Using connections within various relief organizations, social workers advocate on behalf of clients to qualify them for additional services.
  • Brokering: When acting as a broker, social workers link client systems to the resources they need, fulfilling client needs throughout a multiplicity of programs.

Ultimately, all these methods allow social workers to disseminate information, refer clients to services, and assist them in qualifying for resources in disasters.

Disaster Relief Social Work in Practice

In the U.S., the American Red Cross and the Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program have provided almost half of all social workers participating in disaster relief programs. Depending on the type, duration, and severity of disaster, the challenges and requirements of social work change. When preparing ahead of an impending calamity, social workers may be identifying and organizing supplies, assisting with area and hospital evacuations, or even determining which patients can or should be moved.

During an actual emergency, the needs of the afflicted tend to take precedence over one’s own needs. Moment-to-moment changes in operational requirements contribute to the notion that social workers must remain flexible. They must be able to go where they are needed when they are needed there. The following are some real-world examples of social workers in the midst of disaster.

HURRICANE HARVEY

The residents of Beaumont, Texas, were witness to devastation on a massive scale. In the fall of 2017, Hurricane Harvey descended on Texas and Louisiana, and with it came ruined homes and wrecked lives.

In the end, the storm caused over $125 billion in damage and took 107 lives. The end of the storm was nowhere near the end of the damage. Long-term psychological trauma is a reality for many survivors, especially children. According to a recent survey in the aftermath of a hurricane, nearly 3.4% of respondents were found to have suicidal thoughts. The assessment, response, and counseling of suicidal behaviors were critical concerns that social workers on the ground were able to address.

HURRICANE MARIA

In September 2017, the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, was deployed to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The crew included social workers and mental health providers for inpatient and outpatient mental health services. These providers developed protocols to educate the ship’s staff in treating psychiatric patients in addition to treating patients on board.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES

The Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative was established in Sonoma County after the devastating Tubbs fire to offer survivors tools for dealing with trauma. In the wake of the fires, The Guardian reported that many social workers were funded by grants from FEMA, which allowed them to connect with nearly 70,000 people in Sonoma County alone. These social workers were able to identify and refer thousands to much-needed mental health services.

Research Applications

Further study of the impact of disasters on the mental health of survivors is critical to the practice of disaster relief social work. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has emphasized that children are especially vulnerable in disaster conditions, as they take their emotional and behavioral cues from adults.

Anxiety and startle responses, typical symptoms in children that have survived hurricanes, require therapeutic activities to help them cope in healthy ways. According to NASP, other disasters can prompt separate trauma responses. Tornadoes can cause survivor’s guilt due to their suddenness, whereas wildfires, given their advance warning, can cause anxiety. Negative effects stem from displacement, property destruction, and the concerns associated with biological threats to one’s health.

Work Together to Prepare for the Next Big Storm

Year by year, hurricanes are growing stronger and more frequent. We are witness to these changes as we watch two catastrophic storms devastate the southeastern United States in as many weeks.

This month, Hurricane Michael slammed the Florida Panhandle, southern Virginia, and the Carolinas. The massive storm killed at least 16 people, flooded cities, highways, and rivers, and reduced much of the region to rubble.

Barely two weeks ago, Hurricane Florence killed at least 36 people in three states, forced thousands to evacuate their homes, dumped record floodwaters on North Carolina, created power outages for hundreds of thousands, and killed millions of farm animals. The most recent damage estimates put the economic toll at a staggering $100 billion, once accounting for property damage, medical costs, and lost wages.

Natural forces emboldened by climate change continue to overwhelm our outdated stormwater management practices and inadequate urban planning, putting us in a precarious position. Short-term economics have often driven development where considering long-term environmental impact was needed instead. When it comes to handling the effects of more storms, we’re not as prepared as we think.

As we assess the damage done by Michael, Florence, and other storms, the shrewdest move is to prepare for the next big storm — and the one after that. Municipalities, businesses, and individuals can brace for the next storms by focusing on the following areas:

Additional Pollution Prevention

Florence and Michael disrupted two of North Carolina’s biggest industries: coal power and hog farming. This created environmental trouble and the potential for health problems. Duke Energy officials in North Carolina said slope and landfill erosion caused stormwater with coal ash — containing heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury — to spill into Sutton Lake. Watchdog groups have expressed concern about the effect on water quality.

Floodwaters also breached multiple hog lagoons, designed to keep solid waste from polluting sources of drinking water, in at least two North Carolina counties, causing varying degrees of damage. The North Carolina Pork Council says the state’s other 3,000 hog lagoons are holding up, but the state’s Department of Environmental Quality will have to perform inspections.

The landfills, dams, and lagoons containing pollutants need to be stabilized and reinforced. Cities can reduce landfill washout by using gravel stabilizers, terracing, drainage diversions, and other measures to safeguard their slopes against erosion. To avert overflow of detention ponds like hog lagoons, companies can add pond depth, secure the perimeters, and place impervious barriers around the site.

Adjusted Damage Estimates

Because of climate change, we can count on heavier rain and shorter intervals between storms increasing flooding risk. Data is still being gathered for Michael, but we know that for Florence, greenhouse gas emissions and warmer weather made for more intense rainfall. When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston last year, the city matched its annual rainfall (typically 50 inches) in a matter of days.

Cities, businesses, and infrastructure planners need to set new damage expectations, as “500-year storms” arise with increasing regularity. Adequate planning and preparation may seem expensive overall, but it’s more expensive to deal with damage in the aftermath of flooding. It’s important to remember there’s no immediate fix or silver bullet. Instead, we need long-term solutions first acknowledging the problem and then planning for it.

Broader Public Education

Weathering the next storm requires a public education process that touches all sectors on the solutions available to help protect communities against floodwater. In my hometown of Houston, the community has come together with a discussion on the web, in public forums, and in community meetings.

The Houston Green Building Resource Center provides a public resource at the permitting building, providing engineers, architects, contractors, and homeowners with techniques on how to reduce flooding on the macro and micro levels, including information on building codes, permeable and sustainable materials, and engineering technologies to incorporate. Examples include elevated construction, or raising buildings above the rising floodplain, and permeable paving techniques that can reduce the extreme weather’s impact on the earth’s surface. Both are cost-effective improvements worthy of broader public education.

The intensity of storms like Michael and Florence raise the bar for planning and preparation. Governments, businesses, and communities must plan ahead and work together during the quiet times before the storm returns.

How Not to Be a Victim When Natural Disaster Strikes

How people on the East Coast fare as Hurricane Florence reaches landfall will depend in large part on what they have done to themselves to prepare in advance, says Beth Gazley, professor in the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Disaster resilience begins, she said, by understanding how environmental change has kicked up the force of these storms, by making them bigger, slower and wetter.

“That means your past experience with storms — or your house’s past experience — may no longer be valid,” Gazley said. “Climate-induced hurricanes are a different animal.”

Beth Gazley

It also means residents should think in terms of elevation rather than just wind speed when they consider their risk. “Rain flows downhill,” Gazley said. “Most of Hurricane Harvey’s victims in Texas were flood victims. Evacuating low-lying areas, regardless of your distance to the coast, will be crucial.”

Disaster resilience also requires acknowledging our collective responsibility as citizens to prepare for major storms, said Gazley, a co-founder of Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute.

“Ask any emergency responder what he or she wants from us,” she said, “and you’ll get the same answer: ‘Make a plan and assemble an emergency kit. We can help you best when you help yourself.’ Each of us needs to start that planning effort in advance of a storm. How are you going to charge your cellphone if the power is out for days and possibly weeks? Think through these questions in advance.”

One of the most active Red Cross campaigns, Gazley said, is about family and workplace emergency preparedness. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has excellent resources at www.ready.gov.

But even in the best of circumstances, and even when we implement good emergency plans, some people will need help.

“Fortunately it’s a natural human inclination to help others,” Gazley said. “So give. Give today, not next week — in fact, I just made a gift on the www.redcross.org website. Make an unrestricted gift so the charity can use it where it’s most needed.

“Then renew that gift next year, and the year after, even when a disaster is not happening. The most successful charities depend on long-term support. That kind of financial stability gives them the chance to train and retain the kind of experienced professional emergency response staff we all need.”

Gazley said people who don’t give to established charities like the American Red Cross because of their high reported overhead costs are making a mistake.

“For heaven’s sake, don’t give to the disaster charity with the ‘lowest overhead,'” she said. “The nonprofit research is pretty clear that charities with low overhead may fail to thrive in other important ways, like investing in fundraising or in experienced senior staff.”

Lessons in the Current Puerto Rican Disaster

A man tries to repair a generator in the street after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Those who have worked in disaster areas know that coordination and transport can be difficult, but with the USS Comfort leaving Puerto Rico after admitting less than 300 patients when there is unmet need isn’t a great sign of success. Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, 2017. The Comfort, which is essentially a floating specialty hospital arrived in Puerto Rico on October 3rd.  November 8th, the Comfort was restocked with supplies but then departed shortly thereafter for “no apparent reason” after providing outpatient services to somewhere around 1500 patients, according to the DOD.

…”I know that we have capacity. I know that we have the capability to help. What the situation on the ground is … that’s not in my lane to make a decision,” he said. “Every time that we’ve been tasked by (Puerto Rico’s) medical operation center to respond or bring a patient on, we have responded (Captain of the USS Comfort to CNN).”

The death count is still hazy, and there is difficulty in confirming how many died during- or as a result, of the disaster.  One group is doing a funeral home count because information is difficult to obtain. CNN has found through a recent investigation that the death toll appears to be more than 9 times the official government report. 

Coordination on a micro, mezzo and macro level must come from multidisciplinary sectors to problem solve. There are many good people working to rebuild Puerto Rico, but there is far too much apathy, throwing up of hands, and of course, corruption.  Many of the Social Work Grand Challenges are highlighted in Puerto Rico alongside the UN Global Goals.

The Whitefish linemen are making $41-64 per hour to restore power to Puerto Rico’s Grid, but the US government is being billed for more than $319 per hour. Whitefish just called a strike because they have not been paid. This, of course, is having a terrible impact on those who are in the most need.

Where do you come in?  We tend to think of trauma on a psychological level: family members and friends who are missing, grief, anxiety, and depression due to home and job loss as well as connecting with those close to you, each processing the trauma differently.

On the mezzo level, we are working with smaller groups and institutions, of which there are many in disaster or mass casualty events.  Local churches, schools, nonprofits and local chapters of larger scale organizations attempt to unite in the local area to help speed services to those that need it most.  Often this is where many of the challenges lie.  Each organization has their own protocols which may not match up with larger scale efforts of the government or international organizations.

On a practical level, resources are often short on a disaster scene- there are not enough clinicians to meet with clients individually, at least not for more than a few minutes at a time. We revert to what the American Red Cross refers to as “Psychological First Aid”.  Human networks through nodes (like shelters) provide a sense of community and belonging when all is lost, with individuals acting as brokers between networks that previously didn’t have ties.

Ground efforts can be supported by a drone equipped with a camera to see if there is a possibility of reaching a scheduled neighborhood by car, saving countless minutes that matter.  The aerial shots from 3 days ago may no longer be relevant. The water may have receded but now a home has landed there, blocking road access.

The volunteers mapping from satellite images can instantly beam their work from anywhere (tracing homes, schools, possible military vehicle parking areas or temporary helipads) while teams on the ground stare at a water covered road, unsure of what is beneath. Life saving choices are made with options and all levels working together. This is how neighborhood Facebook groups saved lives- they were the eyes on the ground in their own neighborhood that identified who was in the most danger.

Facebook may no longer be the hippest new technology (we are nearing the decade and a half mark) but it is arguably the most ubiquitous and well supported (crashes rarely). Many survivors could make a post but were unable to call or text from the same device. An important component to the multi-level view is the understanding that macro tools like mapping serve micro and mezzo levels.

Being a survivor in an active disaster can quietly morph into anxiety, depression and survivor’s guilt.  Being able to participate in practical support efforts can boost the well being of survivors as well. Friends of friends of friends and influencers in social networks have proven to be incredibly powerful.  It’s what happens when “mixed networks” collide.

As we move to a macro level, there’s a realization that there is a great deal of organic movement in even the best planned days for rescue effort workers.  Do you stop here where the need is great (and went unreported) even though it’s blocking you from reaching the mapped area that your team has already scheduled? This is where technology for good can make the difference.  Depending on your training and background, you may make a different choice.  Who is in charge of the government response, and how do we help change course if it is failing?  How do we know if the efforts match our resources?

The simple answer is that we are there to communicate it with others, on all levels—including the virtual one. This may mean volunteering for rescue efforts, collecting tampons in your hometown, or using your own technology for good by mapping for workers on the ground that are not sure what lies beneath—you are helping to ensure their safety and mental well being.  In turn, you get to pass that knowledge into your own networks.

NASW Puerto Rico Chapter Sends Message Detailing Dire Situation on Island

Photo Credit: @Washington Post

This message from the National Social Work Association (NASW) Puerto Rico Chapter was sent to Mark Nichols, NASW manager of chapter services, in a series of cellphone text messages during the afternoon of Oct. 3. It has been slightly edited. We wish to share it with members and the wider social work community.

NASW will convey this message to members of Congress who are social workers and soon give information on how we can assist social workers in Puerto Rico:

Thank you for your support. Our main concern is there are no communications. There are no cellular phones that work well. All the island is without power —  there is no water and little produce.

President Trump came today and just said we are costing too much money for the United States government. The suicide rate is too high triggered by the suffering from lack of basic needs. During this period about 12 persons committed suicide (and there are likely more that are not confirmed).

We are citizens of the United States of America, we defend the principles of democracy, we fought in World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Our people went to Vietnam without any preparation. Most of those who were drafted were only 17 years old and had no understanding of the English language. We fight very bravely with no support. Even the Congress recognized the 65th Infantry Regiment as an important part of (American) history. The man who planned to rescue the Americans who were hostages in Iran by the Carter administration, he was a Puerto Rican. 

Actually, we need support from the federal government, not just 4,000 soldiers around the island. We need to repair the electricity. We need water and food. There are people in the shelters without hope. Simply, there is no place to go. 

Mr. Nichols let the social workers know about our situation. Let the newspapers describe all the justice we need. I trust our nation and I strongly believe that a call to the Congress will help make the effort to help not a political issue, but a social justice issue. As I explained, the communications (are very bad). Thank you very much.

For information contact Greg Wright, NASW Public Relations Manager, at 202.336.8324 or by email at  gwright.nasw@socialworkers.org

Rescue to Recovery Stages in a Red Cross Disaster Deployment

Roy was my partner for most of our deployment with Red Cross on the Disaster Mental Health Team in Texas. We spent many hours on the road mostly on our own, with the exception of “ride to the office” or “back to the shelter” caravans, which could be quite crowded as there were few available cars to ferry us all from the staff shelter to Headquarters for the day.

Conversations stayed rooted mostly in the present, even with kids occasionally Face-timing us in the car when a signal would pop up. I know that he’s been a social worker since 1970 and that he has been married nearly as long. Getting to know each other on a disaster mental health deployment is a different way of knowing someone, but knowing them well regardless. Similar relationships are built with the people you sleep a couple of feet from in the staff shelter.

Roy: “Wasn’t there a band people used to like called the Dead Heads? People liked them but I think they’re dead.”

Roy, In response to a question about breakfast: “Right I’ll give you another rotten orange in the morning.

Kristie: “No thank you; that coffee was sufficient.”

Roy, just go ahead and get in the wrong lane again for this right turn.” (Texas “turnarounds” can be a nightmare).

There was the normalcy of the city center recovering, demonstrated through open shops and Home Depot’s parking lot was nearly at capacity. Starbucks opened, there was a carafe in HQ for one of the lucky teams.

Vulnerability and exploitation were visible not far from the city center. Compounding issues plague those who struggled prior to the disaster. Living paycheck to paycheck when there is suddenly no paycheck creates a domino effect of financial disaster. You can only call the companies to beg for mercy if your phone works, if there are enough bars available to connect you. The smell is rising in neighborhoods, and the question, “What is that smell?” was more frequent today. Mold grows rapidly, and you can smell it from the street.  Weeks have passed since the initial disaster, but it is just beginning to unfold for many people do not have flood insurance.

I ended up making a call to the Attorney General’s office regarding landlords who are refusing to remediate damage and demanding rent from those who cannot pay (or live in their home), with the threat of their things being sent to the dumpster. The police were empathetic but said that it’s a civil issue and in a disaster needs to go to the AGs office. So the wet carpet stays with children living inside, and they lack healthy food- maintaining on what looks like a vending machine diet.

There are contractor company scams that further exploit the exploited, and many workers are being brought in from surrounding areas without protective gear (notable lack of face masks) and clearly without reasonable hours or meal contracts.

On the other end of helplessness and anger, I felt in awe of all of the volunteers and what they do. They respond at the crack of dawn to Headquarters to work with a team using colored post it’s on the wall to map progress and hot spots for the day. Knowing that it’s likely that at the end of the day, they will have gotten sidetracked from the need that was directly in front of them, feeling regret for not making it back to the places they know are in desperate need but are now blocked by factors beyond their control.

Headquarters experienced an evacuation- someone screamed, “Get out! Get out of the building!” It turned out to be some off-gassing cones, but everyone went right back to work outside while standing outside the building waiting for clearance entirely unfazed.

Volunteers will talk it out with each other back at the shelter late at night, eating cold leftovers from the ERV (feeding) vehicles. Informal meetings run from their cots which will make a difference the next day in how resources are allocated because drivers are sleeping next to mental health, nurses, and those doing communications assessments. If you end up both eating and securing a space in line at the shower trailer behind the civic center before it’s too late, it’s something of a miracle. With a lot of contamination and illness going around, it’s best to just throw away the shoes on your way out.

As for the people we served, we realized the depth of desperation that is held for those in areas without good water. Your clothes were washed away or were contaminated, and even if you could wash them, you can’t because your washer and dryer is flooded (one family had some kind of snakes in theirs) as is the laundry mat down the road.

We brought restaurant workers wearing their last items of clothing and shoes serving people in the only community restaurant to open back up in Port Arthur in a certain radius, knowing that those clothes too, would soon be dirty. So what then? How long will this all take? While you may see signs of recovery in the city center, it’s clear that this is going to take so much longer for others, and the rural areas are barely touched by “helpers”.

The depth of this disaster isn’t something that we are used to covering, Katrina taught us a few things that are applicable, but each disaster is its own, and this scale is unimaginable. Puerto Rico is now unfolding as we watch on our screens, in some sort of mass denial of scale.

Most of us can sit comfortably behind our devices and all caps “GET TRUCK DRIVERS!” and while I can personally imagine the barriers that they have in distribution as we just experienced them in Harvey, you just can’t know unless you’re there and are using all of your five senses.

Facebook Introduces a New Center for Crisis Response

Facebook announced that their crisis response tools, including Safety Check, Community Help, and Fundraisers, will be accessible in a new center on Facebook called Crisis Response. Beginning today, people will also be able to see more crisis-related content, such as links to articles, photos and videos posted by the Facebook community, from crises around the world where Safety Check has been activated.

Since the first Safety Check tool in 2011, Facebook has continued to develop a number of crisis response tools to better serve its community. When there is a crisis, people use Facebook to let their friends and family know they’re safe, learn and share more about what’s happening, and help communities recover. People will be able to access Crisis Response on Facebook in the upcoming weeks from the homepage on desktop or from the menu button on their phone. They will see the following tools when they’re on a crisis page:

  • Safety Check: an easy way to let your friends and family know you’re safe. It will continue to work the same way it does today and will be featured at the top of each crisis page if you are in the affected area.
  • Links to Articles, Photos and Videos: crisis-related content from public posts can help people learn more about a crisis.
  • Community Help: people can ask for and give help to communities affected by the crisis.
  • Fundraisers: let people create fundraisers and donate to support those affected by the crisis and nonprofit organizations helping with relief efforts.

As part of the single resource hub, Facebook will also include links to articles, photos, and videos from public posts so people have access to more information about a crisis in one place. Safety Check activations and related information may also appear in News Feed to help provide additional details about a crisis.

Facebook strives to continuously provide people with helpful information to keep them safe and help communities to rebuild and recover.

NBC Nightly News Headline on the American Red Cross is Deeply Misleading

Photo Credit: @Redcross Twitter

Recently, NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt headlined a story entitled “American Red Cross Fails to Pay Funds Promised to Many Harvey Victims”. The report discussed the failure of the American Red Cross to disburse funding to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. As a volunteer with Red Cross, this report raised my concerns for several reasons, and I immediately contacted them in order gain some insight into the causes preventing the Red Cross from distributing emergency funding.

According to the American Red Cross website, the primary function of the charity is “providing relief to victims of disaster, blood to hospital patients, health, and safety training to the public, or emergency social services to U.S. military families.” For more information on how the American Red Cross spends its donations, you can visit their website. After speaking with staff, I am now able to provide some clarity on the issues causing the delay with the disbursements.

Website Crashed

The website crashed from the 1 million displaced people trying to access it (plus repeat tries). Not only is the Red Cross attempting to aid those displaced by Hurricane Harvey, they are also handling an equally major crisis in Florida due to Hurricane Irma. Both Hurricanes have left a destabilized communications infrastructure with limited wifi and cell phone access in which to process aid. Everyone in flood areas is also still fighting the shaky access and embattled communication infrastructure in place. Many residents were showing up at the Red Cross HQ in hopes of gaining connectivity through the Red Cross. Unfortunately, the office has been experiencing the same connectivity issues.

Headlines about “High Overhead” feed into Confusion for Donors

When donors don’t understand that upgrading systems and IT staff, hiring volunteer coordinators and trainers, and other administrative staff duties are necessary to make it possible to handle 1 million plus displaced victims in multiple disasters at the same time, it breeds confusion and misinformation. The American Red Cross is not a governmental agency, but it is responsible for the bulk of relief efforts when a disaster happens. With Congress continuous cuts to FEMA, the American Red Cross will not be able to continue mass scale relief if they are denied donor support due to misinformation. This is a dangerous way to share information about life-saving charities. Without the American Red Cross, who else is equipped to handle natural disasters on this scale?

Emergency Funding

The $400 funds allocation from the Red Cross is an attempt to fill the gap that insurance and governmental delays create for desperate families. However, the reality is that it is dangerous to have volunteers standing on street corners handing out cash. However, this crisis may help the Red Cross identify innovative ways to distribute funds to help expedite funding to families. Currently, funds are being distributed to local centers like Wal-Mart for a more orderly disbursement. However, each disbursement center in affected areas is also still dealing with their own infrastructure issues.

At the end of the day, the American Red Cross is an organization run by 90% plus volunteers working at least 15 hours per day in harsh conditions because they want to help others. More paid employees would help with consistency and efficiency (deployments are only weeks long), but it would also create higher overhead in which donors don’t want.

With all of the disaster pile-ons we are experiencing with even more looming in the distance, we need to take a good look at our charities and how we expect them to function like a governmental agency or corporation while relying on donor support. How does the Red Cross run operations that cover a million people in a single disaster without the funding to hire people at salaries that will attract those with the talent and the willingness to risk such public scrutiny?

Food For The Poor Rushes Emergency Supplies to Caribbean Islands Destroyed by Hurricane Irma

COCONUT CREEK, Fla. (Sept. 13, 2017) – Food For The Poor is rushing emergency relief to Barbuda, St. Maarten, the U.S. Virgin Islands and other areas in the Caribbean to meet the dire needs of those who survived Hurricane Irma, which slammed the islands as a Category 5 storm with 185 mph winds last week.

The first shipment of lifesaving aid was sent from Caritas Antilles Chancery Offices, the charity’s trusted partner in St. Lucia, and arrived in the Dutch territory of St. Maarten on Monday.

Two other longtime Food For the Poor partners, Matthew 25: Ministries and Feed My Starving Children, are assisting us in this endeavor.

Critical items supplied included beans, MannaPack fortified rice meals, blankets, rubber boots, personal hygiene items and agricultural tools.

“At times like this, it is important to reach out to our brothers and sisters with whatever we can supply, and let them know that someone cares for them,” said Robin Mahfood, President/CEO of Food For The Poor. “The poor do not have the means to take care of themselves after a storm, and it can be devastating. Our generous donors are working with us to meet their most basic needs. This is a life or death situation.”

CNN reported on Wednesday that at least 44 people died when Irma battered the Caribbean last week, destroying homes and leaving thousands of people homeless. And what little food or water that was left is running out, leaving residents vulnerable.

On Barbuda, most homes and businesses were destroyed, according to the Prime Minister’s office. On St. Maarten, which is split between Dutch and French Territory, an official said up to 90 percent of the island had been destroyed. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, many who had not evacuated before Irma were huddled together in buildings that had no roofs. With roads impassable, they had to walk for miles to pick up food and water dropped off by U.S. military helicopters.

Haiti appeared to escape the brunt of Irma, whose outer bands raked its northern coastline. The storm dumped several inches of rain, which can cripple deforested areas of this island nation that are prone to devastating mudslides capable of wiping out entire neighborhoods.

Because communications are extremely difficult in the string of Caribbean islands after Irma’s wrath, it wasn’t immediately clear how many people simply weren’t able to contact others to let them know if they survived.

The most critical items needed are food, water, shelter, and medicines, said Marcia Haywood, regional coordinator for Caritas Antilles Chancery Offices in St. Lucia.

“It’s all of us working together to help those who really need it,” Haywood said.  “It’s a privilege and an honor to be able to do that.”

To support Hurricane Irma relief efforts, cash donations are best. Checks can be mailed to Food For The Poor at 6401 Lyons Road, Coconut Creek, FL 33073. Please make checks payable to Food For The Poor and include the source code SC#104162 to accurately route your donation to the relief effort.

Food For The Poor, one of the largest international relief and development organizations in the nation, does much more than feed millions of the hungry poor primarily in 17 countries of the Caribbean and Latin America. This interdenominational Christian ministry provides emergency relief assistance, clean water, medicines, educational materials, homes, support for orphans and the aged, skills training and micro-enterprise development assistance, with more than 95 percent of all donations going directly to programs that help the poor. For more information, please visit www.FoodForThePoor.org.

How to Volunteer for Hurricane Irma Disaster Relief

As Hurricane Irma makes landfall in Florida, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal agencies, along with non-profit, faith- and community-based organizations, and volunteers will be working together to provide services and assistance to help those affected by the destructive storm.

“Right now where we need citizens, neighbors helping neighbors, is in the life safety mission,” said Brock Long, FEMA Administrator. “The objectives are clear: restore power, ensure lifesaving and life sustaining supplies, provide emergency medication, and maintain security. This response and recovery will take the whole community…”

FEMA expects thousands of volunteers to be needed to support mass care activities for evacuation shelters in Florida, and potentially other southeastern states in the path of Hurricane Irma.

Individuals seeking to volunteer in Hurricane Irma’s aftermath should not self-deploy, but rather, coordinate with local and state organizations to ensure appropriate volunteer safety, training, and housing. Volunteers acting alone and attempting to enter impacted zones may find themselves turned away by local authorities.

In Florida, the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FEDM) is coordinating with volunteer organizations across the state and partnering with the American Red Cross (ARC) to provide shelter operations training to volunteers and AmeriCorps grantees.

Those interested in volunteering to assist in Florida are encouraged to learn about opportunities at www.volunteerflorida.org, the website of Volunteer Florida, the state’s lead agency for volunteerism and national service that administers federal, state, and local funding for service programs.   Individuals looking to volunteer at shelters, should complete shelter operations training online and submit a registration form. Since the damages are unknown as of now, potential volunteers are asked to seek opportunities with charitable organizations that are currently stocking supplies.  The website is frequently updated, so please check back for new information.

If you are a nurse and available to volunteer, please email BPRCHDPreparedness@flhealth.gov to volunteer.

Individuals who register online and have completed the training, should note that if not contacted, please do not unexpectedly travel to disaster areas to volunteer, as it will create a burden on organizations and first responders. Volunteers should only go into affected areas with a specific volunteer assignment, proper safety gear, and valid identification.

VOLUNTEERING IN THE SOUTHEAST IN RESPONSE TO HURRICANE IRMA

As the storm is anticipated to affect other areas in the Southeast, the need for volunteers is expected to extend beyond Florida.  Anyone looking to get involved after Hurricane Irma has passed, is encouraged to volunteer with local and nationally known organizations. A list of volunteer websites are available at www.nvoad.org.

Volunteer generosity helps impacted communities heal from the tragic consequences of disasters, but recovery will last much longer. There will be several volunteer needs in the coming months and years, so please continue to sign up after the disaster.

Hurricane Irma is still considered extremely dangerous, with the potential to impact additional areas than Florida. As the situation changes, needs may also change in these areas, so please continue to monitor traditional and social media channels to learn more.

United Way’s 2-1-1 Information Service Stands Ready to Help Those Impacted by Hurricane Irma

With Hurricane Irma on course to hit Florida, United Way stands ready to help storm victims with 2-1-1, an information and referral service that can provide local information about shelters, food and water, health resources, and other needs related to hurricane recovery or anything else. Anyone in need of assistance should call or text 2-1-1 to connect with a trained specialist for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

2-1-1 centers from to have stepped up to help people in Irma’s path. As a national network, 2-1-1s will continue to answer calls and texts from residents in the Southeast even if centers in the region close due to hurricane damage. If phone services are impacted, residents can text “Irma” to 898-211.

2-1-1 specialists can answer questions regarding the following:

  • Shelter locations
  • Where to get food
  • Where to get supplies
  • Help accessing disaster programs
  • Other non-life threatening emergencies

“In the wake of the devastation from Hurricane Harvey, we are once again preparing our 2-1-1 call centers to help people impacted by this dangerous storm,” said United Way Worldwide U.S. President Mary Sellers. “We urge anyone in crisis to reach out to us with question or concerns throughout the weekend.”

Further, in anticipation of the devastation expected to impact the region, United Way has created the United Way Irma Recovery Fund to support local communities in the and affected by Hurricane Irma. United Ways in the affected areas will continue to raise money locally and respond to emerging needs as appropriate. United Way’s Irma Recovery fund will complement those efforts, help smaller United Ways who may not have the capacity to create their own fund and provide a single clearinghouse for individual and corporate donors who want to help.

United Way’s focus will be on mid-and long-term recovery and 100 percent of individual donations given to the United Way Irma Recovery Fund will be used to meet storm-related needs in the affected areas. The money will be distributed to United Ways in the affected areas of the Southeast United States, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and trusted partners in other affected areas of the Caribbean.

United Way has a history of serving as the cornerstone for long-term recovery after natural disasters including Hurricane Katrina, as well as flooding in Tamil Nadu, India. United Way is laying the ground work for mid- and long-term recovery in the areas affected by Hurricane Harvey and Irma, which is expected to take several years. The United Way Irma Recovery Fund is just one more way the organization will continue the fight for every person in every community.

To donate or volunteer, please go to www.unitedway.org.

Hurricane & Flood Handbook: After the Storm

Take it from someone who has seen 27 inches of water lap against the living room walls: plan ahead. No photo album should live lower than three feet in a cabinet. Children’s cheerleader pom-poms and refrigerator art are no longer stashed on the closet floor. And, never throw away old phone books — they can raise Grandma’s heirloom drop-leaf just high enough to save it. (Remember, phone books swell and get even higher when wet!)

There’s a lot you can save. But you’ve got to plan, while the sun is shining.

If house flooding occurs

Should a sustained storm bring record rainfall to your area, your home may take in water. Even if you are not near a river or bayou, your neighborhood may be so saturated that water simply has no place to go but in and up.

If your street water is climbing into your yard and/or if your neighborhood is prone to flood:

  • Put on rubber soled shoes or rubber boots. Do NOT go barefoot in your home.
  • If possible, move your car off the street into the garage.
  • Remove gasoline cans and flammables from the garage or put them high into the rafters of your garage.
  • Grab your pre-prioritized list of items that must be moved higher (onto a tabletop or countertop), such as documents, photos and computers.
  • Unplug all electric cords from wall sockets in anticipation of water rising over the socket.
  • Turn off electricity at the breaker if you believe that water will approach sockets.
  • Remove lower drawers from dressers and place higher — they swell shut if wet.
  • If you have a one-story home, go into your attic while the water is still low and check for a roof exit if necessary. Bring with you any necessary tools you would need to create an attic opening to your roof.
  • Keep exterior doors closed. Unless you are near a river or creek, most rising water does NOT enter through doorways, but through ground saturation. So chances are, it will come from everywhere at once. Doors need to remain closed to keep out animals and insects that are groping for places to land.
  • Keep battery-operated communication devices on for updates on weather and evacuation boats that may be coming through your area.
  • Do not drink water from the tap until you have been advised that the water system was not contaminated.
  • If your house is flooding, your toilets won’t flush. Have a temporary “chamber pot” designated. Camping toilets are good to have on hand.

When it’s over

  • First, call family members to let them know where and how you are.
  • Then, call the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for assistance in your area.
  • If you have flood insurance, call your agent.
  • Pull out your camera and take pictures of the damage. Visual aids assist agents, if you have flood insurance.

The aftermath of a mess

Depending on the amount of water, the type of home and your geographic area, these tips may help you save belongings:

  • Hardwood Floors: (sitting on screeds, not pre-fabricated) every 3-4 feet, remove a plank and save it. Wood is porous and swells when wet, making the planks “pop” out and appear unsalvageable. But wood dries out and returns to its normal position. Wait several weeks and then replace the missing plank. Removing planks immediately after a flood allows the foundation and wood to dry out faster.
  • Remove carpet AND carpet padding immediately.
  • Remove the molding around the floors that are against the wall and save. This speeds up drying.
  • Rent or purchase at least two dehumidifiers if possible, and run them 24 hours for several days. They truly do pull out tremendous moisture.
  • Borrow fans and turn the air conditioner colder for several days.
  • Sheetrock must be cut out at least three feet above the water line AND insulation removed as well. Insulation is highly absorbent.
  • Swab down the gutted exposed boards with a mix of one quarter cup bleach to a gallon of water to prevent mold.
  • Clean-up equipment: When using sprayers, wet vacs, vacuum cleaners and other cleaning equipment, use an extension cord with a ground fault circuit interrupter or install a GFCI in the electrical circuits in damp environments.

To save wet documents

  • If valuable papers have gotten wet, chances are you won’t have time to pull them apart and find a large enough area to let them dry. If they are partially drying, they will stick together and rip.
  • So, take the entire file or stack of papers and resubmerge them briefly in water. Then wrap them in plastic and put them in freezer bags and freeze them until you have time to deal with them. They stay preserved and, for some reason, thaw without sticking together or ripping.
  • Saving photos: resubmerge and gently pull apart. Lay them on a flat surface to dry. Remember, photos are developed in liquid in the first place.

Cleaning up mold

After a storm or flooding is over, mold can be a serious problem. Act fast to prevent or clean it up:

  • Protect yourself from injuries during cleanup by wearing
    • Hard hats,
    • Goggles,
    • Heavy work gloves,
    • Waterproof boots with steel toes, and
    • Earplugs or headphones (if you’re working with noisy equipment).
  • Clean up and dry out your home quickly after the storm ends — within 24 to 48 hours if you can.
  • Air out your house by opening doors and windows.
  • Use fans to dry wet areas.
  • Clean wet items and surfaces with detergent and water.
  • Fix any leaks in roofs, walls or plumbing as soon as you can.
  • Throw away anything that you can’t clean or dry quickly. For example, you might need to get rid of carpeting and some furniture.

If you notice mold, clean it up with a mix of bleach and water:

  • Never use bleach in a closed space. Open windows and doors first.
  • Put on rubber gloves.
  • To make your cleaner, mix 1 cup of household bleach with 1 gallon of water.
  • Clean everything with mold on it.

Disinfect Toys

Remember that anything that’s had contact with floodwater could carry germs. To keep your kids safe, make sure their toys are clean:

  • Make a cleaning fluid by mixing 1 cup of bleach in 5 gallons of water.
  • Wash off toys carefully with your cleaner.
  • Let the toys air dry.

You may not be able to kill germs on some toys — like stuffed animals and baby toys. Throw out toys you can’t clean.

Surviving a summer night without power

Trying to sleep in Houston without air conditioning when “low” temps are in the 90s could be used as a medieval torture device. Try misting your sheets with water to stay cool. Combined with a battery-powered fan, this technique won’t exactly mimic A/C, but it may allow you to sleep for a few uninterrupted hours.

The dangers of standing water

Flood waters and standing waters pose various risks, including the risk of drowning (even in shallow water), infectious diseases, contact with sewage and chemical and electrical hazards, and the potential for injuries. Flood waters can displace animals, insects, and reptiles. To protect yourself and your family, be alert and avoid contact. In addition, flood waters may contain sharp objects, such as glass or metal, that can cause injury and lead to infection. Avoid standing or moving about in flood waters as much as possible.

DEET: Your anti-mosquito protection 

Along with your other first aid preparations, have on hand good bug spray containing DEET — the one ingredient proven to thwart disease-carrying mosquitos.

Patrol the perimeter

Not only will wind damage a fence, heavy rains can waterlog fence posts, causing the fence to lean or collapse long after the storm passes. Check the entire perimeter of your fence for damage as well as potential damage and shore up any weak spots. Before letting pets roam freely in the yard, also inspect the perimeter for low-lying spots and areas that might have washed out during heavy rains, leaving easy-to-dig escape routes for adventurous animals. Also, inspect the yard for any broken glass or other sharp debris before leaving pets unattended.

Looters

Looters are unfortunately a very real threat after almost any disaster. Some of them are armed; all of them are nasty. Unpleasant as conditions are, you may need to decide whether leaving the area is better than losing everything of value you have left.

Dangers with generators: carbon monoxide poisoning

If you are using a combustion engine generator to provide electricity and AC while your power is out, think twice, and certainly do not put it inside your home. Generators can cause death through carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.

CO is an odorless, colorless gas that can kill or seriously and permanently injure people who inadvertently breathe in the noxious fumes emitted from generators in an enclosed space.

During hurricane season, emergency rooms see a rise in cases of CO poisoning from people bringing generators into their homes to provide power, often for air conditioning.

Food safety after a hurricane

Keep food fresh

  • If your power is out, keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to keep in the cool air.
  • Put a block of ice in your refrigerator if you expect the power will be out for more than 4 hours. It will keep food cool longer. Wear heavy gloves when handling the ice.
  • Even if it’s partially thawed, you can still cook or refreeze frozen food as long as you can see ice crystals or if it’s still 40°F (degrees Fahrenheit) or lower.

Throw out spoiled food

Get rid of food if it:

  • Is in a can that’s open, damaged or bulging.
  • Has a strange smell, color or texture.
  • Needs to be refrigerated but has been warmer than 40°F (degrees Fahrenheit) for 2 hours or longer. Foods that need to be kept cold include meat, eggs, fish, poultry, and leftovers.

Clean off canned food

If you have cans of food that came in contact with floodwater or storm water, you need to clean them off to make sure they’re safe to use. To get germs off the outside of the cans:

  • Remove the labels.
  • Dip the cans in a mix of 5 gallons of water and 1 cup of household bleach.
  • Label the cans with a permanent marker so you know what’s inside.

Water safety after a hurricane

Ask local officials or listen to the news to find out whether you can drink tap water or use it for washing. If it’s not safe, use bottled water if you can. If you don’t have bottled water, there are some things you can do to kill germs in dirty water and make it safe to drink. For example:

  • Bring water to a rolling boil for 1 minute.
  • Use household bleach. Add 1/8 teaspoon of new, unscented liquid bleach to 1 gallon of water. Stir well. Let the water sit for 30 minutes before you drink it.
  • Use water-purifying tablets. Adding these to water make it safe to drink. Follow the product’s directions.

Feeding your baby

If you have a baby, protect her from germs in unsafe water. You can:

  • Keep breastfeeding if that’s what you normally do.
  • Use canned or premixed liquid formula.
  • Use bottled water to make formula from a powder or concentrate.

If you don’t have bottled water, use boiled water to make formula. Make sure the water has cooled before mixing it with formula and giving it to your baby.

Only use treated (disinfected or purified) water to make formula if you don’t have access to bottled or boiled water.

Exit mobile version