Breezy Point, New York, USA - December 3, 2012: Hurricane Sandy impact on Oceanside Drive at Breezy Point

Disaster Case Management: An Important Disaster Response Tool

Effective disaster response and recovery involves identifying and establishing an organization that serves the needs of vulnerable populations utilizing pre-disaster risk assessments and crisis management communication, with planned and tested tools and robust resources. Disaster Case Management is one such tool.

On 29 October 2012, Superstorm Sandy had a devastating significant impact on the East Coast of the United States. The densely populated east coast of New Jersey was especially vulnerable. Many of the people affected were senior citizens who lacked information and resources. Thus, Disaster Case Management (DCM) was so vital in connecting these vulnerable populations with available resources. In the aftermath of Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) DCM program was implemented by New York and New Jersey, under the supervision and a grant funded by FEMA, which was awarded to an existing nonprofit organization.

Federal Disaster Case Management is a program that addresses human services needs through state level partnership with Health and Human Services. Currently, this program is only available during presidentially declared disasters upon request by the governor through FEMA. DCM is a recovery partnership between disaster survivors and case managers. The process involves identifying unmet needs: monetary, advocacy, and other resources that are necessary to cope and recover from a disaster. Each disaster survivor has unique needs whether social, financial, or legal. Disaster case managers identify those needs and connect them with the necessary resources. When necessary, it sometimes involves “holding hands,” such as making calls to insurance companies and contractors on behalf of elderly survivors. Disaster case managers empower survivors.

DCM is a process activated during the earliest post-disaster response phase. However, disaster case managers incorporate the other three phases of emergency management – namely, recovery, as well as post-disaster mitigation and preparedness for future disasters – to help vulnerable populations in enumerable ways. This program can be implemented prior to and/or immediately in the aftermath of the disaster.

Collaboration among stakeholders using the right tools will help identify needs and find solutions to assist communities during the response and recovery phases.

Identifying the Need

The 2019 ongoing COVID-19 response reemphasizes the similarly ongoing need for this program. Coronavirus relief funds (Cares Act enacted on 27 March 2020) provided individuals, businesses, and public bodies with direct and fast relief funds. Although rapid direct funds may be necessary in the immediate response phase of the emergency, ongoing necessity of these funds for families and businesses should be determined through a proper vetting process. This can be accomplished by establishing or utilizing existing DCM services to avoid duplication of benefits and unnecessary distribution of limited funds.

During the current reopening phases across the states, some of these similar issues were apparent during Superstorm Sandy – for example, families unable to pay mortgage or rent; landlord-tenant disputes, and eviction processes related to the event. Pre-established dispute hotlines are inundated with calls related to multiple disputes with no clear guidance on how to address these issues. Landlords in Saint Petersburg, Florida and other states are currently waiting to file eviction notices as soon as a moratorium expires. After these executive orders expire, landlords will proceed with court proceedings.

Some tenants have already been issued summons because the Cares Act of 2020, which prohibits landlords from evicting tenants, applies only to specific properties. Nearly half of rental housing in the United States is owned by private banks or individuals. The act applies only to mortgages held by or secured by government entities. Not all homeowners are wealthy, but they still have to pay mortgages and bills with the rent money they collect, which may be their only source of income. With disputes around the country, the court systems will be overwhelmed by an issue that could have potentially been mitigated or reduced by having a DCM program in place.

In Virginia, similar cases are emerging. Even when there are laws to protect tenants, it is not clear how they can be enforced without going through the court process. Meanwhile, landlords in large-scale properties have control over and can limit services to basic life-essential needs such as water. For example, they can cut off access to water for days. It is next to impossible for a vulnerable family with potential lack of understanding of available information and resources to address these issues. They may not know who to reach out to or when; or who will listen, empower, educate, and advocate for them. As the number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increases as everyone deals with a relatively unpredictable virus, influx in suicide rates may not be avoidable in the upcoming months.

Providing a Solution

DCM services educate all involved communities, identify needed resources, and address diverse needs of the impacted population. Disaster case managers listen to, support, investigate, educate, care for, and advocate for affected families throughout their long road to recovery. Disaster case managers also develop individual recovery plans to guide affected individuals throughout their recovery process.

Surviving a disaster is extremely challenging for affected families. Although hopelessness and PTSD resulting from social isolation, economic insecurity, and unpredictability may not be avoidable, much needed actionable information during the recovery phase can lift burdens and prevent a disaster from overwhelming the public. As such, the importance of DCM cannot be overestimated. Knowing there is an organization and/or a person specifically advocating and supporting individual recovery efforts reassures and gives hope to those severely impacted by this pandemic or any disaster:

  • During the immediate response phase, the FEMA DCM program provides relief services such as food, clothes, and shelter for those severely impacted.
  • In the recovery phase, disaster case managers incorporate post-disaster preparedness and mitigation phases of emergency management. In short, they educate affected communities on how to prepare for future disasters. An established DCM team can connect people to information about relevant codes as well as available local, state, federal, and nonprofit grants.

State, local, territorial, and tribal governments, as well as nonprofit organizations, should collaborate to utilize existing organizations and agencies to assist communities during recovery. Otherwise, without this type of program planned in advance, communities are left to establish new programs and locations with new untrained employees. This then slows the response and recovery processes, which are essential for effective disaster management.

Finding Material & Financial Resources

Ideally, nonprofits with emergency services may be cost efficient since these organizations can also activate teams for disaster recovery with internal donor funds. Federal, state, and local governmental funds can be dispersed among these nonprofits with specific guidelines. This is where multi-agency partnership plans and memorandum of understandings (MOUs) may be established. Disaster recovery is intensive and extensive, thus, very time-consuming. To use the time effectively, redundant, repeatable steps of looking for available resources at various multiple public, private, and nonprofit organizations should be minimized in order to expedite the services for individuals impacted by the disaster.

Materials and equipment that are necessary for rebuilding and rehabilitating may be obtained by creating partnerships with private industry. Implementing MOUs and memoranda of agreement among all governmental levels, nonprofits, and private sectors prior to a disaster may expedite the relief and recovery efforts and eliminate duplication of benefits – especially among large groups of people needing assistance and unable to find it. Providing businesses a tax credit for assisting communities in their recovery needs could be an incentive to build positivity among businesses as they discover this emerging new role. This process and program may even reduce price gauging and fraud activities that are common during and after disasters.

A coordinated effort can identify those that are abusing the system. In response to COVID-19, personal protective equipment donations were scattered throughout different healthcare settings. Coordinating resources through a platform previously established – to identify and track donor funds and available resources – can nearly eliminate the duplication of benefits, which can create shortages of lifesaving resources in one area while others benefit.

Opening new offices at various locations may be costly. The limited financial resources should not be used to open new locations when there are existing organizations performing the same services in the needed areas that are available for sharing. New offices require materials that are costly – for example, fax machines, telephones, and laptops. Therefore, allocating funds, which are already limited, for expanding sites and programs may be a financial burden on the local government. Moreover, although redundancy is essential in emergency and disaster management, it is not necessary for temporary dispersing of funds to the many different agencies during recovery. Federal DCM funding may be combined with an already established disaster management program to enhance funding.

On a final note, the DCM program does compliment “The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act” and can enhance the national efforts on behalf of resilience. One can only hope that it further compliments the Cares Act.

Senay Ozbay

Senay Ozbay is a Certified Emergency Manager through the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) and holds a Master of Public Administration in Emergency and Disaster Management from Metropolitan College of New York. She worked as a disaster case manager for Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton, the Federal Disaster Case Management Program, and helped survivors recover and return to the new normal from Superstorm Sandy. Shortly after, she took on the role of district health emergency planner and coordinator for the Central Virginia Health District, Virginia Department of Health, where she managed the Emergency Preparedness and Response program and accreditation process. She was the public health emergency management planner and coordinator for the city of Alexandria, Virginia, where she managed the Public Health Emergency Management Division. As a dedicated public servant, she recently joined FEMA as an emergency management specialist for Individual Assistance Branch in Recovery.



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