By Dana Fields
American Red Cross
Whenever a disaster strikes, the American Red Cross is ready to respond swiftly to meet individuals’ immediate needs, such as a place to stay after a home fire.
But what if the individuals numbered in the tens of thousands, displaced by a catastrophe of historic size _ perhaps a 7.7 magnitude earthquake along southeast Missouri’s New Madrid Fault?
No one knows when such a disaster might occur, but the Red Cross and its partners in the private and government sectors now have a better idea of how they would join forces to serve people evacuated in huge numbers toward western Missouri.
The nation’s fifth annual National Mass Care Exercise, two years in the planning by FEMA and Missouri’s State Emergency Management Agency, took place the week of Aug. 22, giving the Red Cross and more than four dozen public and private groups the chance to test their plans for moving, sheltering and feeding thousands fleeing the disaster and streaming toward western Missouri.
The exercise assumed that numerous eastern Missouri counties would be rendered “unlivable” for months, and that residents would evacuate to western Missouri because of wreckage to bridges over the Mississippi River. Busloads of evacuees would head to the Kansas City area or to Springfield via U.S. 50 and U.S. 60.
Red Cross staff and volunteers were in place as citizens of all ages – playing the role of evacuees – arrived at reception centers set up at Diggins Apostolic Church in southwest Missouri’s Webster County and at Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence.
Once the evacuees were checked in by other agencies, they proceeded to tables where Red Cross personnel talked to them and assigned them to either of two shelters set up in Independence for the exercise_ including one that would take pets as well as people.
Although evacuees were screened for injuries and other health issues in southeast Missouri before they began their trek, some had signs of cuts and bruises when they reached Independence. Medical professionals were on hand to help those people.
“Let’s take a look at that cut before we do anything else,” Red Cross volunteer Mary Biniki suggested to an evacuee whose face was daubed with blood-like makeup. Assured that the man was fine, she then helped decide which shelter suited him best.
Still another agency then arranged transportation for the evacuees, their pets, and their belongings to shelters.
At one shelter, in a multiple-purpose building at Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Independence, the multi-agency aspect of the exercise was on full display: Volunteers from Missouri Adventist Community Services Disaster Response guided evacuees to desks for registration by the Red Cross, which also ran the sleeping area; Independence Health Department personnel assessed medical and mental health needs; the Operation BBQ Disaster Response Team provided food; the Salvation Army rushed cases of bottled water to the church.
Although she’s a longtime Red Cross volunteer with wide experience, Mary found the exercise instructive _ largely because the “evacuees” were well-prepared to pose as people who had just survived a traumatic disaster. Some arrived with canes, crutches or wheel chairs.
“We had to look at how many we could process in a certain amount of time,” she said. “They may have a story they want to tell. We’re very compassionate in how we respond, but we had to keep them moving.”
For the Red Cross, the exercise also yielded new partnerships and potential resources as staff and volunteers spent part of the time calling possible shelter sites as well as large food vendors not already partnered with the organization.
Red Cross workers also were at the Multi Agency Coordination Center set up at the Kansas City Emergency Operations Center. It included area emergency managers working together to support the evacuees.
The Greater Kansas City and Southern Missouri chapters of the Red Cross may never have to process and help shelter more than 100,000 evacuees from a devastated earthquake zone.
But the lessons learned and the partnerships gained will help the organization in its ongoing mission to respond every day to disasters of all sizes.