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Hurricanes Katrina, Rita left many social agencies isolated

| Sunday, July 26, 2009

When computer servers at Fayette County's Children and Youth Services department crashed three years ago, caseworkers quickly learned of the challenges their counterparts in Louisiana faced when hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed the Gulf Coast in 2005.

"It was very debilitating," said Gina D'Auria, casework manager. "We learned how completely dependent we were on the computer system. All of our referrals, our forms — when it crashed, we couldn't function. We were going by memory."

D'Auria said the agency managed to maintain operations during the three-day crash, allowing caseworkers to monitor children in its care and respond to new reports of suspected abuse until repairs were made.

Child-welfare caseworkers in Louisiana didn't have the benefit of a quick fix when hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit. According to a Government Accountability Office report, workers couldn't access their case files for weeks. They had trouble finding foster parents and could not communicate with one another because phones were down. In some areas, caseworkers had to reconstruct case files from memory because the files had been obliterated in the storms.

Looking to prevent a repeat elsewhere, the federal government in 2006 passed a law requiring states that receive federal funding for child-welfare services to develop disaster-response plans. The Child and Family Services Improvement Act of 2006 requires that agencies have mechanisms in place to find children in their care who are displaced in a disaster; maintain communications with workers; respond to new child-welfare reports; preserve essential agency records; and communicate with agencies in other states.

Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare, which oversees child welfare agencies, does not keep copies of disaster plans. But a review of those plans has been part of the inspection process since the federal law went into effect, said spokeswoman Stacey Witalec.

Allegheny County

Allegheny County officials drafted a disaster-response plan well ahead of the federal requirement.

Robert Stumpp, senior policy manager for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, said he was put in charge of a disaster planning team shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The department has five program areas that aid not only children, but the elderly, the disabled and people with mental health and drug and alcohol issues.

Most of the department's work is done through its 400 nonprofit providers, Stumpp said.

"It means that communication (with consumers) typically goes through the provider network," he said. "On Sept. 11, we found out we did not know how to do any of this effectively."

Today, Stumpp leads a team of employees from each program area who work together on emergency management issues.

"We all have laptops. We all have cell phones that also have push-to-talk capabilities, because on Sept. 11 nobody's cell phone worked," Stumpp said. "We created good relationships with emergency management."

With the touch of a push-to-talk button, Stumpp can get in touch with emergency officials and vice versa.

When Stumpp learns of an emergency, he'll contact his team members, who will then contact providers in the areas affected by the disaster.

So, if a train derails and leaks a chemical, the department will contact all foster care providers in that area to let them know about the situation and to work with them on evacuation if necessary.

Fayette County

Fayette's plan includes an off-site server that will contain the same records maintained on its primary server, D'Auria said. The off-site server will be housed at Fayette Area Coordinated Transportation offices in Dunbar Township. The main office is in South Union.

"With the computer system with an off-site backup, if one goes down, we have the other," D'Auria said.

The agency will purchase 14 two-way radios for staff to use in the event phone service is down, said Dave Madison, agency administrator. In addition, the agency will have six laptops available for use in a disaster. Those laptops can be used for daily work as well, he said.

"With the laptops, they'll be able to access information outside of the office, say, if they had to respond to a hospital," he said. "So it will be a time-saver."

About 63 percent of the funding for the equipment will be obtained through state and federal sources, Madison said.

Westmoreland County

Westmoreland County's disaster-response plan calls for operations to be moved temporarily to Westmoreland Manor, if necessary, said administrator Shara Saveikis. The agency's main office is in the courthouse annex in Greensburg.

Saveikis said employees have access to agency records via a Web-based application. Caseworkers already have laptops they use to access the system remotely, she said.

Caseworkers who are in the field during a disaster will be instructed to stay there and maintain telephone contact with the agency, according to the county's disaster response plan. Top priority will be given to essential functions such as confirming the safety of children in the agency's care and child abuse investigations.

Butler County

Butler County Children and Youth Services had a disaster plan in place that met federal requirements, but when Joyce Ainsworth took over as director a year ago, she wasn't satisfied.

"It really wasn't very comprehensive, so we're working on a much more comprehensive plan right now," Ainsworth said. "We're looking at what we have to do for 24 hours, two weeks and two months (after a disaster), because each requires different planning."

Ainsworth said both Hurricane Katrina and the fear of a pandemic flu have spurred child welfare agencies to take a hard look at their plans.

"The circumstance could happen that you have less than 50 percent of your staff, and you need to know what are you going to do and how are you going to do that," she said.

Butler officials have been gathering disaster plans from child care providers and working with them to develop emergency contacts. They plan to buy walkie-talkies for communication if cell phones don't work, and they're drafting a contingency plan in the event their building becomes unusable.

"We were even talking about doing some drills and things — that's never been done before," Ainsworth said.

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