Jenny Novak Publications

Emergency Manager | Speaker | Writer

Tag: Ventura County

Disaster Recovery: Measuring the Impacts and Defining Survivors

Recovery remains the murkiest phase of the disaster cycle. Unless you have experienced a significant disaster in your jurisdiction then you haven’t had an opportunity to practice and explore recovery concepts. Recovery does not have a well-defined beginning and end, therefore we tend to shy away from it and choose to focus our planning instead on the distinctive and adrenaline filled response phase.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

US Federal Government Disaster Assistance

FEMA has two primary recovery programs that provide disaster assistance: Public Assistance (for local and state governments) and Individual Assistance (for individuals / households). The first step in accessing these programs is a request from the Governor to the President to declare a Major Disaster. Once received, FEMA will review information about the disaster’s impacts.

The metrics they typically rely on include the estimated monetary value to public property (obtained through initial damage estimates submitted by the local jurisdiction), the number of private housing units that are damaged or destroyed and the number of these which are uninsured. Based on these numeric estimates, and the Preliminary Damage Assessment validation process, FEMA will make a recommendation to the President about granting a disaster declaration and which types of assistance should be activated. Sometimes, only one type of assistance will be granted initially, and then additional categories will get added as more information is collected and verified.

Photo by Jonathan Ford on Unsplash

Broadening the Definition of Disaster Survivors

This view of recovery is narrow, focused only on numbers and physical damages. As I outlined in my recent article on the ripple effect of disasters, the true impacts of disaster tend to be much broader. These include interruption to work and loss of hourly wages, losses experienced by undocumented populations, loss of outbuildings that were used for primary residences, displacement of renters outside of the disaster zone, school closures and childcare impacts, health impacts related to poor air quality, economic impacts due to air quality related closures, and psychological impacts on the greater community.

When we begin to think about the true number of people who could be defined as disaster survivors, we see that the reach is much broader than who qualifies for FEMA’s Individual and Household Assistance program currently.  Assuming that you live in a county that was included in a Major Disaster Declaration for which Individual Assistance was activated, you have to be able to prove that you lived in a disaster damaged residential structure, prove that you were uninsured or underinsured, and show evidence that a member of your household is a “US citizen, non-citizen national or qualified alien.”

As depicted in a recent NPR article on FEMA’s high denial rate for disaster assistance applications during the 2020 Oregon Wildfires, this is not an easy process. “During last year’s fire season in Oregon, FEMA didn’t approve roughly 70% of claims. That’s after FEMA filtered out applications it had deemed as potentially fraudulent. In California, FEMA didn’t approve 86% of claims.”

There is much room for error in the paperwork process and if the automated systems are unable to verify you along the way, your application will likely be denied. Of course, there is an appeal process but many who see the word ‘denied’ simply move on. Hassling with bureaucratic paperwork and jumping through hoops is the last thing that most disaster survivors want to do.

So if those who meet the currently narrow definition of survivors are experiencing their share of problems accessing aid, how do we go about creating a system that supports an expanded definition of disaster survivors?

Early 2018 meeting of Ventura’s Long Term Recovery Group

Involving Community Based Organizations

While government financial assistance can be extremely beneficial, it shouldn’t be relied upon as the only way to support individuals following disasters. That’s where non-profit organizations and community based organizations can step in to be incredibly important local assets. Case management efforts can be best coordinated by the formation of a Long Term Recovery Group (LTRG) for resource and information sharing.  Following the series of disasters in 2017 and 2018 in Ventura County, the LTRG became a critical driver of recovery efforts. The group ensured that monetary grants provided by the American Red Cross, Tzu Chi, the Salvation Army and others were issued in a coordinated manner and helped survivors navigate the process of identifying and applying for all available aid.

One of the leading organizations in Ventura’s LTRG is the Ventura Community Foundation. Before my experience with the recovery, I was unaware of the role that such foundations can play after disaster. According to the Council on Foundations,

“Community foundations are grantmaking public charities that are dedicated to improving the lives of people in a defined local geographic area. They bring together the financial resources of individuals, families and businesses to support effective nonprofits in their communities.”

As a trusted fiduciary agent in the community, the Ventura Community Foundation has been able to provide both short and long term recovery grants to individuals and community based organizations impacted by disaster and also partner with grassroots organizations to amplify fundraising and giving efforts. This is a largely untapped resource for emergency managers, and a critical stakeholder to identify and bring to the table in pre-planning efforts. The mission of such organizations aligns closely with filling the gap between survivor needs and available assistance.

Photo by Christopher Paul High on Unsplash

Shift the Focus to Community

My experience and research on recovery has revealed that an effective recovery strategy is to expand our focus from individuals to the community. While financially supporting the most deeply impacted individuals is a critical component of recovery, there are many non-financial factors that can support survivor recovery too. One is having the ability to share their story, which is most effectively done through community healing events, such as fundraisers, vigils, and memorials that specifically recognize the hurt and trauma that disaster has caused. Effective case management staff, volunteers, emergency managers and any other representatives working with the survivors can also help meet this need simply by allowing space and time for survivors to share their experiences. It may take an extra hour out of a busy day, but as architects of community recovery we need to recognize and understand this need and build time into our agendas to allow it.

Another key factor in survivor recovery and post traumatic growth is feeling connected to something greater than themselves. Service opportunities allow survivors to give back and regain their agency, thus rewriting the narrative that might have painted them as ‘victims.’ Creating such opportunities alongside community events can be a huge booster in community resiliency and recovery. As much as possible, survivors need to find a place and mechanism to connect with one another, to hear each other, and to console each other. Local businesses and organizations can be huge assets in facilitating these opportunities.

Photo by William Warby on Unsplash

New Methods of Measuring Recovery

When I gave my recovery presentation at the IAEM Encore conference last month, I was asked a really interesting question: If acres burned and homes destroyed don’t tell us the full story, what metrics should we be using to measure recovery? As I’ve considered this question, some immediate ideas drawn from the ripple effect come to mind. Perhaps we can look at economic statistics—jobs lost, hours lost (although how do you gather that data?), retail losses, tourism losses, agriculture losses, etc. And maybe we could measure through days that schools and other anchor community establishments are closed. Another possible metric could be the number of people seeking assistance through local non-profits. In Ventura County, a good indicator was the number of disaster related calls placed to their local 2-1-1 (help line for general questions on services, resources, and information in the county).

But the more I thought about the question, the more I realized that trying to find a quantitative method to measure recovery might be the wrong approach. Instead, maybe we need to try to measure it qualitatively. Numbers can only tell us so much. Metrics cannot convey the true human impact of disaster the way that survivor stories can.

To really illustrate true impacts, relief agencies need to understand what it was like to be there during the disaster and the lingering social, psychological, and economic impacts that survivors feel. Focusing on the direct financial impacts will only ever tell a sliver of the story. Let’s look instead toward ways to collect qualitative data—what are the themes of loss, hope and healing among survivor stories?

At the beginning of 2020, Ventura Community Foundation held a ‘Ted Talks’ style event where disaster grant recipients shared brief stories about the impact of the funds on their recovery. It was emotionally moving and hugely successful– benefactors left with a much deeper understanding of where their dollars were going and a strong motivation to continue giving. When survivor stories are published in media, they can also reveal losses and plight of the more ‘invisible’ members of the community.

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

Expanding Emergency Management

In the recovery phase there is a fine line between making life better for disaster survivors and making life better in general. Often, disaster serves to illuminate pre-existing inequities and inadequacies in social systems. It’s hard to isolate needs that are related solely to the disaster and turn a blind eye to needs that also exist in blue skies. That is where recovery so closely blends into the mitigation phase of the cycle–what can we design, develop, and build back better so that the next incident doesn’t become a disaster?

This nexus between recovery and mitigation is the most fascinating to me personally, and the area where I think that our field has the most potential for growth. Here is the place where we can really show our value and embed our work with community development, economic development, urban planning, social advocacy, environmental justice, and other agencies who work on reducing social vulnerability every day. These may not be the first stakeholders we imagine when we think about whole community partnerships, but they are unequivocally important to engage during recovery. And as we all know, it’s better to build the relationships before the disaster hits.

Mass Shooting Response: Different than ‘Natural’ Disasters

Today is the one-year anniversary of the Borderline Bar and Grill mass shooting incident that occurred in Thousand Oaks in Ventura County, California. With so many of these types of incidents occurring each year in the U.S., you might not recall the details of this particular one. A gunman (young male ex-Marine) entered the popular line dancing / country music establishment just before midnight on college night. He shot staff members, then opened fire on the patrons as they fled, many jumping from second story windows to escape. Two officers made entry and engaged in a shootout with the suspect, Ventura County Sergeant Ron Helus was fatally wounded. The gunman killed himself before authorities attempted a second entry. A total of 12 innocent lives, mostly college students, were taken that night. The incident hit Thousand Oaks hard and the community was still reeling from the tragedy when many residents were forced to evacuate from the Woolsey Fire less than 24 hours later.

This was also the first (and currently the only) mass shooting incident that I ever responded to. As I listen to the news broadcasts about the community healing events and the dedication of the Ron Helus memorial highway today I am remembering how this tragedy impacted me personally and what elements made this response unique among all the natural hazards induced disasters that I’ve responded to. At the time, I hadn’t yet found out I was pregnant with Scarlett. So much has changed in this year and it’s given me the clarity to reflect honestly on what was the craziest day in my emergency response career so far, and how responding to this man made disaster was different in many ways than responding to nature induced disasters.

The view from the Central Ave overpass of Highway 101 during the law enforcement procession for Sgt Helus.

A Different Rhythm

Unlike the frequent wildfire / hurricane / storm responses that we emergency managers are used to dealing with mass shootings are quick. For ‘natural’ disasters we usually have days to ramp up our response as weather predictions show us when the danger is likely to occur to our communities. The response period is prolonged as we issue evacuations and then monitor sheltering and impacts with our EOC’s active for several days or weeks until the threat has passed. With mass shootings, nearly 70% end in less than 5 minutes. Of course, we are still in response mode while first responders arrive and establish command on the scene. But the incident very quickly enters the recovery phrase, the threat has passed in the blink of an eye and as emergency managers our role is entirely to deal with the aftermath. Your EOC does not need a position dedicated to advanced planning, weather monitoring or predictive services on fire behavior. These incidents are extremely hot and heavy—they come on quickly with intensity and are almost always totally unexpected. The good news is that your EOC activation will not last long, the bad news is that you will immediately have fatalities and that always ups the ante on any response.

News stations at the Ventura EOC report on the status of the shooter.

Criminal Investigations

Because you already have fatalities and these were no accidental deaths, your coordination will have to work around a criminal investigation of the incident. That does mean that your incident command post will need to be organized to endure for a much longer duration than law enforcement led incidents usually do. There will be new partners descending on the scene to fill their roles and your agency may have never worked with them before. One of the most critical being the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and their Victim Services Division. Your state may also have a victim services branch that will want to be involved in the response. This means that your field staff will almost certainly be seeing a lot of new faces at the ICP, but if you have taken the time to plan and train in advance they should at least be aware of the support these agencies can offer and what their processes are like. Be aware that victim identification may take longer than it would for a single shooting or for a nature induced incident because of the ongoing criminal investigation and the involvement of the FBI as they determine whether the incident will be categorized as terrorism.

The cover of the EOC Action plan for the incident.

The Role of Emergency Managers

The most important role that emergency managers should own in these incidents is to coordinate a Family Assistance / Reunification Center. I prefer the terminology ‘Assistance’ Center since inherently some will not be reunified with loved ones and the usage of this word can bring unnecessary additional grief to the families of the deceased. At the Ventura County EOC supporting the logistics of both the Incident Command Post and the Family Assistance Center quickly became our primary focus. The ICP will need things like lighting, barricades, and additional security measures to protect the responders from the public due to the sensitive nature of the response. The Family Assistance Center will need a location, and agency representatives who can assist families including behavioral health staff, chaplains, the American Red Cross and any other local NGO’s who can offer support, and law enforcement representatives to provide and collect information. Both locations will need basic items like tables and chairs and it helps to create a comforting environment to be able to provide things like tissue, snacks, and coffee at the Family Assistance Center. It’s ideal to get this going very quickly to alleviate the pressure on the ICP as family members and media will be drawn to the scene of the crime. If you have a FAC plan in place with locations and agency contacts predetermined it will certainly expedite the process. Remember that this could happen in the middle of the night, as it did in Thousand Oaks, so having 24-hour points of contact for facilities and agencies is ideal.

The memorial for the victims outside the Borderline Grill.

Gun Control Politics

Your jurisdiction will quickly become the focus of national and international news attention. You shouldn’t be surprised if you’re trending on Twitter very quickly and ‘your town + strong’ becomes a popular hashtag. People are shocked and horrified by mass shootings, and the attention will be immediate and intensely laser focused on the incident. Although natural disasters may cause more physical destruction and also take lives, mass shootings are seen as more preventable and the brutal intentionality of these incidents draws the attention of the nation, if not the world. During the Borderline incident, we were shocked to receive an interview request in Hebrew from a news outlet in Israel. When planning for mass shootings, the importance of effective public information cannot be overstated. You must have your best PIOs available both at the ICP and in the EOC to disseminate accurate information, showcase what your agency is doing to respond, and to convey compassion. You will also find yourself thrown unwillingly into the national gun debate immediately and both elected officials and PIOs should be equipped to respond appropriately to heavily political questions they may receive. I highly recommend testing public information as a core capability during mass shooting exercises as it can become overwhelming quickly and commanding messaging with clarity and dignity is critical in how your response and your community will be portrayed and remembered in the international eye.

Each victim was honored with memorabilia and items specific to their interests and personalities.

Emotional Nature

The absolute most important element of a mass shooting response in contrast to a natural hazard incident is the intensity of the emotions involved. Be prepared for an extremely somber atmosphere, your EOC will feel very different than it does during routine weather events. While your EOC staff will be working very hard to fulfill their roles, they will also be very distraught, saddened, and scared that such a horrific tragedy has occurred in their community. In Ventura, everyone knew Sgt Helus, he had trained with the EOC team and had been involved in the Thomas Fire response the previous year. So while the team was working hard intellectually to deal with an unprecedented type of response, they were also working extremely hard emotionally to process that a colleague had been murdered. In the December 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack, the victims included many county staff who were attacked during a holiday luncheon. These incidents often hit very close to home for those of us involved in the response and can have ramifications for continuity of operations as well. When everyone on the team is devastated by the deaths of colleagues or if some of the victims include the team members, how can you continue to respond and provide services to the community? While it’s a very delicate subject and nearly impossible to fully prepare for, I recommend that these personal elements be tested and discussed during any emergency exercises with mass shooting scenarios. And if you are responding to an EOC for a mass shooting as an outside agency representative, remember that this is deeply personal. While you may have dealt with loss of life during a disaster before, as we had recently in the Montecito mudslides incident, this was different, this was intentional murder. Take off your vest for a moment and remember that you are all human beings and the most important thing is to recognize and honor the humanity of those responding beside you. They are dealing with loss while still performing their duties and they can use your personal support. The night that I responded to Borderline, I wore my Ventura OES polo instead of my CalOES one (against protocol). I hoped this small, non-verbal gesture would show them that on that night I responded as one of them. I greeted each of the team members with compassion, looking into their eyes and telling each that I was sorry for their loss, as I realized these were not simply my colleagues they were my friends. I came that night not just as a state employee supporting local government, but as a human being honoring their organization and giving all of myself to the team however I could.

A painting of hero Ron Helus at his memorial on 11/15/18.

In Remembrance

Today, I honor the memory of those innocent lives that were taken too soon a year ago and particularly the heroism of Ron Helus, who died trying to stop additional murders in his hometown. The community of Thousand Oaks has been through a tremendous amount of adversity in the past year and it’s been my honor to support them as a state liaison. It’s important to remember that while these incidents will be ‘over’ quickly, the healing and recovery process will take years. Thousand Oaks has responded with some innovative outlets for community healing, including a writing project and a community healing garden. In remembrance of this tragedy, take some time today to think about your own plans for an active shooter and what you can add or exercise next to remain vigilant to the nuances of these man made incidents.