Caring during an emergency

Coordinating care for children and people with special needs after a disaster often falls on the shoulders of local relief organizations.

Helping those with the greatest need and least ability to take care of themselves during an emergency can create some of the biggest challenges for emergency "aftercare" workers, says Paul Robinson, president of Rogue Valley Community Organizations Active in Disaster (RVCOAD).

For example, what will happen if we experience a pandemic, Robinson asks.

"What if people are told to stay home in self quarantine?" he says.

Every person is encouraged to have a 72-hour pack containing water, food and medicine, and sources for heating and light, Robinson says.

RVCOAD is a spin-off organization from Rivernet Inc. — a coalition of churches that responded to area floods. Modeled on similar national entities, RVCOAD works to meet emergency and long-term needs not covered by government or other social service groups. Representatives from several area churches, nonprofit groups and Jackson County's emergency response team are involved in the effort.

The impact of Hurricane Katrina highlights the need for a local agency dedicated to coordinating the efforts of volunteer agencies and other individuals during a disaster, Robinson says. People often expect their most urgent needs will be met by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). But in the hours and days following a disaster, help from FEMA may not yet be available.

"A lot of times FEMA does not come out until there's been a federal disaster declared," Robinson says. "And long-term care is almost exclusively provided by non-governmental agencies."

Robinson sites an example from the 1997 flood where FEMA help was almost cancelled because of red tape — but for the coordinated efforts of Rivernet Inc. volunteers and FEMA workers.

An elderly couple had signed up with FEMA. The pair were in the process of cleaning up their property when the husband died of a heart attack, Robinson says. The husband's tragic death invalidated the couple's claim, he adds. FEMA called Rivernet Inc. and advised them to help the woman resubmit her claim.

"They told us to do it 'so she doesn't get lost in the mix,' " Robinson says.

Rivernet Inc. remains a viable operation, he says.

As Rogue Valley's demographics skew toward seniors — who often have special medical needs — Robinson says his group is responsible for maintaining "the talent database" for other Rogue Valley responders.

The the Rogue Valley Council of Governments is developing a registry to track those with special needs throughout the valley's different geographic areas, Robinson says.

Monday's meeting is another of the quarterly meetings RVCOAD holds annually, Robinson says.

"We meet on a regular basis so we know where to turn, who the players are and so we don't duplicate services," Robinson says.

A previous topic included communications.

"What happens when the phone lines are down?" Robinson says.

The next will be on regaining or maintaining mental and spiritual health after a disaster, he added.

"We will be dealing with post-traumatic problems," Robinson says.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

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