Children's Voice July/Aug 2006

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Management Matters

Preparing for Natural Disaster

Leadership, strategic planning, and rehearsal are critical when child welfare agencies prepare for hurricanes or other natural disasters.

By Robert F. Tywoniak

Planning for a devastating storm or other natural disaster is only one piece in the work of child welfare workers. Crisis is our business--not our crises but clients' crises. A major hurricane or other natural disaster is yet another crisis that could come our way as we do our business.

In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew hit South Dade County, Florida, I was working as the CEO of the Child Welfare Division of Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of Miami. Years before Andrew ever hit South Dade County, our agency had developed a hurricane plan--the government entity overseeing the child welfare at the time left it to agencies to develop their own plans.

Not only did our agency save up to 400 lives in one day in August 1992, we were able to keep all employees on the payroll, place and track all the children outside the agency and county where the devastation occurred, and come back online after rebuilding with an even stronger, more comprehensive program than before. Good leadership, strategic planning, rehearsal, and doing it all together were the reasons we successfully weathered the storm.

The process, not the final storm plan on paper, is what counts. Working together through all the steps of strategic planning, and rehearsing the plan together, makes the difference. The work my team did during the years before Hurricane Andrew paid off. When the storm hit, the staff already knew
  • what a storm is and what it can do;

  • how to address a storm's many challenges;

  • the contingencies to use when coping with the challenges;

  • that expectations may turn out wrong during the actual event;

  • how each person on the staff thinks and acts, especially under pressure;

  • who within and outside the agency can be counted on;

  • that leadership is a chain of command and that you might have to be in command when others are incapacitated; and

  • in Catholic Charities' case, knowledge of a good God who will give you peace of mind to get through it all.

Leadership and Strategic Planning

The leader of an agency must be the one willing to take responsibility, while empowering others to do their jobs. He or she must be able to delegate and take command as appropriate and determine when either is needed.

The staff's safety and that of their families comes first. Part of the agency plan must include each staff member's own personal plan for his or her own family. Staff can't perform if they don't know their families are safe.

True strategic planning must take place and involve everyone in the organization in some way and at some point. Once the cycle of planning is complete, it begins again and is ongoing.

Securing records and material should be included in the strategic plan, including the security and physical protection of all records, documents, agency history, electronic and paper files, equipment, tools and materials the agency uses in the care and therapy of the clients, clients' possessions, and anything else that can fly, float away, or get wet. Back up all records, physically and electronically, keeping one set on site at the agency, and another set in a safe location elsewhere.

The children in your care must know their things are safe and will be available later, but they must also be prepared for the possibility of total loss. Such preparations might be a usual course of treatment at the beginning of storm season. Have clinical staff develop this part of the plan.

The Evacuation Plan

Even if your agency is not located in an evacuation zone, find an alternate location that could serve as a shelter if you need one. In most areas of the country, institutions must find their own shelter for a storm. Institutions aren't welcome at public shelters.

A mini version of everything that makes your program work needs to go with your children and staff in case of an evacuation, including a portable set of client records and medications. Also, bring enough clothing, outdoor camping bedding, toiletries, towels, and hospital-type bathing materials, such as sponges. Children should be allowed to take a toy and stuffed animal. Staff should bring portable games to keep the children occupied for long periods.

Your designated shelter should have enough food and water to last two to three weeks. Make sure you have what you need to purify water--this can be done using bleach at the rate of eight drops per gallon of water. All food must be edible without cooking, and be sure to have food on hand for those with allergies.

Post-storm plans are important too, including possible replacement of program participants. Get to know and develop contacts at public and private agencies that are nearby but outside possible storm strike zones and who would be willing to help you. State agencies will also have to be notified and involved in your long-term strategies.

Teaming Up

Staff assignments need to be developed as a part of the storm preparation plan. People should be clear about their roles and duties and when they should perform them. Consider having three teams: a prestorm team, a storm team, and a post-storm team. Rehearse their functions before storm season each year, and assess outcomes. This is meant literally--practice right down to moving everything.

When a hurricane watch goes into effect, the agency leader communicates the emergency and the pre-storm team begins its job. This team makes all the preparations, including moving all the prepared provisions into the prearranged place of shelter. That shelter might be right where the agency is located or at another location outside the evacuation zone.

The executive or program director in charge must stay in touch with the leaders of the pre- and post-storm teams. The executive is the de facto leader of the storm team; at the same time, however, he or she must get some rest.

While the prestorm team is preparing the agency for the emergency, the agency must continue serving the children as usual, and the other two teams are preparing their personal property and families for the storm.

When the storm warning goes into effect, the actual storm team relieves the prestorm team. The storm team will stay sheltered with the children throughout the storm and thereafter until help arrives and relocation takes place. Carefully select this team. Each member must be ready to endure all the challenges of care under the most difficult circumstances. These people might be those who have no family to be concerned with. If they do, they must be confident in their own family plan. They should even be permitted to bring family members with them if necessary.

The storm team may be larger than a normal shift would be. Members will have to take turns resting and performing various tasks. The storm team should include line staff, such as house parents; administrative staff; and clinical staff. Again, think of this as a mini version of the agency going on the road, even if you are staying in place. The agency CEO would ordinarily be the leader of this team.

The leader of the agency should brief the children and staff together before moving the children or getting them settled down if remaining onsite. The agency leader should explain the impending storm situation to the children and what the experience may be like. All the logistics and seriousness of the matter must be firmly explained. They must be assured everything is being done to protect them and that they must follow all instructions. The agency leader takes charge of this process and establishes authority. From that point on, the chain of command must be clear.

Once the children and staff have been briefed, then move into the shelter. Be sure your plans include contingencies in case the storm compromises the safety of the shelter. Activities for the children will keep them occupied as the storm makes its final approach.

During the height of the storm, everyone might be huddled together. Singing songs together, gently talking to the children, or telling stories can be calming. Having a radio tuned to local broadcasts is helpful to know what is going on. In Florida, the broadcasters are trained to be honest yet calming. Knowing what is going on helps everyone to keep in control of the situation. This can be reassuring, if not life saving.

Immediately After the Storm

Once the storm passes, the leader of the shelter facility and the leader of the children's agency should assess the physical and emotional well-being of everyone and everything. With the storm team, they will make adjustments in living space and how services will be delivered. They will communicate with the outside, including the post-storm team, and assess transportation conditions. Note that local authorities might not want anyone traveling on the streets until further notice--stay tuned to that radio.

You may receive a visit from a coroner. Yes, he or she needs a head count and should be made aware of your agency's plan in advance. Know too that telephones might not work because cell towers and phone lines are down; a ham radio might be good to have on hand.

At this point, the post-storm team should go into action. Someone needs to scout the home facility and assess whether the children and staff can return. Everyone may have to stay at the shelter instead. The scout must communicate with the storm team, and decisions must be made about whether to return. During geographically large storms, no relocation might be possible for some time after the storm. Be prepared to survive for one or two weeks.

During Hurricane Andrew, we had taken shelter at a nursing home facility, which sustained some damage during the storm. Immediately after the storm, our post-storm team was unable to reach us, so a member of my storm team and I left the shelter to inspect our agency facility, which turned out to be uninhabitable. After waiting more than 24 hours, community partners we had established outside the storm strike zone arrived with transportation to take our program participants and staff from the nursing home to another shelter that was not damaged.

With the help of the community partners, storm team staff, and a few post-storm team members, all the children who had been staying in our residential facility were placed in foster homes outside the storm strike zone. The storm team remained on duty until all the children were placed. We made arrangements to continue monitoring the children in the new placements. All portable records and medications followed the children.

Rebuilding and Recovery

Be ready for a few things during the first day or two after the storm--first, the needs of your staff. If they are not cared for and supported, they won't be able to care for the children. Be sure they are bathed and fed before the children. This might sound inappropriate, but staff will step up and care for others when they too feel safe and cared for. Agency leaders must make sure their own needs are taken care of as well so they can have the energy to perform their duties.

Second, be ready for mutiny. Yes, mutiny. We are all human beings with needs and emotions. Even the best of staff will be overwhelmed by emotions and concerns. They will want answers to their questions, and the leader must be ready to process all of that. Admitting one's own concerns and fears is helpful, yet working with staff and displaying leadership to develop a new plan on the spot will help rebuild unity and loyalty. The children may be involved in this in some way too. The leader's ability to speak with inspiration is helpful as the process begins.

Third, accept help from others, including your community partners. Partners should be able to listen to you and help you plan for your staff and clients. They should be trusted to relieve you at some point, if necessary. Remember, the leader and staff still need to get back home and assess their own personal situations.

Finally, your storm plan should include a contingency for gathering staff together afterward. Days later, getting back together to support one another and to begin planning anew are important. In my case, it was an opportunity to push ahead with plans that had been considered for years.

With good leadership, strategic planning, rehearsal, and doing it all together, things may actually turn out better after the storm for your agency as well.

Reverend Robert F. Tywoniak is Director and Pastor of the St. George Parish Social Ministry, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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