Disaster Declared: How Authorities Respond

disaster declaredWe’re all familiar with how Police and Fire Departments respond to a car accident here, or a house fire there. Police Officers and Firefighters go through months of training as emergency responders, and they do it day in and day out. Cops are good at cop stuff, Firefighters are good at what they do.

But what about those who respond to disasters of all types? How do they determine what their priorities are in the midst of a major catastrophe? Governments, from federal to state to local all have limited budgets and do provide a level of emergency services  but it’s almost never enough to respond to a disaster.

The Next Level

The larger full-government response to a disaster is much more complicated. Even the relationships between cops and firefighters are not always positive: In 2014 in the San Diego area, a California Highway Patrol Officer arrested a firefighter because he would not move his fire engine from a freeway lane while responding to a traffic accident. So imagine during a disaster, adding together a bunch of others that normally don’t work together, like Public Works, the Red Cross, Animal Control, tow services, etc. Personalities, egos, and previous relationships can affect how well these people work together. It can go really well, most of the time it goes OK, but it can go very badly. Like cops arresting firefighters.

In the chaotic first hours of a disaster, the staff on shift are overwhelmed; 911 centers try to keep up with the volume of calls, supervisors try to call in as much off-duty personnel as possible, but in most disasters there is a period of hours-to-days that victims need to do the best they can to take care of themselves. As time goes by, staffing improves and outside resources arrive to assist victims, and local authorities are able to get a handle on things.

Of course, the disaster victim doesn’t care how “hard” it is for the responders. They are hurting or have suffered material losses, and they just want help, the sooner the better. Time slows to a crawl…the normal events of the day like work and school shift to the back burner. Attention to things like salvaging family pictures and putting tarps on the roof tend to isolate the victim from what is going on in the big picture. It’s easy to become so focused on survival that recovery seems a distant fantasy.

Never assume someone else will pay

In general, Disaster Relief is provided to keep you alive, not to completely make you and your property whole. It is only in the most severe disasters that financial grants are provided to victims; in the great majority of small and medium-sized disasters, only loans are available for residents and businesses. The surest financial resource in the short term is good homeowners insurance.

Who is on your side when a disaster is declared?

The last thing you want to be in a disaster is anonymous. You must make your needs known quickly ad with multiple organizations and individuals. Local governments conduct “Initial Damage Estimates” within their jurisdictions. If you are in need, and are not confined to a hospital bed, you need to get the word out to as many people as possible. Use this checklist:

• Your elected reps: City council/Mayor, County Supervisor or Judge, State/Federal reps

• Local American Red Cross

• Your nearest VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters)

• Local Emergency Management/Emergency Services Office

• Your insurance agent

• 2-1-1 is a national number and web site http://www.211.org to help find community resources

• Local news shows often have consumer assistance phone numbers that may lead to help.

These folks are often in close contact with each other after a disaster, and if you are known to be in need (mud in your house, debris in your yard, you’re disabled living in your damaged house) often volunteers are available to help out. For example, volunteer groups like Team Rubicon and Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief  travel to disaster areas at the invitation of locals to help victims clear their property and mitigate flood damage, free of charge. But they have to know you need help so make sure you make your needs known.

Who is ready to take advantage of you?

In disaster after disaster, predators delight in taking advantage of the chaos to separate you from your money. Building repair scams are epidemic…here are things to avoid:

• Never pay cash, always have a paper trail (check, money order)

• Always document the work to be done in writing (a simple contract is better than none).

• If someone solicits you door-to-door, be very suspicious.

• Check with neighbors, friends and relatives for recommendations.

• Never pay 100% up front, split up the payments based on work completed

• Take photos of damage before work begins in case insurance or disaster relief will pay for repairs

TIP: Right now, make a list of various tradesmen and companies you are familiar with or have been recommended to you and their phone numbers/websites. Include: electricians, roof repair, storage unit company (in case your home is uninhabitable and you must store your belongings somewhere), tree service, plumber, etc. Keep this information in your Grab-n-Go Binder and on a thumb drive or stored in the Cloud via Dropbox or another online service.

The Bottom Line

In most cases, you are very much in control of your destiny in disasters. You can research risks in your area, build your home preparedness supplies, and get a good set of insurance coverage. Keep aware of the weather, sign up for emergency alerts in your community and monitor the Twitter and Facebook posts of your local police and fire departments. And don’t be anonymous!

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