By Hannah Heimbuch
Volunteers on the Kenai Peninsula wrapped up Red Cross month this weekend with a shelter exercise in Homer, partnering area Red Cross workers with the Homer Senior Center. The center housed an emergency shelter, simulating the response to a major earthquake and tsunami threat.
That means shelter documentation, food, water, bedding, emergency supplies, even preparation for pet care.
The Senior Center offered a great staging area, organizers said, appropriate for the tsunami scenario drill established by Alaska Shield 2014.
“We had to be at a certain elevation to be out of the flood zone,” said Red Cross volunteer Jeannette Hanneman of Seward, adding that the Senior Center is a safe and centrally located shelter option. Hanneman traveled to Homer to run the shelter under Exercise Evaluator Trisha Davis, a Homer Red Cross leader.
“All in all I say it was a good exercise,” Davis said. “I wish we had more players, but at the same time we had pretty much what we would see in most small town kind of disaster situations. Where people shelter with other people rather than spending the night, then come in for meals.”
The Salvation Army provided food, a historical partnership established with the Red Cross.
“The two agencies are supposed to support one another,” Davis said. “In a disaster we provide the shelter and they provide the food. But that doesn’t mean we always get the opportunity to exercise together.”
Though the shelter drew just three volunteer victims and no overnight guests, Hanneman said, she still had to file all of the paperwork and run through the procedures, which was a great exercise as her first time managing a shelter.
Davis has been working with the Senior Center for two months, she said, establishing a partnership that offers the center staff disaster preparedness training, as well as a unique opportunity for the Red Cross to provide shelter to vulnerable populations.
“It’s a win-win,” Davis said. “We end up with a special needs shelter, not just a senior shelter. It’ll be a quieter environment for people who have special needs.”
Hanneman appreciated the chance to expand her training, but also to make important connections in disaster preparedness in southcentral Alaska.
“It was determined through this that the Senior Center is such a great place for sheltering because of the facility,” Hanneman said. “What was also determined was a good relationship between the Alaska Red Cross and the Senior Center.”
Davis left a shelter kit with the center, as well as 50 Red Cross cots for future use at that or other possible staging sites in the area.
Last week was tsunami preparedness week, with Friday marking the 50th anniversary of the Good Friday earthquake and tsunami of 1964. Alaska Shield 2014 mobilized response units and organizations across the state in an effort to prepare the public and first responders for just those kinds of crisis times.
“It gave us an opportunity to practice sheltering without the stress of it actually being an incident,” Hanneman said.
In addition to filing paperwork on the shelter itself, and the volunteer victims that participated, Hanneman also ran a drill to practice how Homer could respond to displaced pets during a disaster.
While the Red Cross cannot house pets other than service animals during a crisis, Hanneman said, having a plan for furry family members is becoming a larger part of the public discussion surrounding preparedness.
Using her own dogs as examples, along with a Senior Center staff member’s pet bunny, and one hypothetical cat, Hanneman filed paperwork on the critters, and forwarded it to the Homer Veterinary Office. The vet’s office then evaluated their ability to respond to those pet needs in an actual disaster.
Hanneman has been involved in pet shelter discussions through both the Kenai Peninsula Borough — where she helped establish a pet shelter emergency plan — and with the National Veterinary Response Team.
She deployed with the veterinary group to New York during Hurricane Sandy, she said, where she saw first hand how many animals are in need during a natural disaster.
“Our team worked in a shelter in Brooklyn that housed displaced pets and also stray pets,” Hanneman said. “We had about 200 animals in our shelter total. Dogs and cats.”
This is an important consideration for a lot of reasons, she said. Not just in the interest of caring for animals in need, but for human safety as well.
“I think it all started back in Katrina and realizing how attached we are as a nation to our pets,” Hanneman said. “They’re more like our family members, and a lot of people do not want to vacate their premises if they can’t take their pet along.”
Having a plan for pets — through volunteer organizations, boroughs, cities or other means — allows responders to provide for evacuation and shelter of animals and their owners much more efficiently.
“Being able to provide a shelter somewhere for the pets in order to get people to evacuate is important,” she said.
Hanneman was also able to spend some time observing the Homer Emergency Operations Center during their Alaska Shield Exercises, she said, allowing her to see how a disaster is handled at the city level.
She looks forward to bringing her new skills and observations back to Seward, she said, and continuing to be a part of the Red Cross.
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