In February 2012, I participated in New Jersey’s Disaster Institute led by the American Red Cross. The Disaster Institute features numerous courses geared toward specific response roles in the event of a hurricane or other disaster. One of the courses I took was Disaster Mental Health Current Affairs. This course prepares disaster responders to treat and address mental health issues during a disaster.
In my experience working as a responder in a hurricane shelter, one of the most crucial steps in alleviating stress and anxiety for all residents is providing information and scheduling promptly, correctly, accurately, consistently, and reliably.
During Hurricane Irene in 2011, I managed shelter registration over a three-day period at a shelter in a high school in New Jersey. Of the numerous lessons I learned during that period that are critical to shelter management and mental health, one that remains at the forefront for me is “Providing Information Responsibilities.” This experience is also relevant to lessons in my book “How to Build An Impossible Bottle.”
“Providing Information” to clients in a shelter is one of the most important elements of maintaining shelter peace and health and alleviating the anxiety of residents. Shelter residents will inquire about numerous questions. These questions include:
- When will my town’s mandatory evacuation be over? (If a town or area is evacuated, shelter residents must gain permission before returning to their homes.)
- Is my loved one here? (Shelter registration managers must keep track of all clients in a shelter through registration forms.)
- When is dinner? (lunch or breakfast)
- What day is it?
- Will transportation be provided to another shelter or location?
Red Cross shelter management kits contain numerous posters and templates for providing this information. Shelter managers are required to post signs frequently as well as label important areas such as restrooms in the shelter. Shelter managers also post signage indicating the day and a schedule with times for various activities. Shelter managers also brief registration staff so that they can answer questions. Shelter managers also address the shelter population throughout each day with important information and updates. Shelter managers also have knowledge of outside events related to a particular disaster that shelter clients do not. Managers must provide this information appropriately.
Shelter managers are encouraged to supply daily newspapers, television, radios, and a bulletin board with rules and routines. Shelter managers are also encouraged to initiate regular meetings with shelter residents to discuss their concerns. Managers can “deputize” shelter residents with particular skills in a shelter to respond to needs. Information meetings can yield such important information.
For example, while managing registration during Hurricane Irene one of the residents I met was a federal employee evacuated from her home on Sandy Hook. I immediately “deputized” her with roles, briefed her on various rules and information, and engaged her in registering evacuees who were lining up at the door and growing impatient for cots. She was also provided with relevant information to share with residents.
A problem arose when incorrect information was disseminated throughout the shelter. This created a stressful situation with many residents anxious and uneasy. Shelter residents were incorrectly informed of a transportation issue which led to dozens of residents jamming corridors and preventing traffic while growing further stressed and anxious. Proper information and schedules could have alleviated this problem.
This concept of information, routine and schedules is critical to “How to Build An Impossible Bottle.” Lucas is accustomed to a particular routine of Monday through Friday with weekends and summers off. Addy is not. She is prepared for a more chaotic schedule. As Lucas learns the concept of mayday and disaster response, he begins to understand the importance of the literal and philosophical concepts of information and schedule.