It was clear to just about anyone watching television or with access to The Weather Channel that Katrina was a hurricane of significant magnitude. Devastation can be predicted, but until it happens and you see the aftermath, it’s an abstract concept that becomes an unspeakable reality.
When Hurricane Katrina hit land, charity chief executives swung into action, even though the government was stalled and Federal Emergency Management Agency leaders were preoccupied with how they looked on TV, as recently released emails have shown.
Hundreds of charities from coast-to-coast have been involved in everything from search and rescue to relocation of victims. Five organizations, the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, AmeriCares, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and The Humane Society of the United States, moved quickly, taking immediate steps to combat the immediate tragedy.
Their actions literally saved lives during, and immediately after, the storm while the federal government was still primping and sending trucks of ice on grand tours to parts of the country not in need of help.
For all intents and purposes, these organizations were the government for days after the storm hit. For that reason, Marsha Evans, president and chief executive officer of the American Red Cross, W. Todd Bassett, national commander The Salvation Army, Curtis Welling, president and chief executive officer of AmeriCares, Ernie Allen, president and chief executive officer of The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of The Humane Society of the United States, share this year’s The NonProfit Times Executive of the Year award.
Pre-positioning the response
“Our decisions on emergency relief were made a long time ago, well before Katrina,” explained W. Todd Bassett, national commander of The Salvation Army. “We were already there on the ground, and we stayed where we were and simply enlarged the tent.”
Bassett added that there was an immediate deployment of his forces from around the country. “As soon as people were allowed to go into an area, we sent in trained personnel and coordinated efforts. We then sent in another wave of people from all over the U.S. What we aimed for was flexibility and command structure — something we are always refining.”
Preparing for the impending Hurricane Katrina, The Salvation Army’s Emergency Disaster Services teams in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi placed 38 Mobile Feeding Units and two fully-equipped mobile kitchens on preparedness alert to deliver crucial support to hurricane victims, emergency aid workers, and volunteers for as long as they were on the scene.
Bassett said that The Salvation Army launched one of the largest emergency disaster services relief efforts in the organization’s 125-year history. The mobile kitchens and canteens serving in the Gulf Coast region were focused on providing the most precious commodities needed right then — food and water. “The victims just wanted basic life sustenance. They were in shock. Everything they’ve worked for all of their lives was gone.”
As The Salvation Army was preparing at its Alexandria, Va., headquarters, across the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., senior staff at the American Red Cross (ARC) were huddling, too. “With our modern technology, we could see the impending hurricane and we were able to pre-position our supplies,” said Marsha Evans, president and CEO of ARC. “We saw how enormous it would be and we moved in supplies and people from all over the country. We also opened all our evacuation shelters in safe places.”
Moreover, she noted that the organization constantly evaluated and re-evaluated the situation when the hurricane hit. “Actually, we went from zero to 70 right away. We set up call centers immediately.”
That zero to 70 concept was devised even before Katrina made landfall. “More than 200 Red Cross shelters housed thousands of residents who fled Katrina’s wrath. All available resources from across the country, including thousands of staff and volunteers moved to safe areas, so additional relief efforts could begin immediately after the storm passed.”
In addition, Evans explained that some 200 emergency response vehicles (ERVs) and countless other Red Cross resources were enroute or on the scene to provide hot meals, snacks, bottled water, and distribute other much needed relief supplies. In coordination with the Southern Baptists, preparations were made to provide more than 500,000 hot meals to storm-weary residents each day.
“We too have a DNA and coded set of procedures that kick in on a natural disaster,” explained Curtis Welling, president and chief executive officer of AmeriCares. “We subscribe to many humanitarian services. We have assessments done and resources lined up. We get deployment as soon as possible, and we stay that way for as long as we are able.”
Welling said that his organization was able to assemble relief tactics in advance because it was given some notice of impending disaster and it got down to the Gulf region within 48 hours. “Basically, when dealing with emergencies of this type, we employ three basic schemes: research and rescue, life preservation, and rehabilitation and reconstruction.”
Hitting the ground running
“When Katrina struck and it became evident how massive the disruption and dislocation really was, we were asked by the U.S. Department of Justice to get involved and spearhead the effort to find the missing and to reunite families,” said Ernie Allen, president and chief executive officer of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in Alexandria, Va.. “Our first call was to the Red Cross to make sure that whatever we did was not duplicative and was, in fact, helpful. The Red Cross indicated that they welcomed our involvement.”
Allen said that his organization had systems in place that included a 24-hour hotline, as well as people who could be immediately sent to the scene. “While we have an established, proven system at the ready to search for missing children and a recovery rate of 96 percent, we needed to ensure that the system we implemented for Katrina would not divert resources already in place to find other children around the U.S.,” said Allen.
As a result, Allen said that the organization temporarily shut down its Jimmy Ryce Law Enforcement Training Center and created a special Katrina Missing Persons Hotline based in that center. It brought in retired law enforcement officers from all over the country as part of its Project ALERT (America’s Law Enforcement Retiree Team), and used them to answer the Katrina telephones, do the call-backs and other follow-ups, handle the analytical, investigative work to locate the missing, and work with the staff.
Another program called Team Adam was then activated, which includes top experts in the field: the former head of the FBI’s Child Abduction and Serial Killer Unit; a retired search and rescue expert from Massachusetts; a former Chief of Police of Rochester, Minn.; retired Secret Service Agents; ATF agents; DEA agents, and others.
“In the Katrina operation, we sent Team Adam to the affected states at once,” Allen said. “They went into the shelters, took photographs of the children, worked with state and local law enforcement, social services personnel, the state missing children’s clearinghouses, and every other possible resource.”
Katrina was indeed “a test of our humanness,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). “When the hurricane hit, we immediately deployed folks all around the country and brought them into key areas: Baton Rouge, Jackson, Hattiesburg, and Gonzales.”
Pacelle explained that the organization secured the staging area immediately to dispatch people with its Disaster Animal Response Team, known as DART.
“The HSUS National DART team includes more than 35 trained responders, including members from the Okaloosa ( Fla.) DART, Sumter County ( Fla.) DART, Humane Society of Missouri, Day’s End Farm Horse Rescue ( Md.), and others. Team capabilities included field expertise in search and rescue, first aid and sheltering of companion animals, horses, livestock, and wildlife.”
DART had more than 200 people on the ground in Louisiana and Mississippi working to rescue and shelter the animal victims of Hurricane Katrina, according to Pacelle. “We had good staging areas and called in our staff for rescue and relief. In fact, we got lots of calls from people all over the country wanting to help. We first established an inside and then an outside call center, and turned our main boardroom into a command center.”
Moreover, the organization quickly established a Web site called Petfinder.com and through it saved more than 7,000 animals, including 1,000 chickens from farms in Mississippi, he said. “At one point,” said Pacelle, “we were rescuing almost 400 animals a day. In fact, one day I saw 770 brought in.”
Pacelle said that the Lamar Dixon Equestrian Center, in Gonzales, La., was used as one area, and took in 2,000 animals almost immediately. The problem, though, was readily apparent. “It was hard to create space and export animals throughout the country at other centers. We were moving 5,000 animals, no small feat, and 60 rescue teams were operating practically around the clock. We set up triage centers, processed and kenneled thousands of animals, and obtained crates to house many.”
Some of the immediate tactics employed when Katrina reached land was to get a Disaster Response Unit stocked and headed to the area. This is a four-wheel drive truck and a 38-foot, air-conditioned trailer equipped with rescue, sheltering, and communications gear, as well as pet food and supplies. Trained disaster relief personnel also traveled from a staging area in the Florida panhandle into Mississippi, and animals were evacuated from the Louisiana SPCA to shelters throughout Texas for adoption.
Moreover, Pacelle pointed out that the HSUS Southeast Regional Office, located in Tallahassee, partnered with the Florida State Agricultural Response Team to assess animal needs and to provide rescue and sheltering of animals in south Mississippi.
The Salvation Army brought its full force of services on the people side right from the start. The group served more than one million meals in response to Katrina and provided direct aid to survivors in more than 30 states across the country. “Our emergency disaster services vehicles remained on the front lines of the disaster relief offering aid, hope, and comfort to those in impacted areas across the Gulf Coast and beyond,” he said.
In addition to its canteen service, it opened many operations centers in impacted areas where residents could go for assistance. Presently, more than 31,000 people are being sheltered in facilities in seven states. While providing for basic needs, the organization instantly put in a plan that partnered with local businesses to provide free prescription refills, dental treatment, and optical care. It also helped get children enrolled at local schools, opened a child-care center so parents with small children could look for work as well as a place to relocate, and provided family-focused activities for the people staying there plus emotional and pastoral support.
In the early days of the hurricane, Welling said that AmeriCares was trying to get to the caretakers who were taking care of people. “The scale was so widespread that there were enormous gaps in water, food, and medicine, even with the magnificent job of the Red Cross and The Salvation Army. We still had gaps in the support net but we looked to fill them immediately. One decision was to airlift drugs and another was to send truckloads of water. We also worked with Louisiana State University doctors to set up free clinics in Baton Rouge.”The organization even bought furniture to set up free clinics.
Welling said that one primary decision was to get mobile health units into the affected areas to begin treating patients. “For example, one mobile health unit, which usually served the uninsured working poor of Bridgeport, Conn., as the AmeriCares Free Clinic of Bridgeport, arrived in Baton Rouge. It was staffed with doctors from Louisiana State University and assisted by the nursing team of the AmeriCares Free Clinics. The mobile health clinic then traveled from LSU to nearby shelters to treat those in need, providing healthcare to people suffering with chronic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension.”
Stabilizing the field
The storm’s after-shocks were indeed staggering. “We normally handle one million hits per day on our Web site. That number grew to 20 million per day and stayed there for weeks,” said Allen. He added that in finding and reuniting the children of Katrina, the NCMEC had to revert to proven investigative techniques. “You generate a lead and then use whatever resources you have to pursue that lead, including old-fashioned shoe leather.”
In every case, Allen said, the tactic devised was to take a call from a searching parent or close family member, gather a report on the missing child, and then do call-backs to verify and validate the information. “Where possible and if we had enough information, we entered the missing child into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center missing persons database. We worked hand-in-hand with the FBI and state and local law enforcement on this effort,” he said.
Pacelle said that in New Orleans, digital photographs of each animal were posted on petfinder.com with the hope that as many animals as possible would be reunited with their owners. In Mississippi, a pet-friendly shelter was established in Barn 8 at the Jackson, Miss. fairgrounds. Of the 3,000 animals rescued in that area alone, nearly 1,000 were from Mississippi.
Bassett also pointed to The Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN), which continued to help reunite family and loved ones.
Allen said that he and NCMEC has learned a lot, and are prepared to do this again. For the future, Allen noted that his organization is planning to create a parallel but multi-purpose hotline/call center facility. “This facility will not sit idle as we wait for the next storm or disaster. It will be multi-use and will become an integral part of what we do every day. However, the next time we will not shut down our training center or put an infrastructure together quite so hastily. We will have a plan for this eventuality and be ready to execute it immediately. We are working on an After-Action Report, even though our effort is on-going, because we want to learn what worked well and what could be done in a better way. NPT
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