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The out of the ordinary can lead to the extraordinary

September 1, 2007
by JENNIFER R. KOPKE, MA, LAC
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A Louisiana human services agency finds ways to improve its operations after Hurricane Katrina

Background courtesy of noaa photo of jennifer kopke by sonny randon photography studio

Photo of Jennifer Kopke by Sonny Randon Photography Studio
Jefferson Parish Human Services Authority (JPHSA) is an 18-year-old, locally governed, publicly funded provider of behavioral healthcare and developmental disability services on the east bank and west bank of the Mississippi River next to New Orleans. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina forever changed Louisiana's most populous parish and the lives of its residents, as well as our agency and employees.

My appointment as JPHSA's executive director was 18 months prior to the event that altered us on a personal and organizational level. Although I knew we would experience transformational change with the new strategic plan and change timeline already in place, I never anticipated the “sucker punch” that knocked us off course in a whirlwind of uncontrolled chaos.

As hurricane season is again upon us, anxiety from still too fresh memories results in what we refer to as the “crisis du jour.” These are not really crises, but with our diminished coping skills, it is often necessary to deal with the distractions of daily problems rather than remain focused on larger goals.

This May, my Executive Team followed the same steps as in the past: updating disaster plans and telephone trees and ensuring that the people we serve and staff have personal evacuation plans in place. We conducted refresher training on the official Jefferson Parish Hurricane Preparedness and Citizen Evacuation Transportation Plans, and on the Web-based Employee Bulletin Board we use to communicate during emergencies. We continue to use our electronic newsletter and staff meetings to reinforce information and plans. Several of us even participated in a drill to test the Citizen Evacuation Transportation Plans, as our clinicians and other staff will provide emergency mental healthcare backup to EMTs and assistance to those with special needs during a real evacuation. Still, I know that even the most comprehensive, well-thought-out plan is subject to shredding in an instant. I wonder if we have the inner strength to survive another event, even a minimal storm. A summer afternoon thunderstorm is often enough to stir memories of water, too much water.

Sitting at my desk, I can look out my window and see the several storefronts of a strip shopping center across the street. They all sit empty. Outside, debris is gone but the damage on the inside is still apparent through the windows, and gaping holes remain in the roof. The recovery process is incomplete. We are still in recovery as well, and our recovery is on a personal level as well as an organizational level.

It is easier to accept that we can never be completely prepared or in control. We cannot provide lighting and air-conditioning when there is no power; we cannot restore flood-soaked and mildewed client records; we cannot ask staff to return to work when they do not have homes, vehicles, or even clothing; we cannot provide services in a facility with roof leaks, no working plumbing, and active mold. We must plan and prepare for the expected, but we also must always remain poised to effectively deal with the unexpected. Most importantly, we must always be aware and sensitive to the impact a disaster has on the staff.

Although our employees were scattered after Katrina, our emergency plans worked. I was communicating with the Executive Team less than 24 hours after the storm. We used telephone trees to locate staff, ensure their safety, and determine their status. Two weeks later, we gathered in the basement of the Capital Building in Baton Rouge to plan for implementing an organizational recovery plan. At that time, we did not know the real extent of the damage to our three facilities, homes and, most importantly, community.

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

—William Arthur Ward

During the second week after Katrina, with an “official pass” allowing entry into Jefferson Parish, which was still under martial law, my husband and I, along with my CFO and her husband, entered the parish for a firsthand look. The parish had sustained severe flooding from levee breaches after Katrina passed through. We found our 40,000-square-foot east bank facility standing but with heavy wind damage, massive roof leaks, and evidence of looters likely trying to gain access to the pharmacy. Our vans had been vandalized and two were missing. File cabinets were overturned; computers were missing; records were soaked; and there was the stench of mold, urine, and unknown odors, which became all too familiar during the following months. The building housing our smaller east bank facility flooded as well.

The west bank facility faired much better: one broken window, a downed sign, and some uprooted ornamental trees. Most of the building was without electricity and, as a result, there were no lights or air-conditioning, and areas reeked of rotting food in agency refrigerators.

Water-damaged records room
Water-damaged records room

We had to destroy all the medicine in both of our pharmacies due to going more than two weeks without air-conditioning. All of our closed records in off-site storage were lost to the flood, and all of the open and closed records in the main east bank building were lost to water damage and mold. The good news: The computer network rebooted.

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