After the attack on the Pentagon nearly four years ago, the area's charitable agencies faced a daunting logistical challenge. Things did not always go smoothly.
Well-meaning people donated blankets and used clothing when cash would have been more useful. Volunteers were not always directed where they were most needed. Survivors and the families of the deceased needed financial and emotional support, but no consolidated lists of help were available. Some grief-stricken survivors had to keep telling their stories again and again to different caseworkers.
Executives at the area's nonprofit agencies realized a plan was needed to coordinate their response in the event of another terrorist attack that causes hundreds or even thousands of casualties.
After a year of meetings, an umbrella group of nonprofit organizations will release a report today detailing some of the preparations they plan to undertake for the next big emergency.
"We tried to have a terrible hypothesis," said Chuck Bean, executive director of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington, which represents 125 charitable organizations. "If the plane had hit a different wing of the Pentagon, the casualty rate might have been five times as great."
The 32-page report covers plans for such things as scheduled conference calls among nonprofit executives, special hotlines for volunteers and therapy for relief workers suffering "vicarious traumatization."
"We want to be organized and hope we never have to use it," Bean said.
The plan was prepared using a $500,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security. Some of the money paid for representatives' counterparts from New York City to come share their experiences. Most was used to reimburse the nonprofit agencies for salaries of officials who met every two weeks over the past year to prepare the plan, Bean said.
If an attack occurs, much of the coordination will be done by a group composed of five agencies: the American Red Cross, Catholic Charities, Jewish Social Service Agency, Northern Virginia Family Service and Family and Child Services of Washington, D.C. They will form the core National Capital Region Disaster Case Management Cooperative.
Currently, Northern Virginia Family Service is the central agency helping survivors and family members of those who were in the Pentagon, aboard American Airlines Flight 77 or were among emergency responders on Sept. 11, 2001. The agency has 25 caseworkers, each assigned to work with about two dozen people.
The new cooperative envisions holding its first conference call within an hour of a terrorist attack, Bean said. One of the priorities will be to coordinate volunteer centers so that people who offer help are sent where they are needed most. The nonprofits hope to have a citizen corps trained in disaster relief, and a toll-free hotline for civilians who want to volunteer.
The report also stresses that in the wake of an attack, employees of nonprofit groups should get out the message that "cash is king." Many aid workers say they often are overwhelmed with unsolicited, unusable goods. According to the report, some workers in the field call these donations STUFF -- Surplus Trash Useless to Frantic Folk.
"Giving a used blanket to someone who needs medical care is counterproductive," Bean said. "Our message is that cash responds to any and every need."
The cooperative also recommends that nonprofits adopt a voluntary set of principles, among them to pledge that no more than 20 percent of donated funds will go to administrative expenses, with the remainder dedicated solely to emergency aid.