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Stepping up with disaster shelters
VOAD enlisting churches, other sites after Irma experience
Shelters-State Speakers
Chris Baker, left, the American Red Cross of Georgias disaster officer, and Danny Pitchford, the Department of Human Services emergency manager, talked about disaster shelters with Bulloch County officials and volunteers in a recent meeting at First Baptist Church. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

After some confusion occurred with Hurricane Irma, volunteers with Bulloch County VOAD, along with the Bulloch County Emergency Management Agency, recently called on state officials and the American Red Cross for a better understanding about emergency shelters.

Now VOAD, or Volunteer Organization Active in Disaster, is identifying churches and other sizeable buildings that could be used either as Red Cross-managed shelters or as independent “Good Samaritan” shelters to house people affected by a storm or other disaster. The Red Cross will take the lead in inspecting the sites to make sure they meet its standards, requiring no commitment from the churches or other organizations to place the shelters under Red Cross management.

“Other places can open  Good Samaritan shelters that would not have Red Cross  support, but we would want them to already have been inspected and trained by the Red Cross so that we would know that the people that are being housed there are in the safest possible situations,” said Susan Allen, one of Bulloch VOAD’s two coordinators for shelters.

Allen, minister of children at First Baptist Church, said the other coordinator is the Rev. Jimmy Cason, pastor of First United Methodist Church. VOAD’s website lists Cason as in charge of “volunteer vetting.”

First Baptist has had the older of its two social halls inspected by the Red Cross with the intent that the big room could serve as either a Red Cross shelter or a Good Samaritan shelter, Allen said Friday.

“We have already been through our inspection, and so we have that one site complete, and then we would like to have some others that are inspected,” she said. “And then what will happen is we’ll have one training session where we invite everyone to come in to get the training together.”

Other churches, nonprofit organizations or businesses with a facility to offer as a potential shelter can email Allen at


‘Gold standard’

In a meeting with VOAD volunteers and local and state officials Oct. 24 at First Baptist, Red Cross officials said that, for shelters it manages, the organization already insisted on those that can hold at least 75 people, but is  looking for larger shelters than can hold 300 for next hurricane season.

The standard space is at least 20 square feet per person without special needs in a short-term shelter. For shelters where people are expected to stay longer than 48 hours, the space requirement doubles, and is more for people with functional or access needs, such as those on oxygen or in wheelchairs.

Bulloch VOAD is now looking for multiple smaller shelters, but also a few potential shelters with a capacity of up to 300 people for a big event such as a hurricane, Bulloch VOAD volunteer coordinator DeWayne Grice said this week. Besides the Red Cross itself, the inspections can involve the Health Department and other agencies.

“Basically the state and the Red Cross confirmed that the Red Cross has the gold standard of shelter operations,” Grice said. “So we’re going to follow under their guidelines and let them take the lead of shelter inspections. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve got to operate it as a Red Cross shelter, but it means that we’ve met the highest standard.”


Red Cross shelters

Red Cross-managed shelters, staffed by employees of the Division of Family and Children Services or other state agencies as well as Red Cross volunteers, would open only on a decision by the Bulloch County EMA in consultation with state agencies and the Red Cross.

But as happened with Irma, VOAD could coordinate local churches and other sites that would open as Good Samaritan shelters without Red Cross management. When major hurricanes approach the Georgia coast, Bulloch County does not tend to be subject to evacuation orders, but the state agencies and Red Cross usually direct coastal evacuees to shelters further inland.

Georgia Department of Human Services Emergency Manager Daniel Pitchford and American Red Cross Georgia Regional Disaster Officer Chris Baker were the lead speakers at the Oct. 24 meeting.

"Good Samaritan and independent shelters, Red Cross will help them if they can,” Pitchford said. “They're not at the top of the list to get resources, but if they can give it, they will give it."

But for American Red Cross-managed shelters, the Red Cross assumes all liability and furnishes supplies, Baker confirmed.

Their slide show included a list of things provided at Red Cross shelters, including cots, baby bedding, blankets, pillows, baby supplies, food, water and access to other public assistance.

His department, DHS, is the lead state agency for opening disaster shelters. It includes the Division of Family and Children Services, with its county department offices, and 20 percent of DFCS employees are required to receive training in staffing shelters, he said.

But opening shelters requires a call from local emergency managers, in consultation with the Red Cross and state agencies, Pitchford said.


Irma decisions

When Hurricane Irma first approached in early September, it was originally a major hurricane with possible paths that included the Georgia coast. So the Bulloch County Emergency Management Agency followed the usual understanding, that the county does not evacuate for hurricanes, and only advised residents in low-lying areas or insubstantial housing to find more suitable structures, said Bulloch EMA Deputy Director Lee Eckles.

“You could look at our Facebook page …  and nine out of 10 comments are that everybody is so disappointed in Bulloch County because we didn’t open shelters,” he told the state-level officials.

But forecasts at the time predicted tropical storm force  winds and five  to 13 inches of rain, and “based on that information, we never sat around the table and said, ‘Let’s start opening  shelters,’” Eckles said.

When the storm’s course changed and the local forecast improved somewhat, VOAD opened Good Samaritan shelters and “did just a tremendous job,” but more people said there was a need than showed up, Eckles said.

Five of the shelters were opened, from Willow Hill to Statesboro and Register, and Grice reported that about 125 people briefly took refuge in them.

Besides Red Cross officials and Pitchford, employees of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, its state counterpart GEMA, the Health Department and the Salvation Army attended the meeting.


Remaining concerns

Bulloch EMA Director Ted Wynn was away because of a death in his family. But this week he expressed support for the volunteers’ effort to learn more about shelters and identify potential sites.

“I think it’s clearing up some confusion,” Wynn said. “It’s difficult  to make the call about opening shelters in Bulloch County when you have a hurricane that’s threatening the coast of Georgia because we can be very, very close to the danger zone, and then if you put hundreds of people in a shelter that loses power, that’s never a good thing.”

First Baptist has emergency generators that would help, but they would not be enough to provide power throughout its identified shelter space, Allen said.

For independent shelter efforts, without Red Cross management, liability and the potential need for a shelter to remain occupied much longer than one or two nights were discussed as potential concerns. But First Baptist identified a space that could be used without disrupting its Sunday services and weekday programs, and has insurance that would cover liability from use even as a Good Samaritan shelter, Allen said.

The Red Cross inspections are an important step, Wynn said.

“We want to make these shelters available for our citizens, but we also want them to be safe shelters,” Wynn said. “We don’t want to put our citizens in a dangerous situation, and the local community’s involvement and the Red Cross’s involvement are crucial.”

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.



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