Asking for Help in the Wake of Disaster

Down hundreds of staff members post-Katrina, the Louisiana Office of Community Services could have tapped a little known agreement outside emergency management circles for help.
July 13, 2010 AT 3:00 AM
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

The arrival of hurricane season on the coastal United States isn't an event that naturally gets public officials thinking hard about human services. For the most, part hurricane season is about preventing and recovering from property damage. And with the BP oil spill still bubbling away, there's added angst this year about damage to wildlife and beaches. But really bad hurricanes aren't only about physical damage to property and topography; they're very tough on society's most vulnerable populations.

I was thinking about this because one of my beats for Governing is emergency management response. I have a story coming out in August, in fact, on the Federal Emergency Management Administration, and whether FEMA has recovered from its immediate and inglorious post-Katrina days.

At the same time, I recently interviewed Judge Ernestine Gray of the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court in New Orleans, one of the most effective and highly respected family court judges in the state, if not the country. She was telling me about the ongoing recovery from both Katrina and Rita, and how children and families still haven't recovered completely from the back-to-back hurricanes.

But it wasn't just children and families who suffered in the wake of the hurricanes. The Louisiana Office of Community Services, which handles children and family services for the state, was devastated by the storm. Staffers living in and around New Orleans were no more sheltered from the hurricanes' twin punch than anyone else living in the region. Hundreds of staff fled before the storm, leaving the OCS badly shorthanded when it came time to start piecing the children and family service system back together.

Given how hard the OCS was hit, Judge Gray wondered, could the agency have accessed help from other states through what is known as the Emergency Management Assistance Compact?

EMAC is a standing agreement among all 50 states, the District of Columbia and all U.S. territories that, in essence, commits states and territories to helping one another respond to and recover from disasters when a call for help goes out. Essentially, Judge Gray was asking if the compact covered children and family service systems. It was a very good question.

Katrina careened into the southeastern coast of Louisiana on August 29, 2005, resulting in surreal devastation and massive displacement of the population. Entire communities had been cleared off the landscape. Thousands of residents -- "refugees" many called themselves -- were scattered across the United States, from Philadelphia, to Houston, to Los Angeles. Hurricane Rita would arrive within three weeks, and deliver another blow to the region that reinforced the destruction.

As Katrina approached, foster parents, community services staff and state social services staff all streamed out of the region, literally looking for higher ground -- many of them never to return. More than two thousand kids in the Louisiana children and family services system vanished virtually over night.

On the staffing side, the picture was especially grim. Out of 1,800 OCS employees, 900 were detailed to shelters as part of the state's standing emergency response plan, including both special needs and general service shelters. Another 600 staff had evacuated. "So we had 300 people statewide to handle recovery and run a state children and family services system," says Marketa Garner Gautreau, then-director of the OCS. With phones down and electricity a sometime thing, Gautreau says her small, remaining band of 300 put in a "superhuman effort" to track down staff, foster children, foster parents and birth parents.

Which brings us back to Judge Gray's question: Could Louisiana have used EMAC to try and recruit help from other states to do all that work? The answer, says Angela Copple, EMAC program director, is yes.

Here's how the compact works. When disasters strike, state emergency management officials implement what's known as "unified command," which establishes clear lines of authority and responsibility in disaster response and recovery. The incident commander is typically the head of the state emergency management administration.

Under EMAC, any state agency can place a request through incident command for specialized assistance. That request is then sent to emergency management officials in nearby states, who in turn direct it to the appropriate agencies for a response.

So, in theory at least, if a children and family services agency is hit as hard as the Louisiana Office of Community Services was by Katrina, the call could go out to other states for help in manning shelters and offices, in tracking down children and families, handling counseling and so forth -- the monumental task that essentially fell to the already traumatized few in Louisiana after Katrina.

All state systems are, of course, currently operating on something like overload, even absent disaster, and so reaching out for help might seem like a stretch. But the capacity of people to rise to the occasion in response to the sort of mega-disasters represented by Katrina makes it highly probable that a call for help on the part of a social services system would be answered by other states. And so as the hurricanes start to roll in, it's worth keeping in mind that state and local children and family services officials don't have to go it alone when things turn really bad.