Magazine article Policy & Practice

Battling Hurricanes Together

Magazine article Policy & Practice

Battling Hurricanes Together

Article excerpt

Before the effects of Hurricane Gustav began hitting the Louisiana shoreline prior to Labor Day 2008, the Louisiana Department of Social Services staff had already been working to help evacuate and shelter the coastal parish population of south Louisiana. On a similar front, the Food Stamp Program policy team also began preparations prior to hurricane landfall. Conference calls with the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service regarding potential waivers were even held during the worst of the storm winds. After the hurricane subsided, the entire department was again asked to serve by implementing what would become the largest disaster Food Stamp program ever in the state--even larger than following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Implementation preparations began on Tuesday, Sept. 2, as DSS executive staff and Office of Family Support management teams began meeting in Baton Rouge, where 90 percent of the city was without power. Emergency generators kept the electricity and computers active on three floors of the nine-story DSS State Office building, but not the air conditioning. Under these adverse conditions, management teams were formed to cover program policy, electronic benefits transfer, application site selection, logistics, staffing, and volunteer recruitment needed to serve our citizens.

Application site selection: Since most of the OFS offices are small, it was imperactive to find venues that could accommodate large crowds. This proved to be the most challenging. Many previously selected sites had hurricane damage or no electricity, and new sites had to be found that would meet the needs of local citizens and have the approval of local officials and the parish Office of Emergency Preparedness. The first site was opened on Sunday, Sept. 7, but a major rollout began on Tuesday, Sept. 9--even though Hurricane Ike was now bearing down on portions of the Louisiana coastline.

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Logistics: Dependent upon the need at each site, disaster Food Stamp locations were supplemented to meet the needs of the public. Some sites needed tents (with tables, fans and chairs) to accommodate the application process; others needed generators. Modeled on a military style operation, the Louisiana DSS management staff soon became quite familiar with ordering and moving tents, port-a-lets, ice, water, and finding security for each site. When the winds from Hurricane Ike began to threaten the Louisiana coastline on Friday, Sept. 10, the DSS halted the application process at certain sites, took down the tents, and waited for the winds to subside before reopening sites again on Sunday.

Staffing: The central focus was staffing the sites with an adequate number of interviews to meet the public need. Although OFS staff (including Child Support Enforcement) was the core personnel utilized in the disaster Food Stamp operations, all DSS staff participated. The Office of Community Services, Louisiana Rehabilitation Services, and Disability Determinations authorized use of their staff in every region available. In areas such as Orleans and Lake Charles (where applications were expected to be high), plans were made a complete data input off site in Baton Rouge or in north Louisiana (Monroe/Shreveport) regions not affected by the storms.

Volunteer Recruitment: Novel to previous disasters, the volunteer recruitment process focused on mobilizing, training and assigning staff from other Cabinet and departmental agencies around the state to assist with implementation of the disaster Food Stamp Program. The Louisiana DSS, in conjunction with its sister state agencies, was able to use staff wherever they were needed. For instance, the Department of Revenue closed offices in New Orleans, Lafayette and Lake Charles to focus efforts on assisting DSS staff. The executive team from Department of Health and Hospitals made their staff available to the DSS and quickly moved them to the New Orleans area for deployment as well as other disaster sites around the state. …

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