In light of these tragic disasters, Pacific County is vamping up its response plan for emergencies and disasters. County officials met with Washington State Emergency Management Human Services Manager Mark Tobert last Friday, August 8, to further the relationship between the state and county emergency programs.
"Our mission is to help people recover from disasters by advocating for them. We want to identify serious disaster related needs," Tobert said. "We want to make sure that the assistance is available and we get the information out to the citizens."
The state programs that are mobilized in light of a disaster include: Emergency Assistance, Housing Assistance, Disaster Economic and Physical Loss Loans (2% loan through the Small Business Association), Other Needs Assistance, Crisis Counseling, Disaster Unemployment, and Disaster Legal Services. As a recent addition, the state will also provide child care to those who need it to remain employed or search for employment after a disaster.
As Tobert is the only full-time employee for emergency program, the state's programs are implemented by a corps of 75 disaster reserves around the state who are mobilized in the case of a natural disaster. "I'm always trying to recruit disaster reservists for all over the state," Tobert said. "The disaster reservist pool is a lifesaver in this program."
Disaster reservists are paid $22/hour plus per diem when mobilized. Contact Tobert at (253)512-7028 or firstname.lastname@example.org to become a reservist.
In addition to state programs, when a disaster is declared, FEMA will enter into a community to provide immediate relief in addition to much needed funds. The maximum award that FEMA will give to a disaster victim who has lost their home or possessions is $32,400. "That is not a lot of money, especially in that disaster we just had in Oso or the fires where you had your entire house burn down and you still owed a mortgage on it. That's FEMA's max award on their check, that doesn't mean that's all the assistance that's available to you. Even though the max award is $32,400, most people only qualify for between $3,000 and $5,000."
In the case of a disaster, FEMA works "like a machine," Tobert explained, setting up a headquarters office within a day and getting victims the most immediate assistance possible.
Individual counties also have their own emergency plans, developed locally by those who are familiar with the area. With the recent disasters in Oso and Eastern Washington, the county plans in Snohomish and Okanogan Counties were put to the test.
"Snohomish County had an excellent social services program and they were able to grab on to building a long-term recovery group, but they hadn't exercised their plan," Tobert recounted. "They were slow to put things together. They could have been faster to respond to the needs of the community."
As a more rural and tight-knit community, Okanogan County had more practice working together. "Their community responded better to the fires because they worked together as a community more often in the real world, so they had a better relationship already established," Tobert said.
"That would be my observation about this county. I don't know if we exercise it often enough, but the relationships are already in place," Scott McDougall, deputy director of the Pacific County Emergency Management Program, added.
Pacific County has a Certified Emergency Responder Team (CERT) of 45 trained individuals, but the county is always looking to add more. Contact McDougall at 875-9338 to volunteer.
Having worked in emergency management at the county level in Florida, "hurricane country", for 20 years, Tobert has extensive experience locally organizing people. He attested to the importance of having a local volunteer group. "I managed a 1,000 member CERT team in Florida that was a county-wide CERT team - that was a great help. You train them up to exactly what you want them to do in the communities that they live in and to report back to you damage assessment. That's the quickest way to get damage reports."
Although FEMA, the state, and the county have funds and resources tucked away for Pacific County in the case of a disaster, the reality is that long-term solutions after emergencies must come from charitable sources and the communities themselves, Tobert explained. "Once FEMA leaves and once the state leaves, it comes back to the local community. It's important to manage our local resources with charitable organizations and have them in our loop with knowing the resources to reach out to, knowing who to talk to at the state, and having those resources lined up for them ahead of time."
He continued, "We don't want to come to a disaster and meet people for the first time. That's kind of why I'm here, for introductions. If you want to get your charitable organizations or local volunteer groups to meet with me and talk about these types of things, I'd be glad to do that. The best defense is to have an active partnership between all of those organizations. When it comes back to the local community, those are the groups that are going to manage that long-term recovery."
In the case of an emergency, call 911 for immediate life support. If there is not an immediate threat, "information will be available at the local fire stations and the public safety building. We'll do our best to make sure people are as informed as possible," McDougall said.