Magazine article Policy & Practice

In the Eye of Recovery

Magazine article Policy & Practice

In the Eye of Recovery

Article excerpt

Human service work at the Louisiana Department of Social Services (DSS) took on a new dimension on August 29, when Hurricane Katrina--and later Hurricane Rita--ravaged the state.

The Louisiana DSS had experience in providing short-term sheltering assistance for special-needs citizens and general population citizens evacuating their homes in advance of threatening storms. But by August 29, it became clear that the job was redefined in scope and urgency. The department had to evacuate and shelter many citizens in and out of state. The Louisiana high shelter count was 62,460 as of September 2, with more than 400 DSS staff deployed to work in them.

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The state prioritized helping those who remained in areas that sustained catastrophic damage. Such areas were without electricity, overwhelmed with floodwaters, lacked passable roads and had limited communications.

Logistics became increasingly complicated as shelter demands grew along with rising expectations for meeting other vital human needs--specifically food and child protection. DSS called upon the state's nonprofit network. Providers within the 211 system became a primary mechanism for disseminating information regarding sheltering options, social services and to help reach volunteer agencies, individuals and donors. Engaging the nonprofit sector allowed state agencies to focus on the more immediate rescue tasks in the first week of September.

In addition to evacuation and sheltering issues, DSS implemented its Disaster Food Stamp Benefit program, responded to reports of missing children and facilitated reunification. Much effort was given to negotiating with local officials concerned about sheltering in their communities. The department placed great emphasis on good intradepartmental agency communication to dispel rumors, inform staff and use the time and talent of staff and partners.

The scale of Katrina's destruction and the immediate need to help displaced citizens precluded establishing traditional organizational relationships. DSS had to trust strangers to deliver upon promises made. Prior partnerships and collaborations were activated, along with many others from local through state and federal agencies. This included numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The scale of these emergencies led to an improvised new operational scope that required forging new chains of command. Gamesmanship and turf issues continually had the potential to impede recovery. The pace of success varied as a result.

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Throughout the first month, the agency had to balance the emergency response (rescue, shelters, housing) and community rebuilding. Operating exclusively from either perspective would have been ill-advised. Agency officials decided that rescue work should be done concurrently on sustaining life and restoring families in their communities of choice. While working on the more immediate issues, DSS developed action plans on shelters, temporary housing, and the return of evacuees in a manner that offered dignity and hope. …

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