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Battling hurricanes together.

Before the effects of Hurricane Gustav began hitting the Louisiana shoreline prior to Labor Day 2008, the Louisiana Department of Social Services staff had already been working to help evacuate and shelter the coastal parish population of south Louisiana. On a similar front, the Food Stamp Program policy team also began preparations prior to hurricane landfall. Conference calls with the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service regarding potential waivers were even held during the worst of the storm winds. After the hurricane subsided, the entire department was again asked to serve by implementing what would become the largest disaster Food Stamp program ever in the state--even larger than following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Implementation preparations began on Tuesday, Sept. 2, as DSS executive staff and Office of Family Support management teams began meeting in Baton Rouge, where 90 percent of the city was without power. Emergency generators kept the electricity and computers active on three floors of the nine-story DSS State Office building, but not the air conditioning. Under these adverse conditions, management teams were formed to cover program policy, electronic benefits transfer, application site selection, logistics, staffing, and volunteer recruitment needed to serve our citizens.

Application site selection: Since most of the OFS offices are small, it was imperactive to find venues that could accommodate large crowds. This proved to be the most challenging. Many previously selected sites had hurricane damage or no electricity, and new sites had to be found that would meet the needs of local citizens and have the approval of local officials and the parish Office of Emergency Preparedness. The first site was opened on Sunday, Sept. 7, but a major rollout began on Tuesday, Sept. 9--even though Hurricane Ike was now bearing down on portions of the Louisiana coastline.

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Logistics: Dependent upon the need at each site, disaster Food Stamp locations were supplemented to meet the needs of the public. Some sites needed tents (with tables, fans and chairs) to accommodate the application process; others needed generators. Modeled on a military style operation, the Louisiana DSS management staff soon became quite familiar with ordering and moving tents, port-a-lets, ice, water, and finding security for each site. When the winds from Hurricane Ike began to threaten the Louisiana coastline on Friday, Sept. 10, the DSS halted the application process at certain sites, took down the tents, and waited for the winds to subside before reopening sites again on Sunday.

Staffing: The central focus was staffing the sites with an adequate number of interviews to meet the public need. Although OFS staff (including Child Support Enforcement) was the core personnel utilized in the disaster Food Stamp operations, all DSS staff participated. The Office of Community Services, Louisiana Rehabilitation Services, and Disability Determinations authorized use of their staff in every region available. In areas such as Orleans and Lake Charles (where applications were expected to be high), plans were made a complete data input off site in Baton Rouge or in north Louisiana (Monroe/Shreveport) regions not affected by the storms.

Volunteer Recruitment: Novel to previous disasters, the volunteer recruitment process focused on mobilizing, training and assigning staff from other Cabinet and departmental agencies around the state to assist with implementation of the disaster Food Stamp Program. The Louisiana DSS, in conjunction with its sister state agencies, was able to use staff wherever they were needed. For instance, the Department of Revenue closed offices in New Orleans, Lafayette and Lake Charles to focus efforts on assisting DSS staff. The executive team from Department of Health and Hospitals made their staff available to the DSS and quickly moved them to the New Orleans area for deployment as well as other disaster sites around the state. Staff from all departments participated to some degree--whether as interviewers, data entry operators, or those whose duty was to meet and inform the public waiting to be seen. Nongovernmental agencies were also valued partners in our efforts to deliver services during this time of crisis and helped the Louisiana DSS to meet a critical staffing need. All participation was welcomed.

Key to helping the OFS staff implement this massive disaster assistance program was bringing in Emergency Management Assistance staff with food stamp program expertise from other states. The official request form (Req-A) for an unprecedented number (267) of out-of-state food stamp eligibility staff was drafted on Friday, Sept. 5, and published through the National Emergency Management Assistance compact.

The American Public Human Services Association sent out an all-states communications blast to inform states of Louisiana's need and continued to provide daily updates to its state agencies and food stamp director members.

States began to respond with inquiries the following week through their respective state emergency preparedness coordinators, working with FNS, Louisiana DSS as well as APHSA staff. Each interested state completed budget projections for its staff commitment, which included meals, shelter, overtime pay, air fare and ground transportation. These budget projections were returned to Louisiana's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for approval. Additional coordination was required between the Louisiana DSS and the respective states so staff could be deployed to areas of greatest need and housing could be arranged.

The initial need for staffing was greatest in the New Orleans area, where the DSS prepared to open disaster sites at the Morial Convention Center and the Alario Center. Initial teams of EMAC staff arrived in time to experience the tropical force winds of Hurricane Ike on Friday, Sept. 9. (The weather was so uncertain that travel to the New Orleans area was in jeopardy for a while.) Staff from the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, and the Oklahoma Department of Human Services trained at these local Food Stamp disaster sites and immediately began interviewing alongside Louisiana DSS staff and other state department staff who had been activated.

A large and pleasant surprise came when the Missouri Department of Social Services dedicated 141 staff * to Louisiana for deployment. This was a huge commitment and sacrifice of staff time from the Missouri Department of Social Services, but sorely needed to supplement Louisiana's staffing resources. Since the contingent was so large, those volunteers flew into both New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Missouri staff flying into Baton Rouge deployed to three regions of the state (Alexandria, Lafayette and Covington) and trained at area OFS offices. Those initially stationed in Lafayette would eventually be moved to Lake Charles to work at the Lake Charles Civic Center with our citizens affected by Hurricane Ike. The Missouri staff flying into New Orleans trained at the their hotel on their first night; then deployed to various sites in St. James, St. Charles, St. John, Thibodaux and Houma areas.

Other states soon followed: Oregon Department of Human Services (10 staff); Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (4 staff); and Iowa Department of Human Services (10 staff). They were trained and stationed in Baton Rouge to assist Louisiana DSS staff in data entry of the increasing numbers of applications, activation of benefits, and phone bank duties related to customer service.

Things to Consider

1) EMAC staff training: Although, at first, training at a disaster site appeared to be preferable, there were limitations in space, privacy and training tools at these locations. It became more advantageous to either train at a local OFS office or at the hotel of residence prior to assignment.

2) Housing/shelter:

a. Part of the EMAC agreement calls for the requesting state to find shelter for its EMAC staff. This can be anything from a tent city, local shelter or hotel. Louisiana DSS worked to find EMAC staff hotel accommodations since they were working long, hard hours for our department; however, we ran into problems finding adequate space for extended time periods in disaster stricken areas. First responders (Red Cross, FEMA, utility companies, etc.) had priority on rooms.

b. In especially hard-hit areas, EMAC staff had to sleep at least one to two hours' away and drive to/from their assignment daily. This was extremely stressful since they were already working 12 to 14 hours a day.

c. Hotels did not comply with government rates during times of disaster; therefore, expect to pay more for shelter costs.

3) Lead Staff: Several states assigned a supervisor at every shelter/hotel with their staff. The Louisiana DSS was provided with cell phone numbers for each of these team leads. This provided to be beneficial since we were able to communicate hotel moves and staffing needs to them in a more coordinated fashion.

4) Responsibility: The requesting state is responsible for the welfare of the volunteer staff. Our EMAC volunteers were special people who traveled into locations and situations largely unknown to them. They bonded with our Louisiana citizens and staff and we are all the better for their efforts.

Households Served

As of Oct. 6, more than 600,000 households received about $208 million in Disaster Food Stamp Program benefits following Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in early September. During the more than three-week period, 605,948 households--604,235 affected by Gustav and 1,713 affected by Ike--were approved for disaster benefits. The households represented more than 1.5 million people. Louisiana also processed 3,647 applications for Texas households and issued $1.2 million in disaster food stamp benefits to those families who evacuated to Louisiana due to Hurricane Ike.

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Although the total issuances do not compare with Hurricanes Katrina/Rita ($409,387,689), the total cases certified in the current hurricanes did exceed the cases certified during Katrina/Rita (496,587). It is obvious that Louisiana could not have interviewed our citizens, processed these benefits, and provided the services without the assistance of numerous volunteers, sister state agencies, and EMAC staff. Our experience with the EMAC disaster team was positive; they were experienced in interviewing, knowledgeable regarding Food Stamp program regulations, and were familiar with data input requirements. The Louisiana Department of Social Services is very appreciative of their service to our citizens.

EMAC Volunteer States

* Kansas (23 staff): deployed to New Orleans sites

* Nebraska (13 staff): deployed to New Orleans sites

* Oklahoma (18 staff): deployed to New Orleans sites

* Missouri (141 staff): deployed to numerous parish sites, such as St. Helena Parish, Livingston, Washington Parish, St. Charles, St. James, St. John, Lafourche, Terrebonne, Lafayette, Calcasieu (Lake Charles), and Vernon

* Iowa (10 staff): deployed to Baton Rouge

* Massachusetts (4 staff): deployed to Baton Rouge

* Oregon (10 staff): deployed to Baton Rouge

Debra Nance is the Office of Family Support team lead/family support services manager, (a Comprehensive Enterprise Social Service Project), at the Louisiana Department of Social Services.
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Author:Nance, Debra
Publication:Policy & Practice
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2008
Words:1772
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