Poughkeepsie…The committee of Community Leaders brought together by Dutchess County Executive William R. Steinhaus to respond to the needs of Katrina evacuees has reconvened to review actions taken and strengthen preparations for future emergencies.
Last September, Steinhaus directed Health and Human Services Cabinet Director Betsy Brockway to organize an ad-hoc committee of Community Leaders to respond to the local American Red Cross chapter’s request for help in addressing the needs of the Katrina evacuees coming into the county. Representatives from United Way of Dutchess County, Community Foundation, Interfaith Council, Family Services, American Red Cross and multiple county departments met and developed a list of community services for evacuees to access, coordinated assistance for the evacuees’ interim needs and identified a process to collect donations to fulfill specific needs.
According to County Executive Steinhaus, “The success of this ad-hoc public/private partnership was the willingness of all organizations to come to the table on very short notice to have a single county-wide conversation concerning the evacuees’ needs. Our goal was to provide a complete solution by taking a “holistic approach” to meeting the needs of these people coming into Dutchess County.”
Steinhaus said, “Communication was key to the group’s effectiveness. The committee developed an email exchange network to share national and state information on eligibility and where to get help, locally and on the internet.” According to Dutchess County Department of Social Services Commissioner Bob Allers, “This coordination of timely information provided by the Cabinet staff was vital to stay on top of the various state and federal directives that changed often in the course of the day.”
The on-going exchange of information found new community partners for the American Red Cross to address evacuees’ health concerns, provide hotel accommodations at discounted rates, fulfill family needs through local faith organizations, and locate private schools to accept evacuee students. Dutchess County Chapter of the American Red Cross Services Director Jeff Noonan stated, “Of the majority of families that came to the county, most wanted a “hand up” with shelter, food and clothing, but not long term assistance.” The local Red Cross Chapter has been hit hard this past year spending over $84,000 for local fire/flood victim emergency needs and needs to restock resources for future needs.
The County Exec listed the actions of the respective agencies and called them, “an impressive response.” The positive outcomes for local Katrina response efforts include the local Red Cross chapter training 160 new volunteers with half of them remaining active. Several weeks after the hurricane, United Way of Dutchess County brought their 2-1-1 phone assistance online and over 1500 related calls have been received. The Department of Mental Hygiene’s Help Line and Trauma Team provided support for mental health needs identified during the Red Cross intake sessions. The Office For Aging fast-tracked services for an elderly family member who relocated to Dutchess County. The Department of Health organized a vaccination clinic for workers responding to clean-up duty on the Gulf Coast. In addition to their usual public assistance, the Department of Social Services supplied bus tokens and offered to send an intake team to the American Red Cross Site, if needed. BOCES offered to coordinate educational needs communicated to committee members and individual schools serving evacuee students.
Steinhaus noted, “The committee plans to meet bi-annually with the understanding any member organization may call an emergency meeting through the Health and Human Services Cabinet. Preparation is critical to an effective response to emergency situations. I am gratified to see the Health and Human Services Cabinet which I created this past year providing such effective leadership and coordination.”
The County Executive concluded, “We needed to react to the devastating effects of Katrina, but in many ways what is more important, is we have also put plans in place which will allow us to be even more effective in future emergencies whether that means helping fellow Americans from a distance or our own neighbors.”