Repeated Disasters Taxing for Texas Responders

June 10, 2013
Officials worry that first responders and community volunteers are facing burnout after North Texas has been hit with a number of tragic disasters in recent months.

June 08--The numbers tumbled in, one after another, like dispatches from cities at war.

--April 17, West, fertilizer plant explosion, 15 dead, more than 200 injured.

--May 15, Granbury, Cleburne and surrounding areas, 18 tornadoes touched down, six dead, more than 100 injured.

--May 20, central Oklahoma, 13 tornadoes touched down, 24 dead, more than 500 injured.

--May 31, central Oklahoma, six tornadoes touched down, 20 dead, three missing and more than 121 injured as of Friday.

Financially, philanthropists and donors in North Texas haven't flagged in the face of repeated disasters. But the horrific spring of 2013 is taking its toll on the hearts and minds of volunteers and first responders, who have been repeatedly called upon to help.

People, aid workers say, are in danger of wearing out.

When officials from Habitat for Humanity International arrived in Granbury after tornadoes leveled 60 Habitat partner homes in the Rancho Brazos neighborhood, their first directive to volunteers was to get some sleep, said Amy Parham, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Texas.

"You can't spend the night there every night," Parham said. "This problem is going to be there tomorrow and the next day and the next day.

"Constantly being in a crisis mode doesn't help anyone long-term. This is a long-term problem. You've got to get some rest."

And while tornado season is coming to a close, hurricane season has just begun.

"The general public can become numb to this," said Phillip Bridgewater, a Habitat for Humanity consultant. "It's like living on the Gaza Strip and getting used to war. It's understandable. It's all you've ever known. You get lost in the current disaster you're working on."

Burnout feared

Anita Foster, spokeswoman for the Red Cross Chisholm Trail chapter in North Texas, said donors and volunteers are getting close to burnout.

"We've been asked to respond to countless large-scale disasters back to back to back," Foster said.

Red Cross volunteers in North Central Texas were kept home when tornadoes pummeled central Oklahoma twice in 11 days. Instead, volunteers and disaster recovery specialists were called in from chapters in Michigan and Ohio.

"We are a hurricane site and we knew that hurricane season is right around the corner," Foster said. "So we did something that is real hard for us to do. We did not send anyone.

"That night, normally, we would be on the road to Moore. But we needed to rest our volunteers. We looked at the forecast, and we wanted to make sure that if people had to come up here from the south, there would be someone to greet them."

Workers from the North Central Texas Red Cross were still in West and Granbury when the tornadoes hit Oklahoma, Foster said.

An apartment fire in Dallas that killed a firefighter and displaced 72 families May 20 and an Arlington house fire that killed 2-year-old LilyAnn Condron on June 2 put more stress on the organization, Foster said.

"It was just the exhaustion level for our team," she said. "To lose about a third of West, then to turn around and lose another six people right in our own back yard, and then to lose additional people to another set of tornadoes. ... It was not a resource issue. It was an exhaustion issue.

"When something like West happens, no one goes home for dinner for five weeks. There comes a point in time when people need to reconnect with their families."

No time to rest

Neil McGurk, the American Red Cross supervisor during the West, Granbury and Cleburne relief efforts, said he spent 11 days in West and 14 days in and around Hood County before reports of the Oklahoma tornadoes trickled in.

McGurk arrived in West 12 hours after the initial fertilizer plant fire and got about four hours of sleep a night during his time there.

"We encourage eight hours of sleep a night, but it doesn't always work out that way," he said.

Red Cross operations are continuing in Hood County, and McGurk still travels there from Fort Worth as needed, he said.

Maj. Dan Ford supervised the Salvation Army's relief efforts in West. He and his wife took a weeklong vacation to recharge after the initial response. Ford said he witnessed disaster fatigue after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"Debriefing is very important," Ford said. "Some people had to serve in the mortuary where the bodies of the first responders [from West] were being taken, and you have to have an opportunity to get that out so it doesn't get pent-up inside and emerge in unhealthy ways."

Will donations lag?

Financial help has poured in, but experts worry that it might not last.

Ann Rice, executive director of United Way of Metropolitan Tarrant County, said North Texans have responded quickly to disaster-related needs. But donations falter when it comes to long-term help, she said.

"There's a very distinct difference between relief and recovery," Rice said. "Recovery takes a long time, and sometimes people have moved on. We're amazed that every year we can raise and distribute as much money as we do in the United Way. But it's harder to raise money for recovery."

When the news media moves on, donors often do, too, said Patrick Patey, a spokesman for the Salvation Army in Dallas-Fort Worth.

"A lot depends on how long the visuals are kept in the marketplace," he said. "As long as people continue to see that a need exists, they give. But once the news has shifted its attention, the focus changes."

The initial response -- say, the first week to 10 days -- is frenetic because so much is needed to stabilize the situation, Patey said. But a year after the disaster, Salvation Army workers are often still tending to the needs of those affected, he said.

"We never have enough money to do all the things that need to be done," Patey said.

Donations to the Salvation Army's West relief effort reached $1.09 million last week, and donations for daily operations have remained stable, Patey said. But aid officials said it's too early to determine how the spate of disasters will affect contributions to their day-to-day work as the year unfolds.

Steve MacLaughlin, director of Blackbaud Idea Lab, a software company that tracks charitable giving in more than 60 countries, said disasters typically bring in new donors who increase the funding available to relief organizations.

Donations for Superstorm Sandy relief contributed to a 1.7 percent increase in overall giving in the United States in 2012, according to Blackbaud.

To survive a long recovery effort, charities must develop strategies that create lasting relationships with first-time donors, MacLaughlin said.

"We've looked at this over several major disasters and found that giving peaks within three to four days after the disaster takes place," he said. "Human nature is to sometimes forget about things unless we are reminded.

"Those organizations that take the time to remind people how their donations are helping in the continued effort are the ones that are successful."

Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752 Twitter: @mitchmitchel3

Copyright 2013 - Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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