An Island disaster plan should be a priority
The matter of a comprehensive, integrated disaster plan that responds to our community's special needs should be one of our priorities. While on assignment with the Red Cross this summer, I had the opportunity to see firsthand the mid-summer floods that struck Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. My services were in disaster mental health, with responsibility to provide assistance to both the victims and Red Cross staff at the disaster relief sites.
From a myriad of observations made during my experience, I want to share two with fellow Vineyarders.
The collaboration that existed among the governmental and private agencies and civic and church organizations involved in the disaster response and relief operations was exemplary. For example, the participation of the county and city health agents and emergency managers who would attend the Red Cross staff meetings each morning. The managers would provide updates on gains made in the impacted city and rural areas in searching residences, clearing out of water-soaked homes, and picking up debris (hauled to the roadsides). Health agents would provide updates on water quality and on the outreach efforts to the undocumented population in the impacted area, concerned that they would be reluctant to seek out assistance and would not know of the mandated restrictions placed on both drinking and bathing, which applied to sewer, well, and river water.
The operation was not without its politics. Understandably, with so many agencies working together for the same goal, sometimes authority and personalities blurred the lines of command. When this occurred, though, it was in private discussions. What victims viewed was an integration of agencies providing an almost seamless delivery of services - with the victims' short-term needs taking priority. From a mental health perspective, that seamless delivery provided the confidence needed by the victims. It made it possible for the teenager who was assisting his single parent mother to apply for assistance to talk about hearing his pet dog drown in the rising water, or the 72-year-old whose wife was wheelchair bound tear up about being just too old to start over.
Lastly, it made me proud to live in this Island community that is endeavoring to establish an infrastructure - crossing all municipal, county, and tribal jurisdictions - which will provide response and relief from that inevitable natural or manmade disaster. The principle Vineyard agencies involved are emergency managers, health agents, medical reserve core, emergency medical and fire services, law enforcement, Red Cross, and Salvation Army. Additionally, there is Martha's Vineyard Community Services and Martha's Vineyard Hospital, and the private nursing agencies. Our public and charter schools and Councils on Aging are educating our young people and elders about preparedness. My experiences this summer taught clearly how very important this preparation is and what a difference it will make in the lives of all of us in a disaster. We should understand that these relief efforts provide victims with only temporary respite. However, the empathy and confidence provided will, hopefully, instill in victims the impetus to move ahead through the unknowns as they begin rebuilding their lives over the long term.
As we come to the end of our summer and settle into the fall and winter months and we resume meetings and activities focused on more commonplace and less dramatic concerns, we need to continue to support our local governments in their planning efforts - and all of us should identify ways we, personally, can volunteer when the times comes.
Deborah Medders lives in Vineyard Haven. She is the town moderator and the former Director of the Martha's Vineyard Red Cross Chapter, now merged with Cape Cod and Nantucket to establish the Cape Cod & Islands Red Cross Chapter.