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After the Fire: OHSEPR Connects Disaster Displaced Families to Human Services

By Monté Wallace

Six months after the most destructive wildfire in California’s history, OHSEPR continues to support families displaced from Paradise by the 2018 Camp Fire. Named after its origin on Camp Creek Road, the fire began in Butte County on November 8th and burned 153,336 acres and destroyed 18,804 structures before it was fully contained 17 days later on November 25, 2018. The Town of Paradise, 90 miles North of Sacramento, was home to more than 27,000 people who had to quickly evacuate with little notice. In addition to losing their homes to the fire, many Paradise residents lost social connections that they previously relied upon to care for their families.

OHSEPR’s Immediate Disaster Case Management program is helping Paradise families recover by providing case managers who serve as navigators, or single points of contact to connect families to a broad range of resources. OHSEPR’s disaster case managers connect families to children and youth services, employment and legal referral services, food, clothing, housing and transportation, health services, senior services, and behavioral health support.

OHSEPR’s field team in Butte County includes a field coordinator, a liaison officer, 20 disaster case managers, and 2 community resource coordinators. The Immediate Disaster Case Management team has conducted outreach to survivors at campgrounds, RV parks, community events, churches, apartments and hotels. Additionally, community resource coordinators have augmented Butte County’s 2-1-1 call center to connect families to assist with information and referrals. As of May 8, 2019, disaster case managers have made 4,070 survivor contacts and 2,967 referrals to services.

Faces not Cases

Getting beyond the numbers, OHSEPR interviewed members of the field team and asked them to share their experiences supporting families in need after a disaster. The interview included the following participants:

  • Wendi Ellis - Region 9 Region Emergency Management Specialist (REMS)
  • Commander Monique Richards - Liaison Officer
  • Donna Dudney – Disaster Case Manager Supervisor
  • George Bermea – Disaster Case Manager
  • Sol Godinez – Disaster Case Manager
  • Kimberly Upchurch – Disaster Case Manager

OHSEPR leverages strategic partnerships across ACF and HHS in the delivery of disaster case management services to individuals and families.

ACF Region 9 REMS, Wendi Ellis, regularly works with state and local human service partners in California to promote emergency preparedness and response. Beginning in March, OHSEPR deployed Ms. Ellis to serve as field coordinator for the operation. The connection in the work and relationships she built prior to the disaster have been evident.

Wendi Ellis: The connections that I make day to day are very important, mainly because I am currently working with the same people at the state and local level to get things done. Those preexisting relationships are key in helping me to accomplish my work and be of the most help to the people here in Butte County.

Donna: Having the REMS present to look at plans and assist with matching the needs in the community has been largely helpful. We are benefiting from the relationships that were previously established by the REMS and that translates into a more coordinated service delivery. In addition to that, coordination with the local county has worked really well.

OHSEPR has also reached across HHS to leverage the strengths of its partners in the U.S. Public Health Service and HHS’ Health Resources and Services Administration.

Commander Monique Richards: I am currently a Senior Public Health Analyst, at the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) in the Maternal Child Health Bureau. In my current role, I oversee a Healthy Start grant portfolio, which aims to improve health outcomes before, during, and after pregnancy, and reduce racial/ethnic differences in rates of infant death and adverse perinatal outcomes. I was interested in serving as the liaison officer for this mission, because it facilitated an opportunity for me to serve in a leadership capacity for a disaster versus providing direct client care like in my previous deployments. I am compelled to do this because I have a passion to improve healthcare outcomes for vulnerable populations, which motivated me to pursue a career in social work and public health.

Disaster Case Managers build trust and connect survivors to resources.

  • Tell us about your experience during your deployment. If you were to review your entire deployment, from the time you arrived until now: What interesting things did you notice?

George: Being a case manager, you come across people from many different backgrounds- and more often than not, they are uninsured. Initially when you first encounter them, they are confused about what they should do, what’s available, and are very cautious about receiving help through the Immediate Disaster Case Management program. However, that feeling of distrust is usually replaced with one of hope as we begin to assist them with their recovery and bring them closer to their pre-disaster state of living.

Sol: It is really good and more-so rewarding to know that you are helping survivors to recover. It is rewarding work to be able to put resources together for people in dire need.

Kim: When I first arrived, there was a lot of hesitation on the part of the survivors, in other words – there was a lack of trust. This is a small close-knit town, and initially when we went out in the community to do outreach, people did not open their doors. They didn’t want anything to do with us. However, in time “word of mouth” took over, and the messages regarding the help we were providing began to prevail. These days we are greeted with smiles, hugs, and even fresh baked cookies from time to time.

Wendi: This is a very resilient community, and it is really nice to see the change of heart that has taken place. They didn’t necessarily want this type of help in the beginning, but now the community is embracing the help, engaging with the case managers, and allowing them to follow up with their cases.

  • What were some of the biggest challenges you either witnessed or faced yourself?

Donna: One thing that sticks out to me is a particular case that one of our case mangers handled where the survivor had medical needs and had no transportation. What made this person’s case a little more difficult was that the person’s doctor was in San Francisco. The case manager worked diligently on this case and was able to find a transportation resource that was able to get that person to the doctor. Being able to get the necessary treatments is essential for that person’s quality of life and knowing that we are doing things to make that possible is heartwarming.

Wendi: I understand that sentiment as well – housing and transportation are what is needed most as a result of the fires.

  • Is there an achievement or contribution that you are most proud of?

Sol: The thing that resonates with me is being able to provide resources. We walk the survivors through their recovery process and link them to resources that they did not know were available to them. We also follow-up with them to ensure that their needs have been met after we have referred them to the resources they need.

  • What do you think people should know about the Immediate Disaster Case Management program and the value it provides to individuals and families?

George: In order for a community to recover after a disaster, they have to come together. [The Immediate Disaster Case Management program] is there to help with this process. The people in the community have very diverse backgrounds, much like the case managers themselves. This brand of case management touches us in a lot of ways- many of the case managers here on this deployment have been affected by disasters. They understand what is to suffer through rebuilding their lives and recover from a disaster. Having that level of experience and firsthand knowledge of “what it must be” is invaluable and adds to the overall focus and drive we have to meet the needs of the survivors we meet.

Commander Monique Richards: The thing that resonates with me is the relevance of the work that is being done here. People have joined together in many effective ways to address the need of the survivors.

Wendi: When [the Immediate Disaster Case Management program] was activated in this area – they became resource rich. The IDCM team has worked tirelessly to identify available resources and link survivors to them. This service, in many cases has provided very positive and tangible outcomes for the disaster survivors of Butte County.

Family-Centric Support

Disasters such as the Camp Fire are indiscriminate as they destroy everything in their path. The personal devastation is universal; however, not everyone will recover the same. OHSEPR’s Individual Disaster Case Management program recognizes that each family is unique and tailors its support to address their specific disaster recovery needs.

OHSEPR’s IDCM Program and the people who deploy to carry out its mission fill gaps and connect families to community resources who empower families to recover from disaster.

Visit OHSEPR’s page to learn more about the Immediate Disaster Case Management program.

Last Reviewed: May 21, 2019
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