EMA director: Shelter plan needed

Published 3:38 am Friday, October 20, 2017

Planning, training work must be done long before next hurricane season

There is much work to be done if Covington County is to open storm shelters in the future.

That’s the message Covington County EMA director Susan Harris delivered at an organizational meeting of a Voluntary Organization Active in Disaster (VOAD) group Thursday night.

The meeting arose out of a sense of “we need to do something” that occurred when Covington County found itself hosting evacuees fleeing Hurricane Irma. A number of churches opened shelters or provided meals to evacuees. But Harris said the two employees of the EMA have other responsibilities during and after storms, and trained volunteers are needed to make t hat happen.

“Red Cross first can’t open a shelter without their bosses in the state telling them to,” she said. “No. 2, they won’t open a shelter if there are not volunteers who have been trained here to run it.”

In 2014, the American Red Cross changed its business model, and consolidated 18 chapters into six. The local chapter was among the offices that were closed.

Joseph Hillard of the American Red Cross’s Mobile office attended Thursday night’s meeting, and said he only has three volunteers in the county. Hillard said Red Cross will not open a shelter unless the volunteers have been through training, and have had background checks. Those present at the meeting challenged him that many people would volunteer, but the American Red Cross has not communicated its need locally.

Harris said the state EMA’s position is that Covington County is too close to the coast to do pre-event shelters. The concern, she said, is that evacuees may fill local shelters as they seek to escape the storm, meaning if a storm hit, the shelters would not be available to local victims.

She said a possibility is to open a “safe haven” as a place to stay during a storm, instead of a shelter, which requires cots, pillows, blankets and meals.

Post-event shelters don’t have to be certified strong enough to safely withstand hurricanes.

“We cannot depend on Red Cross,” Harris said. “We have to have other people available to help. In the last hurricane, different shelters could have opened if we had been organized and ready.

“I cannot depend on other agencies to do that like we have in the past,” she said, referring to the Red Cross.

At present, the Town of Red Level has a shelter which it may or may not open. Andalusia City Schools has a safe room in Andalusia Junior High School, and the Covington County Board of Education is building one in its Straughn Elementary School addition. Those can only be used as shelters if agreements are put in place between an organization that will open shelters and the school system.

Statewide, facilities in the two-year college system have been designated for use as shelters.

“These only can be opened if the governor declares they can be opened,” Harris said. “But school personnel has not been trained on what to do.”

A member of the Covington Baptist Association explained that there is a Red-Cross trained disaster relief team in the county.

“We have our own Covington County Disaster team of about 25 men and women,” he said. “We have a laundry unit, assessors, chaplains, and chainsaw workers. What we’d really love to have.”

Assistant EMA director Frank Shaffer said during the last storm, there were many calls from people who wanted to help.

“I hope all of you guys can go out and say, ‘Come be a part.’ People have a heart to want to help. The need is there, we just need to get folks trained to do things when it needs to be done.”

A follow-up meeting has tentatively been set for Nov. 16. The time and place of that meeting will be announced at a later date.