Health & Human Services

Social Services in an Emergency

Two New York state social services directors found a way to help clients even in the midst of a natural disaster.
by | September 11, 2012
 

Sept. 11 forces us all to pause and think about the heroes of government, like cops and firefighters. The date made me want to highlight a couple of New York state heroes who I've gotten to know in my years covering human services but whose names seldom show up in any popular media.

They aren't cops or firefighters. Rather, they are county social services directors, both of whom went through hell and high water about this time last year when Hurricane Irene blew in and dumped an ocean's worth of H2O on several counties in upstate New York.

Dennis Packard, head of the Schenectady County Department of Social Services (DSS) up near Albany and the Adirondacks, describes the hours, days and weeks following the flooding as his department's "best moment." In the wake of the storm, the department acted immediately by putting all staff on alert and setting up round-the-clock, eight-hour shifts so assignments could be doled out depending on need.

The first on-the-ground job was to get emergency shelters up and running, and to process people as they arrived, says Packard. Almost immediately people started pouring in, including 80 nursing home patients from adjacent Schoharie County. They arrived at Schenectady's doorstep looking for shelter: "Nobody knew that Schoharie County had been cut in half," says Packard. "We quickly geared up and did what we had to do."

That "to-do" list included "commandeering a child protective services laptop" and processing emergency food stamp applications as people arrived at the county emergency management center. To get a handle on larger needs, Packard actually went ahead and designed his own "damage assessment instrument" that the county used to evaluate every home impacted by the storm in order to prioritize need and action.

Staff, says Packard, performed remarkably. "Our people would work their shift, go get some rest and come back ready to go." The overall key to functioning, he says, was triage: "If it could wait, it waited. If it needed to be done, it got done."

Meanwhile, next door, Schoharie County DSS Director Paul Brady was having an even more interesting time: By the time the flooding crested, of the three stories comprising the county office building, only two were showing. "The basement and first floor were heavily damaged," says Brady. The flooding took out the building's phone and computer systems and its entire physical plant. In essence, over the next few weeks, Brady would rebuild the DSS from absolutely nothing.

The first few hours and days, Brady says, were spent on emergent needs: food and shelter. Brady and his team first cobbled together a communication system based on employee's cellphones. "That's how we communicated what was needed and where; who was the most vulnerable and also to support the activities of the emergency responders."

Working with the county health department, the first priority was food and shelter. "These informal shelters had sprung up everywhere, [in churches and firehouses, any gathering spot on dry land]," says Brady. "So we made sure they had adequate supplies, shuttling out water and so forth. It was probably at the point between the first and second week that we realized we have a responsibility to our regular clientele and so the focus began to shift away from emergent needs."

That included trying to find temporary office space and equipment, none of which was in abundant supply. Eventually the DSS found three places to set up, and with the help of the state Office of General Services was able to get some communication and computing power back. In the meantime, the state Office of Temporary and Disability Services (OTDA) and the State Treasurer's Office were helping the county reengage in the daily work of accepting applications, recertifying clients, sending out benefits and administering foster care payments. "The state was great," says Brady.

At one point, OTDA simply authorized a "mass recertification" so the county could at least ensure that everyone who needed assistance was getting it. They also handed over a full-time staffer to "do whatever needed to be done."

In the end, it would be just about three months to the day before he and his staff would be able to move back into the old DSS building. Two lessons he says he learned: "Well, hindsight being 20/20, everyone should really have a business continuity plan," Brady laughs. The other thing he learned was about his 78 staffers. "They performed incredibly under extremely adverse conditions."

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