Volunteer organization collective key to preparing for disaster

October 17, 2022 6:04 am
A man pushes his daughter in a stroller through a tornado-ravaged neighborhood in West Tennessee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A man pushes his daughter in a stroller through a tornado-ravaged neighborhood in West Tennessee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Around 1 a.m. on March 28, 2021, after days of heavy rain, our neighbor called to ask us if we’d looked outside.

“Your cars are halfway underwater,” she said. Hers was too. I watched as the waters swallowed my vehicle. It floated in the driveway for a few seconds, drifted slightly down the way, and then sank almost entirely out of sight.

It wasn’t long before the flash flood had risen past our porch steps. We were on the phone with 911 as it started trickling in under our front and side doors. As the water reached our knees inside, we retreated with our cats to the attic, where we spent the rest of the night. Lying on plywood, we listened to the screams of neighbors — whose house was hit even worse — and worried that they were drowning. 

We were also concerned that, in the event the nearby responders had to initiate a water rescue for the houses in our strip, we’d have to leave our pets behind. Frankly, we didn’t know how high the water would reach, and for a while, we were scared we might die. 

Volunteers work in Eric Dorman's house to repair flood damage. (Photo: Eric Dorman)
Volunteers work in Eric Dorman’s house to repair flood damage. (Photo: Eric Dorman)

Ultimately, the flood receded. We climbed down from the attic and learned in the course of that morning that six people had died. The waters had taken roughly 80% of our possessions. Dozens of homes and businesses had been destroyed, responders had performed 130 water rescues, and thousands of people — including us—were now displaced. In our case, that displacement lasted 10 months.

As our neglected infrastructure crumbles and climate change advances, we are sadly bound to see and experience disasters more often. Middle Tennessee has seen its share in just the past few years, both natural and otherwise, with multiple tornadoes and floods and the Christmas Day Bombing in Nashville.

There are a lot of organizations in the Volunteer State that work to help people face and overcome adversity. Within the past few years, several of those organizations in Davidson County have decided to work together, streamlining response efforts to better serve survivors. They’ve also joined forces to prepare Davidson County residents for disasters. The umbrella organization that emerged from this cooperation is Nashville Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD).

The Nashville VOAD aims to serve at every stage of the disaster cycle: preparation, mitigation, response and recovery.

“2022 has probably been the first time that we’ve really been able to think about what preparedness and mitigation could even look like,” said Lori Shinton, CEO of Hands On Nashville and Chair of the Nashville VOAD.

“We have been so busy responding,” she said.

Shinton explained that VOAD is centered on education and awareness during “blue skies” (those times between disasters when there is not an urgent, ongoing recovery effort) so that Davidson County residents are ready when “gray skies” fall. This includes hosting events where participants come together to assemble first aid kits and learn vital skills such as CPR and Stop The Bleed, public presentations on personal and family preparedness and marketing efforts intended to familiarize Davidson County residents with the VOAD so that we know where to turn in the aftermath of a disaster.

Joel Sullivan — Regional CEO of the American Red Cross, a VOAD member — also stressed the importance of collaboration between VOAD organizations when things are calm.

“Once the skies turn gray and people are affected, it’s really difficult to establish relationships,” Sullivan said. “A successful disaster response is really based on communication and relationships and trust that is built during the blue skies.”

“For the community to be really resilient, you just have to continue to train people, remind people, and exercise the skills that you learn, and keep those relationships strong year-round — not just when disaster strikes,” Sullivan added.

2022 has probably been the first time that we’ve really been able to think about what preparedness and mitigation could even look like. We've been so busy responding.

– Lori Shinton, Hands on Nashville CEO, Nashville VOAD chair

The VOAD comprises about 40 area organizations which in turn share responsibilities for keeping the organization operational and the community ready, through education and recovery resources. 

Nashville-based Neighbor 2 Neighbor, for example, hosts neighborhood association conferences at which Shinton and others give presentations about preparedness. Hands On Nashville helps oversee the administration of VOAD, as well as organizing disaster response, and sponsoring preparedness education in numerous ways. The Hispanic Family Foundation (HFF) has played a pivotal role in connecting immigrant and Spanish-speaking communities to recovery resources and HFF’s executive director, Diane Janbakhsh, oversees VOAD’s long-term recovery efforts — including for the March 2021 floods, which disproportionately affected Nashville’s Hispanic community).

The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee (CFMT) serves as VOAD’s fiscal sponsor, as well as the central hub for VOAD-related donations. (VOAD is not itself a nonprofit entity, but rather a collective, so it does not raise money directly.) 

Having established the VOAD Leadership Fund last year in addition to their preexisting disaster fund, CFMT puts donation dollars to work on VOAD’s behalf in the form of, among other things, direct relief after a disaster, long-term recovery support for organizations spearheading rebuilding work, ongoing disaster response training for member organizations, and communications to help prepare the community for when disaster strikes. 

Nashville’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is Davidson County’s emergency management agency and also a critical member of VOAD. When disasters happen, OEM does damage assessments and helps direct VOAD organizations to the places and people who need help. OEM also has space set aside in its emergency operation center for the VOAD chairman to post up when VOAD is activated.

Joel Sullivan, Regional CEO, American Red Cross (Photo: LinkedIn)“Collaboration is going to be key in the success of VOAD going into the preparedness sector,” said Heidi Mariscal, OEM’s Planning, Training, and Exercise Coordinator. “I think that’s critical, because if we don’t have a resilient community, then something’s wrong.”

Resilience, which came up over and over again in my conversations with VOAD members, is really the heart of VOAD. It’s what drives VOAD’s involvement in the stages of the aforementioned “disaster cycle.” 

VOAD bolsters resilience by helping the community prepare, streamlining the response process, maintaining a survivor database that all VOAD organizations can access, so members like the Red Cross of Middle Tennessee help with long-term case management.

Joel Sullivan, Regional CEO, American Red Cross (Photo: LinkedIn)
Joel Sullivan, Regional
CEO, American Red Cross (Photo: LinkedIn)

VOAD is the next phase for a city that takes disaster preparedness seriously. Their “blue skies” resources are available to residents. We have to rely on one another in the wake of disaster, and VOAD is a way of helping us do that, from preparedness to response. But what can you do right now that will better prepare you and your loved ones for a disaster?

Many Middle Tennesseans are familiar with Nashville Severe Weather (@NashSevereWx on Twitter), the independent organization providing severe and winter weather information for Davidson and Williamson counties. It is regularly voted the best Twitter account in Nashville by residents, and when a storm is on its way, it’s an indispensable resource for updates.

Will Minkoff, one of NashSevereWx’s founders and a preparedness expert with Nashville-based company BOLDplanning, recommended the following three things for basic preparations:

  • Get a NOAA weather radio. These can vary in price from a low end of around $15, and you can usually find them at your local drug store or online. These radios broadcast information from the nearest National Weather Service office, alerting you to incoming severe weather.
  • Put together a rudimentary preparedness kit. Include basics like a flashlight, a helmet, some extra clothes, a towel, copies of important documents, and if you have pets, plan for them, too. You can find good information on the website for FEMA’s National Public Service campaign, “Ready.”
  • Keep extra food and water on hand — enough to last a few days.

“These are the low-hanging fruit of personal preparedness,” Minkoff said. “They can really make a difference in the event of a disaster or disruption.”

And that’s all we can do at a community level, really: the things that will make a difference when disaster comes. And it will come. But being prepared — as individuals, as communities — can significantly mitigate disaster risk. VOAD helps Davidson County do that, as does personal preparedness.

Have a plan, work together, look out for each other. We can do this, Tennessee.

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