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DHS News Newsletter October 2005 

DHS coordinates Katrina, Rita relocation and relief efforts

October 2005

Early on Monday, August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast with winds reaching 145-mph. Three weeks later, Hurricane Rita hit further west along the Gulf Coast. By the time the storms had ended, tens of thousands of individuals and families in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Texas were displaced from their homes.

Responding to disaster

On Friday, September 2, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Mayor Tom Murphy held a meeting with community leaders and a decision was made to offer assistance in relocating displaced persons to our county.

DHS Director Marc Cherna accepted the task of the Department coordinating the local relief efforts. Leading the coordination efforts, a group of DHS staff, appointed by the Deputy Directors in the program and support offices, and under the direction of Bob Stumpp, the DHS Emergency Coordinator, began preparations to help these families and individuals relocate—temporarily or permanently—to Western Pennsylvania.

A core group of DHS staff worked long hours through the Labor Day weekend, discussing a multitude of scenarios with Governor Ed Rendell’s staff, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco’s staff, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA), and Chief of Emergency Services Robert Full, and developing procedures for each scenario. DHS was told to be prepared for a plane transporting evacuees on Wednesday, September 7.

On September 7, DHS was informed that the plane would not be coming immediately, but could still be arriving on any given day.

Staff worked seven days a week developing procedures, identifying community partners and anticipating the needs of both the evacuees and the workers ready to serve them. While information from federal, state and Gulf Coast region government agencies changed hourly regarding the numbers of people, expected arrival date and mode of transportation, DHS coordinated the development of a process for receiving and assisting traumatized people.

Standing down, but still stepping up

Although by the following Tuesday (September 13, 2005) DHS had learned that our region was “standing down” and a plane with hundreds of evacuees would not be flying in, families from the Gulf Coast region who had contacts in Allegheny County had for a week been making their way north.

One of those families—a family of six—was flown in by Corporate Air on September 10, but most of the families and individuals who found their way to Allegheny County did so on their own or with the help of friends or family living here.

The original plans developed by DHS changed little, despite the plane with hundreds of evacuees not having arrived. The original steps to this coordination were:

  • to find immediate and short-term housing (if necessary) for individuals and families relocating—The Pittsburgh Project on the North Side volunteered its 300 beds;
  • to find a physical site where the needs (especially immediate housing) of the displaced individuals and families could be assessed—The Pittsburgh Project again volunteered its space as the Hurricane Katrina Engagement Center;
  • to determine which state and local agencies would need to be present at the site to assist our County’s new arrivals;
  • to establish an assessment and case-management protocol to ease the transition for those relocating;
  • to establish a Hurricane Katrina referral hotline directing people to the assessment site and informing them of the agencies that would be staffing the stations there;
  • to establish a phone line for calls from people in need of money, goods and services or organizations, agencies and individuals wanting to donate goods or services—CONTACT Pittsburgh volunteered their phone line and staff;
  • to recruit volunteers to staff phone lines and assist at the Engagement Center

Fast assessment under one roof

The DHS-led effort brought together the resources of a range of community partners, including federal and state governmental agencies, social services, voluntary, faith based and nonprofit organizations, as well as representatives of business and philanthropic sectors. The outpouring of offers by the community for material assistance and helping hands was overwhelming

Many of these agencies offering services and resources for the relocated individuals and families came together under one roof at the Pittsburgh Project Engagement Center. The agencies and services available at the Engagement Center were:

  • ACES Mobile Crisis Team
  • Allegheny County Bar Association (Legal Services)
  • Allegheny Intermediate Unit (school registration)
  • Alma Illery Mobile Care (Big Blue Mobile Healthcare/arranged for dental care)
  • American Red Cross
  • CareerLink
  • Citizen’s Bank
  • DHS
  • East Liberty Family Medical Center (free medical care)
  • FEMA
  • Flood Insurance representative
  • Giant Eagle ($18,000 in food certificates and $20,000 phone gift cards)
  • Goodwill Industries, Inc. (clothing vouchers)
  • Housing & Urban Development (HUD)
  • Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
  • LensCrafters (free eye exams and glasses—not on site)
  • Pennsylvania Department of Banking
  • Pennsylvania Department of Health, Division of Vital Records
  • Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (Unemployment Compensation)
  • Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW)
  • Pennsylvania Emergency Management Services (PEMA)
  • PNC Bank
  • Port Authority of Allegheny County (bus passes)
  • Salvation Army
  • Social Security Administration
  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Urban League of Pittsburgh
  • Women, Infant & Children (WIC)

The Relocation Process in Action

As individuals and families arrived, they were directed to the Pittsburgh Project, a DHS-contracted, faith-based community center, for immediate, temporary housing in one of 300 units.

The individuals and families were welcomed, fed, supported, medically assessed and fitted for clothing. DHS staff administered a brief assessment using forms designed by DHS and reviewed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to ascertain needs, and then an ongoing case manager was assigned for each individual or family.

The case manager immediately began helping the family or individual locate available housing, if desired, ensuring through alliance of non-profit stores that the residence was furnished, the refrigerator and pantry were filled and other comfort needs were met.

The case manager continued to assist the family in meeting their needs, including access to services or benefits such as Medicaid; food stamps; driver’s licenses; child care vouchers; TANF, school registration for their children; employment through CareerLink; and obtaining benefits, counseling, child care and other necessary services.

“Helping the families that have relocated to our region in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita was one of the most rewarding experiences so many of us have had here,” said Jeanine Rasky, DHS Multi-Systems Specialist. “It reminds of why we chose to do the work that we do.”

Getting donations directed properly

In the first week of the County’s relocation and relief efforts, CONTACT Pittsburgh handled more than 1,500 calls for monetary donations, clothing and furniture donations, offers to volunteer and support a resettled family and offers from County residents to house an individual or family or provide them with tangible goods.

Calls for monetary donations were redirected to the Pittsburgh Foundation for follow-up, and calls for the donation of concrete goods were directed to Goodwill Industries, Inc. The housing-related calls were sent to the Urban League of Pittsburgh, and the volunteer cataloguing was given to the United Way of Allegheny County.

Ebony Pugh, Communications Specialist, DHS Office of Community Relations (OCR), matched volunteers from the United Way, from a training meeting on September 6 for more than 100 people and from KEYS Service Corps (AmeriCorps) with specific days and tasks at the Engagement Center, where they helped make the displaced individuals and families more comfortable.

Getting the word out

DHS kept the relocation and relief effort in the forefront of the consciousness of Allegheny County communities. Whether publicizing the creation of the Engagement Center or announcing the establishment of the toll-free referral hotline for the public to call, OCR and the County Chief Executive’s Office worked continuously to keep the media informed of every detail of the efforts.

The efforts of OCR to keep the public informed and to publicize the hotline led to many families and individuals making their way to Allegheny County and to the Engagement Center. By the end of the first week, 208 people had registered for services.

Closing the Engagement Center

When the Engagement Center closed at the end of September, more than 360 people displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were assisted through the efforts of DHS and all of the agencies and volunteers who contributed to easing the transition of those affected by this national disaster. The closing, however, was more of a “soft-closing” as ongoing assistance will be available to evacuee households through their case managers. 

Resources for other needs identified and communicated by case managers as evacuees resettle or plan to return home will be coordinated by DHS through several means including electronic listserve messages, face to face meetings and the domain resource committees, which will continue their efforts.

With making progress on housing and moving people out of the Pittsburgh Project shelter into more permanent housing identified as a priority, 34 of the 67 households that were seeking interim housing are in their own apartments, as of mid-October. The goals is to have them all placed by November.  

Director thanks all who helped

Cherna knows that the success of the DHS response to Katrina could not have happened without the expertise, diligence and compassion of all of the DHS staff involved, the volunteers who gave their time and the federal, state and local agencies and service providers who donated their expertise on site at the Engagement Center.

Along with Stumpp, who was mentioned earlier as the person directing the DHS efforts, there are a number of key DHS staff members who played integral roles in the success of the Department’s relocation and relief efforts.

Jeanine Rasky, DHS Multi-systems Specialists, handled the intake process at the Engagement Center; Teekie Smith, DHS Deputy Administrator, coordinated resources; JoAnn Hannah, Casework Manager, supervised the case management at the Engagement Center; Lucille Underwood, OBH Continuity of Care Manager, managed mental health related issues; Barb Murock, Ruth Ann Koss, Keith Soloman and Pat Bowser served as Engagement Center site supervisors; Vernon Smith, DHS Office of Information Management (OIM), coordinated the IT efforts; Lisa Caldwell, OIM Bureau of Evaluation and Research Administrator, developed forms and tallied daily reports; Terry Lane, Administrative Assistant to the Director, coordinated the administrative staff and the staffing of the Katrina Hotline desk; Ruth Howze, DHS Cross-Systems Specialist, coordinated school enrollment, identified and matched displaced individuals with volunteers from the Center for Minority Health (beautician and barber services) and arranged for entertainment for the evacuees; Dennis Payne, DHS Office of Community Services (OCS), Bureau of Hunger and Housing Services Monitor, coordinated housing issues; and nearly 100 CYF caseworkers, supervisors and managers rotated shifts seven days a week throughout September.

“This was one of the most gratifying projects I’ve been involved with,” said Cherna. “I’m so proud of everyone who stepped up and performed above and beyond what anyone could have expected. The generosity of this community was incredible. Seeing the appreciation of the displaced persons made it all worth it.”

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