Sunday, August 18, 2013

Shelter Transition Teams

In June 2012 Tropical Storm Debby dumped over 25 inches of rain on the City of Live Oak, the County Seat of Suwannee County in North Florida. When I got to the State EOC the morning of June 26 I read Information Message #155 from Suwannee County on the EM Constellation Message System. The Message, titled "Evacuations/Roads", and posted at 0556 hours, read in its entirety, "Suwannee County is evacuating many many houses within the County as well as City of Live Oak, US Hwy 90 and Pine is waist deep... We are contacting local air boat owners and school bus persons to assist with evacuations." A quick check of Google Maps revealed that the intersection of "US Hwy 90 and Pine" was in downtown Live Oak.

The day before, seeing as it was "just" a Tropical Storm, I saw no reason to cancel my plane flight to Atlanta for the FEMA Region IV Individual Assistance Conference. Hmmmmm, I thought, after reading the message. I don't think I'm going to Atlanta. I called my good friend Ryan Logan at FEMA Region IV (woke him up) and gave him the bad news.

About 2 weeks later the Shelter Report for the state was down to one shelter open, in Suwannee County, with a population that had dropped to and stayed at around 50 people. Mike Delorenzo, the SERT Chief, declared in the State EOC that the priority for the disaster was to get the Suwannee County Shelter closed. I turned to Beth Boyd, the Red Cross liaison in the State EOC and said, "OK, Beth, get the shelter closed."

As the State Mass Care Coordinator that was about all that I could do. In the state of Florida, shelters are a local issue and getting everyone out of the shelter was the responsibility of the local authorities. Even if I wanted to help I had no resources to bring to bear on the problem. Bryan Koon, the Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, commented at the TS Debby "hot wash" that we took too long to get the shelter in Suwannee County closed.

I agreed, and started looking into possible solutions. I discovered a best practice that was utilized with some success during the Alabama tornadoes in 2011 and even (in some places) during Hurricane Sandy in 2012: the Shelter Transition Team. As we drafted Florida's new State Shelter Support Plan we incorporated the Shelter Transition Team concept into the document.

As we are all aware the introduction of a new concept into a plan requires development of a process for execution in a disaster and the acceptance and understanding of this new concept and process by the various stakeholders. The biggest stakeholders and beneficiaries of the Shelter Transition Team are the local emergency managers. I began introducing this concept to them at training sessions in October 2012 at well as at the Governor's Hurricane Conference and State Hurricane Exercise in May of this year.

The message that I communicated to the local emergency managers was that the process began when the County requested a Shelter Transition Team from the State. This would be done in the same manner that the Counties request any other resources from the state. When this request arrives at the State EOC the responsibility for coordinating this mission would be assigned to State ESF #6, Mass Care. That's me.

I do not have a cache of Jedi Knights in Tallahassee that I can send to the counties in response to this request in order to solve their shelter transition problems. The assignment of the mission to ESF #6 signifies two important things: 1) The County has asked the State for assistance in transitioning their shelter populations, and 2) The State Emergency Response Team (SERT) Chief has directed the State Mass Care Coordinator (me) to marshal federal, state and nongovernmental agency resources toward the outcome of moving all shelter residents to appropriate housing (as specified in the State Shelter Support Plan).

This is important to the County emergency managers (or so I have/will explain to them) because in a disaster closing the shelters is one of a list of problems they are wrestling with and the shelters may not even make the Top 10 on the list. Secondly, none of the federal, state and nongovernmental agencies that can bring resources to bear to get the people out of the shelters and into appropriate housing work for the County Emergency Manager. Third, the actions of the federal, state and nongovernmental agencies are seldom well-coordinated at the local (or even state) level.

So how would this Shelter Transition Team work at the local level? The process we are developing in Florida begins, as I said before, with a request by the County to the State. The second step is that the county either a) designates a local Shelter Transition Team Leader, or b) approves a local representative nominated by one of the agencies in the State Shelter Support Plan to be the Team Leader.

The Team Leader would become the local coordination point for all the agencies working to transition the shelter residents to appropriate housing. This coordination could be performed through regular meetings and/or conference calls. The Team Leader would also be in regular contact with State ESF #6 in order to exchange information and get assistance with resolving multi-agency disputes (which, in disasters, is a common occurrence).

I am under no illusions that getting any of this done in a disaster would be easy. FEMA and the American Red Cross are also big stakeholders in this process and we need to work with them to determine how they can help to make this concept work in Florida. I hope that we can get the detailed coordination finalized before we have to actually use this plan in a disaster.

With the peak of hurricane season approaching.... Well, this is one of my top priorities.