Shelter fundamentals: Preparing for the worst

Workshop provided details on what to do when emergency shelters are needed on-Island.


Bob Dylan’s lyrics “Come in, she said, I’ll give ya/ Shelter from the storm” could have been the theme song to Friday night’s Shelter Fundamentals Disaster Cycle Services workshop. From start to finish it was a consummate best-practices training on how to resource, open, operate, and close an emergency Red Cross shelter. Representatives from the Salvation Army, Houses of Grace, Dukes County Sheriff’s Department, Dukes County Housing Authority, Edgartown EMS, West Tisbury Emergency Management, American Red Cross volunteers, and a high school teacher filled the upstairs training room at the Oak Bluffs fire station.

The Red Cross is clearly highly skilled at what it does, as well as teaching how to do it. The three-hour workshop, interrupted by only short breaks, flew by. Red Cross lead instructor Robert Millette went at a perfect pace, taking us through the key elements and tips to creating a safe haven should the need arise.

Illona Metell, American Red Cross shelter supervisor, nailed the vital need for this training when telling me, “In working with the local emergency volunteer groups, and the local emergency managers, and in keeping up with nationwide disaster news, we realize the Vineyard could potentially be hit with a major storm event. Knowing that our supplies and contact with off-Island are mainly dependent on boats and that major storm systems affect them, we are looking to bring the community on the Island more instruction to establish and staff a shelter should we need one. The Red Cross is rebuilding our Island team; and in order to ensure that we could staff, manage, and operate a shelter, we will regularly offer courses on sheltering.”

Millette didn’t talk “at us,” but rather engaged us with conversation, questions, and frequent breakout groups in order to keep everyone on their toes. He worked in tandem with Edward J. Blanchard, American Red Cross disaster program manager of Cape, Islands and Southeastern Massachusetts, who punctuated our time with pertinent information and tips from his first-hand experience.

We began with an informative and sometimes amusing round-robin of introducing ourselves, our affiliation, what we hoped to accomplish … and what we would bring with us to a shelter should disaster hit. Many of us right off mentioned our pets (including a hedgehog), some jokingly hesitated when mentioning their children. Those who said medication, glasses, and vital papers (such as those in your wallet, birth certificate, and so forth) were definitely onto something. Food and supplies for your pets are important as well. We learned that Massachusetts law mandates shelters make plans for pets, although, unless they are service animals (including miniature horses), they won’t be allowed to stay with you in the dormitories. Fortunately, here on the Island we have the M.V. Animal Disaster Response team, who have our backs in making sure our animals are in good, knowledgeable hands.

Over the course of the evening, what emerged was reviewing the shelter checklist, how to set up welcoming registration areas including receiving clients, along with a reproducible example of the registration form, which allows for making additional referrals as needed. We learned where to post signs for internal and external locations that clearly communicate information necessary to keep everything easy for the clients in navigating the space. There was also how to set up and monitor the dormitory environment that ensures client safety and comfort, how to establish food distribution areas and monitor them, and the necessity of meeting clients’ dietary needs. Likewise, we discovered how to set up, and the importance of, information sharing and identifying multiple communication strategies. And finally, the steps to return a shelter to its pre-disaster condition.

With so much to take in, I asked Millette to share the “Cliff’s Notes” of top things to know about establishing a shelter: “The first thing is setting up a registration area. We have to be able to process people in so when they show up, we know what their needs are. For instance, if they need medical services, and if they are beyond our capabilities, we can get EMS. The second is, in a stressful situation, people are going to be hungry and thirsty. Therefore, the 24-hour snack table [is vital], so we always have something out there whether you have kids who just need a quick bite or you or your clients just need something to hold you over until mealtimes. There is also setting up the dormitory operations, so people do have a place to stay at night. Those are the big three.”

For us folks going to a shelter, Millette suggests, 1. Know where the shelter is. 2. Bring a multiple-day supply of medications, since once you are there the Red Cross will probably not be able to help you locate additional ones, especially if the pharmacies are closed. 3. Don’t forget your paperwork: birth certificates, Social security cards, etc., that you need to both protect and will need afterwards. 4. Bring supplies for your pets. (Remember, too many pets will only eat their particular food, and the supermarkets may not be open and restocked.)

Before we left, Ann Marie Cywinski stressed that Martha’s Vineyard Disaster Services is always looking for volunteers to help in any way they can and for however long they can. If you are interested, you can reach her at, or 508-317-6644. To learn about ways to participate with the Red Cross, visit their website, Of note too, is their free smoke alarm program:

While you hope that a shelter is never needed, the training is comforting that there are people ready should the need arise. “We have mental and spiritual health [people] to help clients keep their lives in order as they’re going through,” Millette said. “But we’re hoping to make it as unstressful for them as possible.”

The training was sponsored by the American Red Cross, supported by the emergency management directors, the Salvation Army, Medical Reserve Corps, and the M.V. Disaster Animal Response Team.



  1. I’d like to thank these attendees for being pro-active. When we get the ‘big one’, your cell phone wont work, so you wont get ‘alerts’, you wont be able to go ‘online’ to read your local PD facebook since the internet wont work, if you have a well and no generator hooked up, you wont be able to take a shower,flush your toilet, drink water, bath, or heat your home. It will be impossible to evacuate the Island so we are stuck here to ‘shelter in place’. Complacency is dangerous.

Comments are closed.