News Do not separate

League of Cities summit focuses on families who’ve endured disasters

Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans and other locales along the Gulf Coast highlighted the need for communities to safeguard the elderly, children, and families, especially those who live in poverty.

So said numerous citizens who converged last week in San Antonio to attend a National League of Cities summit on family challenges in the wake of natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes.

District 8 Councilman Art Hall, District 10’s Chip Haass, several staff from the City’s Department of Community Initiatives, and federal officials also participated in the summit.

Mayor Phil Hardberger appointed Hall to coordinate disaster relief for the thousands of evacuees who were transported to shelters in San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina.

“We dealt with the basics: health care, clothing, a bed, bath, and a meal,” says Hall. “Then we dealt with long-term planning” with the understanding that one size does not fit all. Kids were separated from their parents `because of the storm and its aftermath`;we continued to deal with their long-term needs.”

City officials erected basketball courts and provided games for children to distract them from the stressful circumstances while arrangements were made for housing and school registration. “We worked with spreading the students out,” says Hall. “There was constant change in the school districts, and people moving back to New Orleans. There are all kinds of issues you must plan for there is a constant need to figure out what’s there and respond.”

Before the mass evacuation and extended displacement caused by Hurricane Katrina, municipal, state and federal governments “never thought about coordination of disaster recovery to make sure we are family-focused,” says Audrey Rowe, president of AR Consulting in Chicago and former head of human services for New Haven and the state of Connecticut.

It is important for disaster-management agencies to train first responders such as firefighters and police officers to prevent separating family members, says Rowe, which happened along the Gulf Coast after the hurricane. “I saw some of this and I thought, What country is this?

“The primary message is that we have an opportunity to re-think and rebuild how we design our systems to help our children,” says Rowe. “How do we better coordinate our systems?”

She suggests rebuilding disaster-management plans and relying on community-based organizations that are likely to know which community members would need extra help in evacuating or coping with a disaster of Katrina’s magnitude.

She also suggested recruiting college students to map neighborhoods and participate in a future disaster-response program. “The local level is where the rubber meets the road.”

George Haddow, former deputy chief of staff to James Witt, who served as FEMA director under President Bill Clinton, says federal agencies “are not talking to the communities. They want everybody to go to a central location because it makes it easier for big government, but people have said they would not go to a central location.”

The former FEMA official says it is important that government and businesses assess disaster risks and develop workable evacuation plans. “Get the community involved for all hazards. Get your kids involved. Map out where shelters are located, look at the community block by block. If you rely on the federal government, do some of your own homework as well.”

Haass serves on the National League of Cities Youth Education Family Conference, which sponsored the summit. “You’re talking about a whole new problem we had to deal with; the United States never had a disaster that affected so many people with different geographic backgrounds,” says Haas. “There are not enough trained counselors and psychologists. How do we get `disaster victims` back into the mainstream, into education, get them to a point where they are successful in their recovery?”

By Michael Cary