Organized relief effort must be prepared for disaster

 

Victoria's response to the disaster left behind by Hurricane Harvey can be described as a gangly eight-armed octopus. In this case, none of the octopus' arms knew what the others were doing, making it harder for all to navigate the waters of recovery.

In the more than eight weeks since the disaster occurred, volunteers and social services are finally getting organized so they can coordinate services to those in need. Many have done outstanding work and helped thousands of people. They deserve heaps of appreciation and accolades.

But in the beginning, the city and county lacked the desperately needed organized efforts. Even those directly involved in responding, such as Victoria County Commissioner Danny Garcia, struggled to find out where to go to get help for residents. At one point, a trucker had to drive around the city looking for someone willing to take donated goods for the relief efforts.

Experts all agree communities recover faster when an organized response and recovery team is prepared to hit the ground running after a disaster. Such a team cuts down on confusion and helps the public know where to go to seek help. And it leads a well-organized recovery effort.

We never know when a disaster will hit. Nothing quite comparable to Harvey has hit Victoria since Hurricane Carla in 1961 — when the city was much smaller. The '98 flood came close, but even that terrible damage was not as widespread as the havoc wreaked by Harvey.

Unfortunately, we became complacent and were not prepared when a disaster the size of Harvey did hit.

After the '98 flood, the city and county organized a volunteer responder group who organized relief efforts. But over the years, it went dormant. Meetings stopped. Drills didn't happen. Volunteers got older and moved on.

When Harvey struck, no team was in place, adding to the confusion of the hurricane and its aftermath.

In an emergency response plan, a designated relief group is required. It needs to be a group of active people, not just a plan on a piece of paper tucked away in a notebook. Victoria created many years ago a local chapter of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, or VOAD, a national group designed to help communities organize their relief efforts. That is about where the planning stopped, though. During the first meetings of the group after the hurricane, no one knew who should be in charge or even who should be at the table.

A united effort must be available from the beginning so everyone knows who is responsible for distributing cleaning supplies, who will be spraying for mosquitoes and who will coordinate the large truckloads of donations coming into the city and county. It is not efficient to have people doing their own thing and not communicating with each other.

This requires organization and preparedness. It also requires the group to remain active, holding periodic meetings and mock drills to make sure all the plans are still workable. It requires leadership.

The leadership must start with the city and county, which keep operating year in and year out. The city-county Office of Emergency Management's mission is to "build and maintain the framework upon which our community prepares for, responds to and recovers from natural or man-made disasters or significant emergencies."

The volunteers who stepped forward to join the local VOAD all provided admirable service. They and others who stepped in made the best of a difficult situation and at times did seem to have at least eight arms and hands with all they accomplished.

But these volunteers can't be expected to keep a plan together in the many years that often transpire between disasters. They must take their lead from the city-county emergency office. In the years after Harvey, this must be one of the lessons learned from this disaster — preparation in advance of the disaster will help the recovery progress more quickly and smoothly.

This opinion reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.

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