Improvement in Disaster Readiness, But Rigorous Efforts Remain Necessary

Following a Research Initiative, the Human Services Council Reports on the State of Disaster Readiness in the Human Services Sector 

At a forum organized by the Human Services Council (HSC) on August 3rd on the subject of disaster preparedness, HSC released a report of findings and recommendations of a four-month study examining the disaster-related practices and perceptions of NYC-based human services.

HSC performed the project in cooperation with the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which provided funding and input, along with the Baruch College School of Public and International Affairs, which played a vital role in conducting research.

Of 582 human services leaders invited to participate in an extensive online survey, 210 took part, translating to a 36% response rate, which considerably exceeds average response rates – an encouraging finding in itself, suggesting a strong interest in the subject.  Complementing the survey were focus groups and individualized interviews.

Consistent with the high awareness demonstrated by the survey response rate, an encouraging finding is that the majority of respondents reported that their organizations have recently developed written Emergency Response and Continuity of Operations (COOP) plans. Large organizations are far more likely to develop such plans than small ones, and most organizations of all sizes have yet to enter into partnerships with other organizations allowing for coordinated planning around post-disaster service delivery.

This subject of coordination was explored extensively in the survey and what emerged, quite notably, is that many human services leaders are unsure as to which government entity they should relate. To a significant extent, they believe that NYC Emergency Management leads the immediate response to disasters, but they question which office assumes that role as short-term relief efforts give way to long-term recovery programs.

Begging attention, findings regarding funding were striking. Respectively, 92%, 93%, and 93% of respondents reported that they lacked funds for disaster preparedness, immediate response to disasters, and long-term disaster recovery.

Among HSC’s recommendations are:

§  Establishing a high-level City government office responsible for coordinating disaster-related efforts with the human services sector and NYC Emergency Management and the numerous other government agencies which deal with disasters

§  Establishing a Human Services Operations Center to serve as a counterpart to the City’s Emergency Command Center and, related, developing a human services sector-wide system of post-disaster communication

§  Better integrating grassroots organizations into disaster preparedness and response efforts

§  Developing funding mechanisms that permit human services organizations to prepare and respond to disasters with less risk to destabilizing their budgets

§  Allowing for flexibility within ongoing government contracts for human services – as examples, enabling a child care center to convert to a community center, or a senior center to a senior-visiting program

HSC is concerned that the delays and disruptions that occurred following Sandy, which resulted in unnecessary distress to those affected, would be repeated if another major disaster were to occur imminently — particularly as lessons learned and relationships established fade.

At the same time, we are encouraged that a trend to greater preparedness is increasing and that heightened partnership between the human services sector and government is taking hold – evidenced at our recent forum, in the efforts of a Mayoral task-force on this topic that will soon issue recommendations, and in our own ongoing collaboration with NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

We anticipate much continuing progress over the next months.