Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hands On Nashville rises to challenge

Agreement with city speeds volunteer efforts, serves as model for others By Jessica Bliss • THE TENNESSEAN • May 26, 2010 As the flood-inducing storms gained momentum on May 1, Josh Corlew sat in his home on Second Avenue South, making homemade root beer and fielding phone calls from friends who were out in the driving rain. "I was saying, 'It will be fine,' " he said. " 'Don't worry. I will get the call if something serious happens.' " Around 7:30 p.m., he got the call. Corlew, Hands On Nashville's disaster-preparedness manager, was summoned to the Emergency Operations Center, where the heads of various Metro agencies were gathering to enact the city's disaster plan. The mayor's office was there, of course. So were the police and fire departments and Metro Water and Nashville Electric services. But there also were representatives from local nonprofit organizations, including volunteer placement organization Hands On Nashville. Three years earlier, Hands On Nashville became a first responder in Metro's Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan. Formally including the group in crisis response was a unique, innovative move by Nashville's government, and the success of its coordination has other cities looking to emulate the efforts. "Our local officials understood the need for that function years ago and put it in place," Hands On Nashville Executive Director Brian Williams said. "If they hadn't signed off on it, we would have (organized) volunteers, but it wouldn't have had near the impact, because we would have been doing it on our own." In the three weeks since the flood, 15,155 people have participated in flood-related volunteer programming coordinated by Hands On Nashville. That's nearly one-third of the organization's total volunteer output in 2009. The group has 21,006 new Facebook followers and 3,086 new Twitter followers, which has helped recruit even more volunteers. "To me this is a model of how you should respond," Mayor Karl Dean said. "Having citizen involvement … speaks well to the heart of our community." 'It is a unique situation' When tornadoes ripped through downtown Nashville in 1998, the city's emergency management plan was well established for fire and police, but there was no official directive for providing food, clothing and volunteer aid to crisis victims. So the city began to explore how nonprofits could be integrated into the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, a presidential directive that all agencies review their emergency operations plans sparked more direct action. "(We had) interaction with Hands On Nashville, but I did not think that relationship was formalized strong enough so in an event of a major disaster it would work seamlessly," said Chief Stephen Halford, acting director of the Office of Emergency Management. "We have shown that formalization." Locally, the arrangement with the city has brought new attention to the small organization, which was founded as a grass-roots effort in 1991 but until a month ago was still not a well-known community entity. In July 2007, Hands On Nashville signed a "memorandum of understanding" with the city stating that in a crisis situation the organization would be responsible for recruiting and deploying volunteers. Hands On Nashville is part of the Hands On Network. Of the 250 national affiliates, about half have some form of disaster response plan in place, according to Jesse Salinas, the network's regional vice president for member services. That typically requires a relationship with the city, but not necessarily in the form of an official arrangement with the mayor. Ken Skalitzky, volunteer agency liaison for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he is not aware of a similar agreement to Tennessee's in any of the other seven Southeastern states he oversees, many of which have experience with disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes. "It is a unique situation," he said. "We have not had an event where the (volunteer) network has been the designated point of contact with the city like it is here. This is a great partnership." The first thing they did was rearrange their website to focus on flood relief, so that when the mayor directed volunteers to Hands On Nashville, the organization was ready. Immediately, it deployed people to help Metro set up disaster assistance centers, move food out of Second Harvest Food Bank's flood-threatened warehouse and sandbag the MetroCenter levee. Dean said one of the best examples of the emergency plan's effectiveness was Hands On Nashville's ability to get almost 300 volunteers to the levee within an hour. With no formal agreement, Halford said, Metro would have been slower to respond to residents' needs. "The dividends from establishing this formal relationship have paid off tenfold. Their ability to mobilize their resources in very short notice is unsurpassed by any organization I have seen." 'Boat wasn't missed' That ability is being noticed nationally. Former first lady Laura Bush specifically recognized Hands On Nashville's volunteer efforts when she visited the Red Cross last week. On Monday, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams featured Hands On Nashville in its "Making a Difference" segment. Skalitzky said he will highlight Hands On Nashville's affiliation with the city as a "best practice" in his presentation at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service, which will draw thousands to New York in June. The Hands On Network has shared Nashville's success with all its affiliates, and Salinas said he plans to ask Williams to host a training seminar in the next six months for other organizations that want to become involved in their cities' disaster-relief efforts. "What's interesting and different about Nashville is that everything seemed to go completely the way it should," Salinas said. "It doesn't always go this way. Usually talk is about where government and the public sector miss the boat, and the boat wasn't missed here in any way, shape or form." In Louisiana, where flooding devastated the city and oil now threatens its shores, there is no formal disaster-relief agreement between the city and Hands On New Orleans, though there is an informal agreement with the state's service organization, CEO Cathy Puett said. She is considering a trip here to learn more about Nashville's arrangement. "I think it's important to have that mechanism in place, because when you get a barrage of unaffiliated volunteers during a disaster, you need somebody whose main focus is to funnel those volunteers," Puett said. Volunteer organizations in Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Denver; and Portland, Ore., have expressed interest in the agreement and how it might be modeled, Williams said. "We are very impressed with their efforts," said Gina Simpson, president and CEO of Hands On Atlanta. "Kudos to their ability to respond quickly and meet community needs."

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