Nonprofits Poorly Prepared for Disasters, Study Says

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008

The Washington region's network of nonprofit groups is ill-prepared to respond to a natural disaster or terrorist attack, with a capacity to deal with just 5 percent of the likely need for food and shelter and with no comprehensive communication system to coordinate efforts, according to an emergency preparedness plan released yesterday.

Considered by its authors to be one of the first regional efforts to spell out a role for nonprofit organizations, the plan is a broad blueprint to fill gaps in the disaster readiness of the area's 4,000 human service groups. It calls on relief organizations to expand their mass care capacities, develop methods to care for pets, better manage volunteers and strengthen mental health services.

It also says relief organizations -- food pantries, health clinics, shelters, volunteer centers and others -- need to create a regional communications system, improve capacity for long-term recovery efforts and strengthen partnerships with other agencies, governments and businesses. The region's agencies have little capacity to meet the target of sheltering 300,000 people and feeding 715,000 set by the Department of Homeland Security, according to the plan.

"The cup is more than half full. We are better prepared today than we were yesterday," said Chuck Bean, executive director of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington. But, he said, "there's more to do."

The plan provides a strategic framework for nonprofit organizations, which are expected to work closely with federal, state and local governments during disasters. It is the product of a two-year study of the area's nonprofit community and was paid for and written by Deloitte, a global consulting firm, and the Nonprofit Roundtable, a membership association.

"Our goal is to identify all those stealth resources that are out there that people want to provide and make sure we get them connected," said Jim Tragakis, chief of staff of Deloitte's federal government services, who helped write the plan. He said those groups should not lose sight of the need for long-term recovery plans after disasters.

"When the immediate disaster is over, the problems don't go away," he said.

The plan's authors said it can be used as a model for other metropolitan areas. Top officials in the region's business community endorsed the plan, as did Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of his chamber's homeland security committee, and Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), its ranking Republican member.

"The reality is that everything we do in the country with regards to natural disasters starts at the local level," said Dennis R. Schrader, deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a former Maryland homeland security official.

The plan was released a month after a federal government report found that relief organizations are unprepared to meet projected mass casualty needs during a natural catastrophe or terrorist attack in several major cities, including the District.

The report, by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, found that a large-scale disaster would "overwhelm" the American Red Cross and other groups. It also accused FEMA of not fully assessing the capacities of nonprofit groups and not clearly documenting the roles that each should play in a disaster.

The American Red Cross of the National Capital Area opened a regional disaster coordination center this year at its Fairfax County headquarters that serves as a point for communication among the area's nonprofit relief agencies.

The plan released yesterday calls Fairfax a model in disaster coordination. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the county's government actively reached out to nonprofit groups, including Northern Virginia Family Service, to help those evacuated from the Gulf Coast.

Christopher T. Geldart, director of FEMA's Office of National Capital Region Coordination, said the plan "adds another dimension, totally, to our preparedness in this region." The government relies heavily on nonprofit organizations to help provide mass care during disasters, Geldart said. "There are not enough resources: not at the local level, not at the state level, not at the federal level," he said.

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