Planning for an Emergency

Planning for an Emergency

GMU chosen to write state emergency plan.

Rome may not have been built in a day, but it only took three days to build "Town Pickett," the emergency evacuation center at Fort Pickett in Blackstone, Va. The center, built for victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita after the storms destroyed the Gulf Coast in September, was an impressive feat of cooperation between state and federal government agencies, said Kevin Hall, spokesperson for Gov. Mark Warner (D).

"[The center] went from concept to reality in 72 hours," said Hall. "The government typically doesn’t move that efficiently."

Unfortunately, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had stopped dispersing evacuees from the gulf region, so the center never received the numbers of people for which it had prepared. But the center itself, a "one-stop shop for displaced people," was such an accomplishment that its construction should be documented for the future, said Hall.

"We had this next general shelter set up, in real time with real people and real assets," he said. "We think it kind of could be a national model on how to do it right."

So Warner and Virginia Health and Human Resources Secretary Jane Woods chose George Mason University faculty, some of whom worked on the front lines of Fort Pickett, to analyze the process and to develop an emergency shelter operation plan for Virginia.

George Mason's College of Health and Human Services' (CHHS) Center for Health Policy Research (CHPRE) will write up the plan. A final product is expected in late fall, said Kae Livsey, a research associate with CHPRE who spent time at Fort Pickett itself, observing and helping with the undertaking.

When the plan is finished, Virginia will be the first state in the nation to have written documentation of emergency plans.

"This effort has to be documented so we know what we would do and know what flexibility would work given individual circumstances," said Peggy Jo Maddox, CHPRE deputy director.

"TOWN PICKETT" described the center fairly well, said Maddox. Besides clothing and food for evacuees, the center had to provide longer-term services such as job counseling and housing services for adults, and daycare and schools for children.

"There was a real effort to make [the center] as comfortable as it could be knowing that it was still pretty basic," said Livsey. "It wasn't the Hilton, but it was comfortable and had a wide range of services available to folks."

"You pretty much have to set up a town overnight," said Maddox. "You need a place to sleep people, a place for them to take showers, a place for them to do laundry."

Evacuee centers have to prepare for a cross-section of society, she said, from seniors to students to young children, keeping in mind security precautions as well.

One of the big challenges is checking evacuees and volunteers in and making sure everyone will be safe, said Maddox.

"You've got to have the ability to fingerprint people, to interface with the police," she said. "A microcosm of society gets evacuated; you possibly could have unsafe people in the group."

"The biggest challenge, from what I saw, was that … day by day, we didn’t know what to expect," said Livsey. "How many evacuees are there, when are they coming, how are they going to come? There were a lot of challenges of coordination coming out of the region, which caused most of the anxiety."

"You learn best the first time you do it. We all know there's a value in drills, but there's nothing like thinking you're really doing it," said Maddox.

"We have been tremendously pleased and impressed to see not only the competence of public employees across Virginia, but that they were exquisitely well motivated," said Maddox.

Livsey and Maddox credit Woods' leadership for the success of the endeavor.

"It's a great feeling, that you might be able to provide assistance for somebody who, through no fault of their own, has really fallen on some challenges," said Woods.

"Secretary Woods did a good job getting a good team together to make something happen and make it happen quick," said Livsey. "It was the best, as far as I can see, in terms of state agencies working together."

State agencies such as the Virginia Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, and the Department of Motor Vehicles, came together at the emergency evacuation center to offer services from catering to data and tracking to legal and medical help, said Livsey. The Virginia Department of Emergency Management joined with Wood's office to help spearhead the effort, she said.

GMU'S JOB is to study what worked at Fort Pickett and what didn't, and to develop a flexible emergency shelter operations plan in the case of another disaster like Hurricane Katrina.

"What everyone's got to do right now is to help the state figure out what plans we had freestanding, and figure out how we can do it again in the future," she said. The state must take into account a possible location change for an emergency shelter, and how to be prepared for evacuees' long-term as well as short-term needs.

The project ties in well with other endeavors taken by CHPRE, said Livsey, such as a grant to help train nursing students in emergency preparedness and a graduate course for health professionals in emergency preparedness.

"We know a lot about how things happen in the health industry," said Maddox. "Our background with knowing the implementation side of health and public and social services makes us good people to help Virginia articulate what it did and write it down in a way that can be used for people moving forward."

The governor's office and GMU have a good relationship, said Hall, and the school is well suited to a project like this one.

"There's a great public health program at Mason, and they're carving out a niche in the region on some homeland security issues," he said. Also, a perk of having George Mason faculty and students develop the plan is that graduate students do it for free, he said.

"To me, it's a special opportunity for students to have a very unusual learning experience they wouldn't get at other universities," said Maddox. "It's typical of what we do here at GMU."