image title

How would Arizona respond to a natural disaster?

How prepared is Arizona to respond to a disaster? ASU event examines all angles.
October 18, 2018

A complex network lies in wait for the inevitable event of a major disaster; ASU event examines state's role

A major earthquake that displaces a mass population of people. Widespread power outages that cascade through a metro area. Catastrophic droughts or devastating floods that strand people in their homes.  

Natural disasters are an increasingly common reality for hundreds of thousands of Americans, and as climate change and urbanization amplify the frequency and intensity of these events, the response by communities, governments and private citizens is more important than ever before, according to Brian Gerber, co-director of Arizona State University's Center for Emergency Management and Homeland SecurityThe center is a research unit of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions..

But academics, government agencies and volunteers are rising to the challenge — developing critical disaster responses, participating in full-scale exercises and harboring cross-sector partnerships for the inevitable day a disaster strikes.

Those partners came together Thursday at a Sustainability Series event titled "How Will Arizona Respond to a Major Regional Disaster?" The event was presented by the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainabilitythe Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security, the Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation and the Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center.

Ramona Denby-Brinson, associate dean of research at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, spoke about how ASU's emergency management center is already making waves in the disaster response field, even though it was recently created.

“When I think about the Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security, even in its infancy … it is already making inroads and really living out the true testament of what our vision is,” Denby-Brinson said.

The meeting, which featured a slate of speakers and a panel of experts in different facets of disaster response, came after the participation of the center and other state and community partners in a statewide “National Mass Care Exercise,” aimed at developing a better understanding of the role and capabilities of voluntary, private and governmental organizations in responding to a regional disaster in Arizona.

The exercise, which took place in May, focused on a mock scenario where a major earthquake in California causes an ingress of displaced citizens to flood into Arizona, straining law enforcement and emergency response, clogging traffic and putting strain on day-to-day private facilities.

It brought together a huge coalition of state, federal and local agencies — with private partners and nonprofit volunteers to emulate the scenario.

Speakers gave a brief overview of the tenets of the program, followed by a panel that discussed different facets of what a mass care response would look like in such a scenario.

A man in an electric wheelchair sits by two women in front of an ASU logo

(From left) Lori Cunningham, deputy administrator, Arizona Department of Economic Security; April Bradham, director of field operations, Association of Arizona Food Banks; and Peter Fischer, Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator for Phoenix. Photo by Isaac Windes/ASU Now

Peter Fischer, who works for the city of Phoenix as an Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, discussed the steps required in preparing and executing accommodations for individuals with disabilities who were displaced in the scenario — as well as additional exercises to test and develop the city's disability integration capabilities.

“What I do ... is specifically for disability integration in the mass care exercise,” Fischer said. “The city did a bunch of different exercises outside of the national care exercise. … We opened a few shelters and tested that; we even had a drill at the airport for passengers who were stranded.”

In addition to the ordinary logistical problems associated with displacement, Fischer and other panelists stressed the importance and difficulty of communication between agencies, and with the public at large, during a disaster.

“The other issues we are really worried about is when we are having press conferences and we are having events … and these activities that are public knowledge — how are people with other disabilities being given that same information?”

April Bradham, director of field operations for the Association of Arizona Food Banks, talked about the importance of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, or VOADs, in the larger statewide effort that would mobilize in the event of a disaster.

“Our VOAD in Arizona … is a range of organizations that are disaster-relief specific organizations like Red Cross, Salvation Army … and all these organizations that are actively involved in a task force,” Bradham said. "But then you also have this very large group of organizations that maybe disaster response isn’t even a piece of what they do, but they do support if a disaster was to occur. So, for example, our faith-based organizations that might provide spiritual care or volunteers, the emergency radio — so just a large mix of people.”

Arizona faces a particular challenge in preparing for a mass event like the one in the scenario because it does not often have to respond to natural disasters, unlike Texas and Florida that face a much higher frequency of mass care events. 

“We aren’t necessarily activated at a state level very often,” Bradham said. “Our county and our local VOADs are the most critical piece of that because they are the ones that know the immediate needs, they’re the ones that know the immediate resources in the area.”

Bradham said that the biggest takeaway from the exercise was that Arizona could benefit from planning. 

“I know it is easy to get a little bit apathetic because … we’re not faced with it every single day," she said. 

Lori Cunningham, a deputy administrator at the Arizona Department of Economic Security, spoke about the issues that would arise and need to be prepared for.

"The Department of Economic Security was very fortunate particularly with this exercise because we served in multiple capacities, so from a response perspective we were able to work with the Red Cross and actually be in the shelters identifying folks with special needs,” Cunningham said. “Understanding reunification, I was able to lead the reunification task force … when families are separated, and when caregivers are separated from the folks who need them the most, how do we get those back together.”

Robert Rowley, director of the Maricopa County Department of Emergency Management and an ASU alumnus, spoke from the audience, pointing out that in the event of a mass care event, city and county officials don’t have reserve employees on hand to deal with such an influx.

“The biggest thing that we were thinking about during this process was, with the sheer number of people coming in, what realistically would we as local governments … be able to handle ourselves? And the answer is … not much,” Rowley said. “City and county governments operate with staff and materials sufficient to do their daily jobs. And we don’t maintain a reserve force of people that we can activate during a disaster to bring in and handle all this extra activity.”

The only government response that could do such a thing, Rowley said, is the military. But, “it’s about three days before federal resources, even the military, can be mobilized and in your area and starting to perform an operation.

“So what we have started looking at is what can we do for a period of three days, to take care of this massive influx of people.”

Rowley closed out some of his remarks with a statement that was echoed by many who participated in the program.

“That wasn’t answered by the end of the exercise,” Rowley said. “But the purpose of the exercise was to bring up those questions.”

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay

Isaac Windes

Reporter , Media Relations and Strategic Communications

image title

Removing the shroud from the concept of death

October 18, 2018

Project Humanities event seeks to open up a conversation about death and dying — an experience all humans share

“And so it stays just on the edge of vision,/ A small unfocused blur, a standing chill/ That slows each impulse down to indecision./ Most things may never happen: this one will.”

So wrote British poet Philip Larkin in his 1980 poem “Aubade.” Though the title evokes the welcoming of a new dawn, the subject of the poem — this thing that is certain to happen to all — is death.

Death is the only experience aside from birth that is shared by all, and it happens every day. Yet it is one of the hardest topics for humans to address.

Some confront this reality of life more than others. On Thursday night, a group of them — including social workers, police officers, EMTs and hospice caregivers — came together to talk about their experiences with it at an event hosted by Arizona State University's Project Humanities, “The Bell That Tolls: A Conversation on Death and Dying.

The public panel discussion kicked off the fall 2018 season of Project Humanities events, which include more discussions on such topics as PTSD, documentary screenings and even a drag performance, as part of the initiative’s effort to bring people together to listen, talk and connect.

“We hear a lot lately about suicide, self-harm, the shooting of unarmed men and women by police officers. … So death is everywhere,” Project Humanities Director and ASU English Professor Neal Lester said. 

“The idea behind this panel was to take the conversation of death and dying — probably the most universal thing we can imagine — and move it into a space where it’s not taboo and look at all the different aspects of it in order to understand what it is to live.”

The notion that one must accept death as part of life in order to fully live was a popular refrain Thursday evening. The Rev. Franklin Evans, medical chaplian and director of emerging ministrites and spiritual formation at Central United Methodist Church in downtown Phoenix, who moderated the discussion, called Americans today “a culture of avoidance of death,” citing a host of euphemisms we use to refer to it, such as kicking the bucket, biting the dust, passing away, departing and being laid to rest. 

Neal lester

Neal Lester (center), director of ASU Project Humanities, speaks with attendees at a discussion called "The Bell That Tolls: A Conversation on Death and Dying." Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

Fifteen-year Hospice of the Valley veteran Rose Takyuka-Johnson only proved his point when explaining her history with death, catching herself after saying her parents had “passed away.”

Takyuka-Johnson was born and raised in Uganda, a place where death was considered spooky, surrounded by myths and legends.

“Growing up as child, I was terrified of death,” she said. But after moving to America and becoming a hospice worker, she “learned quickly that it’s not spooky and it can be a beautiful thing.”

It can also be painful. Chandler Fire Department Battalion Chief Keith Welch talked about the “raw emotion” he sees as a first responder. 

“You feel that,” he said. “But you have a job to do. I think we build walls to protect ourselves because if you don’t, it can really affect you long-term.”

Thursday marked the second anniversary of a murder-suicide in which a man drove his estranged wife and their three children into Tempe Town Lake, killing them all. Jeff Glover, Tempe Police Department commander of criminal investigations, said he knew of at least two of the first responders to the scene who were still grappling with PTSD and pointed out that the suicide rate of officers and those in public-safety professions has been on the rise in recent years.

“It’s a cumulative effect,” he said. “They’re dealing with a lot of heavy baggage.”

Fortunately, many police and fire departments nowadays have a team of peers or counselors on hand to help first responders cope and talk through their experiences.

And just being comfortable talking about death is half the battle.

Angelica Lindsey-Ali, a social worker for HIV and AIDS patients, said she was surrounded by death and dying from a very young age, having grown up in Detroit, and that she talks to her kids about it all the time.

“I’m morbid mommy,” she said. “But I want them to be prepared. I told my 5-year-old daughter that one day I’m going to die, that we’re all going to die. She started to cry, but I said it’s OK, I’m here now and I’ll always be with you in your prayers.”

A Muslim, Lindsey-Ali believes in the prophet Muhammad’s teaching that people are asleep, and when they die, they wake up.

There are also practical concerns about the consequences of avoiding the topic of death. If a loved one suddenly dies without a will or any instructions about whether they want to be buried or cremated, for example, family members have to make those decisions themselves. 

Evans recommended Googling “Five Wishes,” a tool that can help to prepare what is called an advanced directive; basically a guide for how you’d like to experience death that can detail preferences from whether to use life-sustaining methods like feeding tubes to what color coffin you want.

In Muslim culture, Lindsey-Ali said, a body must be buried within 72 hours. As a result, she said, “You’ll find 21-year-old Muslims with a will.” But it’s not viewed as morbid. She makes it a priority in her line of work to research how different cultures and religions prefer to handle death, “because we want to make sure people die with dignity and in the way they deem appropriate.”

Evans added, “When we talk about death (and make sure it’s understood how we want to deal with it), it frees us up to enjoy time at the end of life and make those last days really count.”

Top photo: Rose Takyuka-Johnson, a social worker with Hospice of the Valley, speaks at "The Bell That Tolls: A Conversation on Death and Dying." This conversation was made possible by ASU Project Humanities. Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

Emma Greguska

Editor , ASU News

(480) 965-9657