Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mass Care in Richwood, West Virginia

A frontal system got stuck over the hills of West Virginia the night of June 23, 2016 and caused historic flooding over the central and southern counties of the state. Twenty three people were killed, including a 2 year old who's lifeless body was found by search and rescue workers on the Greenbriar golf course. On June 24 the American Red Cross, in response to the flooding, deployed me from my home in northern Virginia to Charleston, West Virginia.

I worked on the response for 2 weeks. I spent almost half of that period in the little town of Richwood. I want to tell you a little about what happened to me there and, more importantly, what I took away.

The sign at the limits of the city of Richwood.
Dr. Bob Henry Baber was sworn in as the Mayor of Richwood five days after the storm. According to the business card he gave me, Bob Henry (as he likes to be called) is a "Poet, Novelist, Environmentalist, Speaker, Creative Writing Teacher and Mosaic Arts Instructor." He also told me that Richwood was a town of 2,000 souls in which 99% of the children were on free or reduced school lunch.

The flooding happened on a Thursday night and into Friday morning. I arrived in West Virginia that Friday night. When I reported to the Disaster Relief Operation (DRO) on Saturday morning the number of staff assigned to the operation had more than quadrupled from the day before. By Monday morning the staffing number had tripled again, and by Wednesday had doubled again. Ultimately, over 700 staff and volunteers were working on the operation. All of the volunteers came knowing that they would be sacrificing their 4th of July weekend.

Of the 1500 or so homes judged destroyed by the flooding, the most were in Kanawha County (598), followed by Greenbriar County (460). Nicholas County, in which Richwood resides, had the third highest total, 141. Through the misfortune of geography Richwood was more inaccessible than the affected towns in the other counties.The homes in Richwood were just as flooded. There just weren't as many of them, and the town wasn't as easy to get to.

On June 29th the DRO divided the response into 4 Districts and I was assigned as the Mass Care Lead for District 3. That day I drove from the DRO headquarters in Charleston to the District headquarters in Beckley, just south of the Fayette County line.

The division of the affected counties in West Virginia into Districts by the Red Cross Disaster Relief Operation.
The morning of Thursday, June 30th I rode north on US 19, a four lane divided highway that I came to know very well in the next week. Just south of Summersville we turned East on WV-39, a twisting, turning, harrowing, 8% downgrade that led to the Cherry River valley and the town of Richwood.

Viewed from a mountainside the Cherry River Valley and the town of Richwood are pretty. The damage is hidden.
At first glance flood damage is not as dramatic as that created by hurricane or tornado winds. With a few exceptions, like the mobile home in the picture below, the damage is hidden inside the structures. By looking at the high water marks and the topography of the valley I could tell that much of the city had been affected.

A mobile home washed against a bridge over the Cherry River in Richwood, WV.
After the flood waters receded the people of Richwood were inundated with a second flood: donations and volunteers. Different people and organizations stepped up to the task of receiving, sorting and distributing the thousands of items brought in on trucks, trailers and automobiles. The Moose Lodge, across from City Hall, and the 1st Baptist Church on Walnut St. were two such locations that I visited. The largest repository was the High School Gymnasium, a red building down by the river.

Donated goods at the high school gymnasium in Richwood, WV.
The Moose Lodge, untouched by the flooding, was a central location for feeding and donated goods and we initially established a fixed site for feeding there. Access to food was an issue in Richwood since they had no grocery store and the only restaurant I could find was a Dairy Queen, a few blocks from the Moose Lodge where I stopped when I wanted coffee.

Food pantries, supported by food banks, have the traditional role of feeding the hungry in blue-sky days. The food pantry in Richwood was by the river and was innundated by the flood. I worked with the food pantry and the food bank people to start the road to re-establishing this service. The Baptist kitchens and the Red Cross ERVs couldn't be there forever. In order to transition to long-term feeding we had to get the food pantry back in operation. I was able to start this transition process before I left.

Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicles feeding at the Moose Lodge in Richwood, WV.
A Type 1 Field Kitchen from the North Carolina Baptist Convention was assigned to support District 3 and operated at the Restoration Fellowship Baptist Church in Mt. Nebo, just off US 19 south of Summersville. I ate a lot of meals from that kitchen. The meals prepared by the kitchen were delivered into the 4 counties of the District by Red Cross ERV's. The meals are kept hot by insulated food containers called Cambros. You can see the Red Cambros stacked on pallets in the picture below.

Positioning loads for Red Cross ERVs at Kitchen #3, operated by the North Carolina Baptists, in Mt. Nebo, WV. 
We were fortunate to have a Team of Americorps Volunteers assigned to support us in Richwood. Many of the inhabitants of the city were elderly and didn't have vehicles. The Americorps Volunteers delivered meals from the ERVs to them. With the aid of a Red Cross truck and a supervisor, the Americorps Volunteers also loaded donated supplies from the gymnasium and delivered them into the community.

Mayor Baber was undaunted by the challenges his community faced and even thought that the disaster could be an impetus for change. The last time that I saw him, just before I left West Virginia, I told the Mayor about Pearlington, MS. I told him how Pearlington had been devastated by the passing of the eye of Hurricane Katrina over the town in 2005. I told him how the many people who came to Pearlington to help had left with a tiny piece of the city in their hearts.

Home in Pearlington, MS destroyed by Hurricane Katrina's wind, rain and surge.
Someone set up a website dedicated to the recovery of Pearlington and the people who had responded. On the first annual anniversary of the storm the city inhabitants had a celebration with a Low Country Boil of shrimp, crab, potatoes and corn-on-the-cob. Through the website they invited all the responders and I came.

I told the Mayor that Richwood should do the same thing. Have a celebration a year later and invite everyone who had helped. When I spoke those words I'm not sure that Bob Henry, a far-sighted a man as I think he was, was able to see that far into the future.

He did give me his email and maybe next year, when the months have healed some of the damage of that night, I might remind him. I'm not the only one who left West Virginia with a piece of Richwood in my heart.

Monday, May 30, 2016

At the National Response Coordination Center

The National Response Coordination Center (NRCC) is housed on the Mezzanine Level of FEMA Headquarters on C Street in Washington, DC. "When activated, the NRCC is a multi-agency coordination center located at FEMA Headquarters. Its staff coordinates the overall Federal support for major disasters and emergencies, including catastrophic incidents and emergency management program implementation." I've been in the NRCC many times but last month I got the opportunity to work in the NRCC when it was activated for an exercise.

The National Response Coordination Center.
Unlike the emergency operations center in Tallahassee, FL where I spent numerous hours over the last 18 years, the NRCC has a low ceiling. Like the State EOC in Florida, however, every chair in the NRCC is assigned to a role and the agency designated to fill that role. My job was to serve as the American Red Cross liaison to the NRCC. 

The State EOC in Tallahassee
FEMA provides the trained staff to operate the NRCC when activated. Most of the various federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations identified in the National Response Framework provide representatives to the NRCC so that we can perform the emergency management form of alchemy called multi-agency coordination. Because of the inevitable turnover in staff, and the fact that the NRCC is rarely activated, these agency representatives show up in the NRCC knowing something about their own agency but very little about how to operate in a multi-agency coordination center.

My case was a little different. Because of my background and the fact that I had been in my new job less that 6 months I knew more about how multi-agency coordination centers operate that I did about the Red Cross. That was okay. It was an exercise. We were all there to practice and learn.

When I was at the State EOC my view of the disaster was like flying over in a helicopter. Working in the NRCC was equivalent to viewing the Atlantic Ocean from a transcontinental flight to Europe. We took the Long View of the Big Picture.

Most of our activities revolve around responding to resource requests (provided to us by the FEMA Region) from the affected state or states  and creating reports for the Big Bosses about What Is Going On. The information we collect is built into reports that inform decision makers like the FEMA Administrator and ultimately the White House. 

I enjoyed working in the NRCC. Part of the reason is that the exercise had an interesting scenario. If I had spent 3 days waiting for a hurricane that fizzled my sentiments would've been different. What was really interesting was the perspective that I got from looking down on the disaster from the transcontinental airliner and how this affected my opinion about how state mass care coordinators should act when faced with large or catastrophic disasters. And that is what I want to talk about.

Most normal emergency manager people when faced with an overwhelming event naturally focus on the part of the job that is familiar to them. They see the situation getting out of control and struggle to wrest it back. They work with the resources that they have available to get the situation back under control. In most disasters this is the correct course of action.

In a large or catastrophic event the resources available are inadequate for the tasks. Getting these resources deployed is important but an even more critical task is communicating the type, kind and quantity of resource shortfalls to those outside the affected area who are able to provide those resources. If you're at the county level you need to let the state know what you need. If you're at the state you need to concentrate on getting those Resource Request Forms completed and submitted to the right FEMA person as soon as possible. 

In other words, if your jurisdiction is affected then you need to direct more of your attention to those external agencies who are mobilizing to provide support. If you're not telling these external agencies what you want, when you want it and where you want it sent they aren't going to wait on you. And you may not be happy with what you end up receiving. 

After requesting resources the second most important task on the state mass care coordinator's list in a catastrophic event is to help ensure all the stakeholders have a common understanding of the situation - a Common Operating Picture. The way to achieve this common understanding is to get everyone with a need to know on the same conference call every day. The state mass care coordinator is in the best situation to do this.

The purpose of the state mass care conference call is to gather and share information with all the mass care stakeholders within and outside the State EOC. Holding this conference call daily with the right agencies is critical to an effective mass care response. I cannot emphasize this point to much.

Mass Care Conference Call
When I was the State Mass Care Coordinator in Florida I always held the call daily at the same time: 10 AM. This allowed everyone to adjust their own meeting and conference call schedules so that they could participate in the state call. I also developed a State Mass Care Conference Call agenda/report that I emailed to all the conference call participants before the call. This document identified who I wanted to report on the call and also contained the latest mass care information from the State EOC. That way precious conference call time wasn't used reporting on information that was already shared in the document.

After requesting resource shortfalls and ensuring that all stakeholders have a common operating picture the third way that the state mass care coordinator can help his/her cause is by working to establish the mass care priorities for the response. The best way to do this again is through the mass care conference call. The means to this end is not by dictating priorities but by soliciting input from the key stakeholders and then working to achieve consensus. This is a tall order but the state mass care coordinator is in the best position to achieve this goal.

The sooner that the state mass care coordinator can establish a mass care conference call in order to 1) determine mass care resource shortfalls, 2) gather and distribute a common operating picture, and 3) establish mass care priorities the better the response will be. Achieving these objectives will enable those of us outside the affected area (in the NRCC, the Regional Response Coordination Center and the Red Cross Disaster Operations Coordination Center) to do a better job of suporting the survivors on the ground in the midst of the disaster.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Estimating mass care resources: the example of the Kumamoto earthquake

I've been trying for over 20 years to estimate the amount of mass care resources that would be required in a disaster. In 2004 when Florida was hit by 4 hurricanes in a 6 week period I had multiple opportunities to try and figure this thing out. One thing I learned pretty quick in the 6 weeks was that when someone wanted me to provide a mass care resource they wanted it RIGHT NOW. Or, preferably, yesterday.

I also learned that in the State Emergency Operations Center during a hurricane response we weren't able to do "right now." For certain things that were already in the State Logistics Staging Area (like bottled water) we might even be able to do "tomorrow." More likely it was going to be day after tomorrow. And if they wanted something that we hadn't already ordered it would be, well, days until they would get it. That is if the requester was lucky and everyone, including me, did everything right.

There was a lot of things that I remembered and a lot of things that I forgot after Charlie, Francis, Ivan and Jeanne paid us all a visit. My big takeaway was that we needed to be able to estimate mass care resource requirements before the damage assessments were completed and in some cases, before the event actually happened.

How in the world are you going to do that? you may ask. Think about it. If a Category 5 Hurricane is lined up on Miami and forecast to hit there tomorrow we don't need to say, "Well, as soon as the damage reports are compiled, probably a few days after the storm hits, we'll know what we need to order. We'll just have to wait until then to figure out what we need."

We have to do better than that.

The things we need to order are always the same: cots, field kitchens, shelter managers, bottled water. What we don't know are what numbers we need to put in the quantity blocks of the requisitions. What frequently happens are conversations like this:

MASS CARE GUY: I need cots.
MASS CARE GUY: I have no idea.
LOGISTICS GUY: "I have no idea" doesn't fit in the quantity block of the requisition.
MASS CARE GUY (MAKES UP A NUMBER): What about 10,000?

I've had those conversations during a disaster. More than once, I'm afraid to say. But what could I do? There wasn't a manual or instruction book explaining how to do all this stuff I was doing. I decided that there had to be a better way of doing things than making up the numbers.

After 10 years of talking, explaining and arguing with some knowledgeable mass care people we've come up with a process to estimate mass care resources. The process is crude and needs a lot of refining, but guess what? Doing it this way is better than making it up.

The demand for mass care resources after an event is based on three factors: population, intensity and vulnerability. The population numbers we can get from the Census. To estimate intensity levels we developed this chart:

Table to estimate event intensity.
What we do next is estimate the number of people who were affected by each intensity level. For hurricanes we have the Saffir-Simpson Scale.  The U.S. Geological Service puts out PAGER Alerts after significant earthquakes. The basis for measuring earthquake intensity in these Alerts is the Modified Mercali Intensity Level:

The PAGER system provides fatality and economic loss impact estimates following significant earthquakes worldwide. This information is usually available within hours of the quake and provides an immediate estimate of the number of persons affected.  The USGS put out a PAGER ALERT for the Kumamoto, Japan earthquake that happened several weeks ago. The PAGER looked something like this:

The PAGER showed estimates of the number of persons affected by MMI level. Using the Event Intensity Table I came up with the number of persons affected by High (194k), Medium (1,410k) and Low (2,865k) intensities. I entered these population numbers into the Mass Care Planning Tool spreadsheet that we've developed to estimate mass care resource requirements

Remember: the demand for mass care resources is a function of population, intensity and vulnerability. Using the Intensity Table and the PAGER we were able to estimate the population affected by intensity. From these numbers we need to estimate the % of people who need to be fed and sheltered, for each intensity level. The percentages would vary according to the vulnerability of the people.

In some places, for example, the percentages for sheltering would be 10% for High, 5% for Medium and 1% for low. There are different percentages to estimate the feeding numbers. I had no idea what %'s to use to make a shelter estimate for a Japanese earthquake so I used the 10/5/1 that I had. The estimate using those percentages for the Kumamoto earthquake was 118,550 persons needing shelter (see Table below). Then I waited for the off chance that I might actually be able to get an estimate of the number of persons requiring shelter. also reported that: “Local media reported that nearly 200,000 homes were without power and an estimated 400,000 households were without running water…[and] 180,000 are without shelter.”

Now that I had some actual numbers of people needing shelter I could see that the estimate of 118k needing shelter was low.  The 10/5/1 shelter percentages that I used weren't high enough, and probably should have been higher.  In other words, their vulnerability to the hazard was greater than I estimated.

As we socialize this estimation process in the mass care community and people start using it in disasters our ability to estimate these vulnerability percentages will improve. The conceptual framework for this estimation process has been included in the new FEMA L418 Course: Mass Care/Emergency Assistance Planning & Operations Course. This concept is also included in the new (soon to be released) Red Cross Feeding Standards & Procedures.

 Like I said, the process is crude and needs a lot of refining. But take my word for it: estimating mass care resource requirements this way is one HECK of a lot better than making up the numbers.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The 2016 National Hurricane Conference in Orlando

This is the 11th National Hurricane Conference (NHC) that I've attended in a row. I missed the 2003 and 2004 Conferences because of my involvement in the Iraq war. I enjoy the Conferences not only because of the information disseminated in the sessions and exhibits but because of the opportunity to network and meet new people in the mass care community.

Red Crosser Katherine Galifinakis (l) and I presenting at the Shelter Transition Workshop
 on Thursday, the final day of the Conference.
On Monday I participated in a day long session on the Shelter Field Guide (follow the link to the National Mass Care Strategy website to obtain an electronic copy). This class wasn't on how to be a shelter manager but on how to best utilize the Guide to solve common problems presented during sheltering. We worked in groups to solve injects involving a church that decides to shelter survivors of a large local disaster. I learned a lot about not only sheltering but how useful the Guide could be.
Al Vliet from FEMA (standing) was one of the instructors for the Shelter Field Guide Training.
Tuesday, the second day of training offered at the conference, was meteorological day for me. Three of the four sessions I attended were taught by our friends at the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service. The highlight of the day was the session on Atlantic hurricane forecasting taught by noted Colorado State University forecaster Phil Klotzbach (see a copy of his presentation here). Phil gave us some hints on the upcoming hurricane season but is saving his final judgment for his soon to be released April 14th forecast.

My good friend from the Salvation Army Kevin Smith (seated, near right) listens
with me to noted hurricane forecaster Phil Klotzbach.
The highlight for Wednesday was our "Voluntary Agency Rap Session." The session was well attended and the discussion was dominated by the obscure, but important, process for using the value of donated resources and volunteer hours to aid state and local jurisdictions during federally declared disasters. When the President declares an emergency under the Stafford Act the federal government helps defray select costs of the disaster (normally 75%). In some disasters the expenses are so great that some local communities are hard pressed to pay their share of the remaining 25%.

This is where the voluntary agencies can help these communities by documenting the donated resources and volunteer hours that they contribute to the response and recovery. In some disasters this contribution can mean a lot of money to the beleaguered local jurisdictions. But like everything else with the federal government when it comes to money this means documentation, documentation and more documentation. The discussion in the Rap Session was centered around how the voluntary agencies could meet this documentation requirement. An example of a form developed in Colorado to document volunteer hours is shown below.

FEMA, who must accept and validate whatever  the voluntary agencies provide, does not want to be prescriptive about how the documentation is submitted. This is understandable but leaves the voluntary agencies guessing as to how they are going to meet this requirement. Everyone needs to come up with a process that FEMA will accept, but no one wants to take the time and effort during a disaster to gather detailed information that will be denied by some FEMA Reservist in a Joint Field Office 9 months later.

Thursday, the final day of the National Hurricane Conference, offered multiple mass care workshops. My favorite, of course, was the one that I offered as a topic last December and was accepted: Shelter Transition. Shelter transition is the multi-agency process by which survivors in a congregate shelter are moved to some sort of appropriate housing.

Shelter transition is an important and vital part of concluding a mass care response and yet there is no written guidance or instructions to aid the local emergency manager in performing this task. To help fill this void the Red Cross and FEMA are creating a multiagency working group to address this issue. I will be one of the Project Leaders for this effort. I will have more to say about this project at a future date.

This year's National Hurricane Conference was a success from my point of view. I learned a lot, cemented some mass care relationships and made some new ones. My farewell to everyone as I left the last Thursday session was one that I have made many times before:

"I hope that I don't see you this summer!"

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Shelter reporting

After 15 years as a State Mass Care Coordinator there is no topic more likely to launch me into an intense argumentative state than shelter reporting. Even as I write now I must pause frequently and take deep breaths. I was wondering why I haven’t written about it before and my emotional reaction at even reading the topic makes me understand why. I know from personal experience that many other mass care practitioners feel the same way.

Shelter reporting during disasters is the process of identifying which facilities are open to host survivors who need “a safe, secure and accessible place” to spend the night and tallying the number of persons who are in each facility. In many disasters no shelters are opened and the shelter population is zero. During the evacuation for Hurricane Frances in 2004 120,000 persons were in 384 shelters in 56 counties, a Florida record that still stands.

So why all the trauma and angst over a simple little report? Because it’s not simple and it’s not little and most of the time the report is all screwed up.

When I started as the Mass Care Coordinator in Florida in November 1999 the Division of Emergency Management had a Lotus Notes database that was the platform for all the emergency messages entered by the State Emergency Response Team and the counties. The Lotus Notes platform had a separate database used for shelter reporting. All 67 counties in the state submitted their identified shelters to the state electronically and the 67 separate files were poured into this database.

One of my jobs during a disaster was to go into the database and open the shelters that were open, enter in the populations and close the shelters that were closed. This was a lot harder that it sounds.

Like everything else in my Mass Care Coordinator job there wasn’t a manual handy entitled “Shelter Reporting” that I could us as a reference. So we came up with a system and then improved upon that system through trial and error.

There were lots of errors.

In my mass care brilliance and urge to simplify complex problems I decided that the simple solution was to tell all 67 counties the information that we needed and then stand back and wait for them to comply. You can imagine the results. I wrote up the shelter reporting instructions to the counties on a one page document and developed state ESF6 procedures that when a disaster started we were to fax (FAX!!!) the document to each of the affected counties. I also put in the procedure that if the counties didn’t respond to our fax then we were to call them and give them a gentle nudge.

“Hello, this is Mike Whitehead up at the State EOC. Can I talk to whoever does your shelter reporting? Did you get our fax? No?”

We were fortunate when we started that the disasters didn’t involve a lot of counties. But the process was laborious, labor intensive and had to be repeated. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

We were also fortunate that the Lotus Notes database was easy to use. I could take the average state worker that volunteered to come in and help us during activations and in five minutes show them how to access the database and update the populations. Then I would give them the list of counties they were responsible for, a phone, a chair and a computer and step away with confidence that the job would get done.

I also learned that the constituency for shelter numbers during a disaster was wide and deep. As I accumulated days in the EOC as a mass care coordinator I could not help but notice that I would be questioned about the shelter count by one or more persons within 5 minutes of my arrival in the morning at the EOC. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

I’m not saying that the report isn’t necessary. Over the years I have come to believe in the importance of accurate shelter reporting. The number of shelters and the populations within those shelters is the single, best indicator of the level of distress that the particular jurisdiction is enduring from the disaster.

Governor Bush, in a way, made my shelter reporting problem both harder and easier by mandating that the list of open shelters in the Lotus Notes database be placed on a web site for everyone on the Internet to see. Then when I walked into the EOC I could respond to everyone’s shelter question by saying, “Go look on the website.”

In fact, I stood before packed EOCs and showed them on the gigantic screen behind me the button that would take them to the shelter count webpage.

“No one should ever have to ask me what the shelter count is,” I would intone in my most firm, this-is-the-real-truth voice. “The best information we have is up there on the web site. Go to the site and look it up.”

Of course, for the rest of the day, friends and strangers alike would stop me as I strolled through the EOC and ask, “What’s the shelter count?”

During the six (long) weeks of the 2004 hurricane season, in addition to all the other problems that I had, my time was consumed by the shelter reporting issue. My weary answer of “Go look on the website” to the never ending queries that greeted me EVERY SINGLE DAY of the 42 day 2004 hurricane season was rewarded with the response. “I did. But are those numbers right?”

So. We had enough problems getting the simple facts straight and now you want to bring this into the mix? What is good? What is bad? What is right? What is wrong? What do I look like? A philosophy teacher?

Pause in writing to take more deep breaths.

Patience, grasshopper. Does anyone ever really step into the same river twice? The water that I step into today is different than the water I stepped into yesterday.

Governor’s aides aren’t into philosophy. They don’t understand why the shelter number submitted to them this morning is different than the shelter number handed to them for the Governor’s noon hurricane briefing at the EOC. Or why the shelter number in the Red Cross news release is different than either of the numbers previously submitted to the Guv.

Sometime during the 2004 hurricane season (or it may have been the 2005 season, it all starts to blur together now) I was summoned from my critical mass care coordination duties on the EOC floor to another room in the building to appear before Governor Bush himself. This was the only time that I was asked to speak to the Governor on any topic, emergency management or otherwise. I was accompanied on this mission by my friend Ray Runo from the Department of Health. Ray was responsible for gathering the information on the special needs shelters, which he submitted daily to the ESF6 staff, who entered the information into the Lotus Notes database.

The Governor was very polite. He wanted to know why the shelter numbers were in conflict. This was a very reasonable question and Ray and I gave very reasonable answers. I told him that the database gave the best information that we had at the time and as soon as we got better information we updated the database.

“So what do I have to do to see the current shelter count?” Jeb asked me.

“The shelter count is available to everyone on our website,” I replied.

“Really? I didn’t know I could get this on a website.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. “You ordered that this was to be done and we did it.”

Maybe he forgot. Governors are busy men and make lots of decisions. Anyway, he was happy and we were happy and Ray and I returned to our more pressing duties.

The net result was that after 42 days of intense shelter reporting practice we were able to work the kinks out of the system and were able to claim that Florida had the best shelter reporting of all the disasters in the history of humanity. Or words to that effect.

A big breakthrough came when (I’m not sure exactly where in the chronology this happened) we discovered that the Red Cross was also collecting shelter numbers for the shelters they operated (the great majority) on a database operated at the Capital Area Chapter right there in Tallahassee. Duh. Chris Floyd, the Emergency Services Director for the Chapter, gave us access to his website (, I still remember that) and we manually transferred the Red Cross data into our Lotus Notes database.

Yes, that was a duplication of effort by much easier than faxing all the counties and calling them when they didn’t respond.

In 2006, after we had worked through much toil and travail to develop a serviceable and easy to operate real-time shelter reporting system, Florida decided that they were going to discontinue the Lotus Notes database and move to a different system. Good grief, said Charlie Brown.

That was about the time that I heard about the National Shelter System. And how I came to hear about the OTHER National Shelter System. How can the nation have two National Shelter Systems? Wouldn’t that cause confusion? Wouldn’t that make the already difficult job of coming up with one, correct shelter population count for a disaster even more difficult?

Well, that’s what happened.

I have been reminded (just last week, in fact) of how sensitive this topic is to many people. In fact, we have a saying in the national mass care community: do not discuss religion, politics or the National Shelter System(s) at the dinner table. (Actually, I’m not sure if we actually have this saying but if we don’t, we should.)

Once upon a time, in the dark days after Hurricane Katrina, the American Red Cross created a National Shelter System so that the nation would never again have the problem of not knowing how many people were being sheltered across this great land. Money was invested to create a web-based software system that could be utilized by Red Cross staff and volunteers across the nation.

After the Red Cross system was created, deployed and in use FEMA decided to spend money to create a web based system to track how many people were being sheltered across this great land. FEMA decided to call this system the National Shelter System.

I only bring this up because in 2007 I was searching to replace our beloved, battle-tested and easy-to-use Lotus Notes system that the State was going to take away from us. The way I saw it, we had 3 choices: 1) Buy a new system, 2) use the Red Cross NSS, or 3) use the FEMA NSS.

After investigation I came up with the following information: 1) the state had little if any money to spend on shelter databases, 2) the Red Cross system was deployed and in use by staff and volunteers across the nation, 3) the FEMA NSS was still in development, housed within the armor plated Department of Homeland Security firewall and had formidable login and password requirements.

And so it came to pass in 2008 that my friend Omar Abou-Samra from Red Cross National Headquarters and I got down to figuring out how the State of Florida would adopt the Red Cross NSS as our shelter system of record. The only issue appeared to be our requirement that our open shelters be posted on a website.

The lawyers got involved (always a bad sign) but they drafted a disclaimer for us to put on our site. With that our Information Technology people took a data feed from the Red Cross NSS and put it on our website. This happened in July 2008 just in time for us to utilize it for the shelters that were opened across the state as a result of Tropical Storm Fay. This is the system that the state of Florida still uses today.

I tell this story to show everyone that shelter reporting can be done right. The reason that it’s done so well now in Florida is that we had an inordinate amount of time in 2004 and 2005 to keep practicing until we got it right. The rest of the nation shouldn't have to endure the same ordeals that we did in order to get a simple, little report right..

Right now at Red Cross Headquarters we are finalizing the new Shelter Standards and Procedures doctrine. A significant amount of effort has gone into making sure that we get the shelter reporting procedures right. I’ve seen what we’ve done so far and it looks pretty good.

That means that there’s hope.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The National Mass Care Strategy Website

One of the (many) cool things about my job at Red Cross National Headquarters is that they gave me my own website to play around in. Technically, the National Mass Care Strategy website is not mine but I’m going to take ownership of it anyway.

When I was the State Mass Care Coordinator in Florida I considered the State ESF #6, Mass Care website to be mine. I wrote or helped to write most of the documents posted there. I got to decide what documents were posted, how they were grouped and I even got to decide the names of the groups under which they were posted. Whenever anyone asked me a technical question I would tell them to go to my website and pull down a particular document in which they would find the answer.

When my friend Beth Boyd was managing the NMCS site at National Headquarters we had a friendly rivalry as to which web site was the BEST mass care web site in the country. Of course, I thought the Florida site was the best and Beth thought the NMCS website was the best. I still think that the Florida site has better content.

But now that I have the National Mass Care Strategy power I’m going to fix that.

When I left the State of Florida I copied all of my working files (6 GB) to the iCloud and this is now a reference library for me and I can share some of that data with the rest of the country. For example, I have all the shelter and meal count data that the state (me) collected from the voluntary agencies during the 2004-05 hurricanes. I did a lot of subsequent analysis of this data and I should be able to make this information available in documents on the NMCS website.

This may take some time because the Red Cross has me working on other projects than the website, but I’ll poke along at it. My first step will be to move all the good content on the Florida site over to the NMCS web. If a lot of this content is Florida specific, well, hey, I’ll work on fixing that, too. I’ll solicit good documents from my friends in the mass care community nationwide.

What kind of documents am I looking for? I believe that people want to see jurisdiction (not agency) feeding plans and shelter plans. The Feeding Template and the Shelter Template are good documents but if you have the task to write a feeding plan for your state (like Colorado just did) you want to look at examples of how other states did it. The same would hold with a shelter plan. And instead of having to dig through state websites looking to see if they even have a shelter plan, it would be better to know that everything available is collected at one central location.

Another thing I will be looking for are good examples of mass care plans at the local or municipal level. A big problem in particular is information geared to local emergency managers focused on the process of transitioning survivors from shelters to appropriate housing. Does anyone have anything written on that? Procedures, plans, after-action, reports? Let me know and we’ll put them up.