Thursday, July 10, 2014

Officials: Group better prepared for disasters

September 09. 2013 11:49PM

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WILKES-BARRE — A coalition of organizations that coordinated local disaster recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee two years ago accomplished some major feats and is now better prepared to address local disasters in the future, according to officials.

The Disaster Recovery Coalition of Luzerne County hosted a reception and presentation Monday at the county Emergency Management Agency building to recap what the organization has done since the record flooding that devastated several communities along the Susquehanna River in September 2011, and explain how it has prepared for the future.

Mike Zimmerman, chief executive officer of Family Service Association of NEPA, said volunteers with the coalition’s approximately 30 member organizations donated 15,882 volunteer hours valued at more than $336,000 (based on a rate of $20.51 per hour) to assist flood survivors on their road to recovery.

Agencies such as the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way of Wyoming Valley, Commission on Economic Opportunity and the Luzerne Foundation some of the local organizations involved that took a quick lead.

Volunteers came from as far away as Seattle, Wash., to assist in the recovery, performing functions from serving meals to helping dig mud from basements to hanging new drywall. The faith-based community was instrumental in securing volunteers from across the country, he said.

Zimmerman said local organizations were “quick to respond” after the Susquehanna River crested at a record 42.66 feet and inundated communities unprotected by the Wyoming Valley levee system. But they “ran into some issues” because they had “no idea” what they were doing when it came to helping secure such massive funding quickly.

“It was no easy task, but we did manage to put it together,” he said.

Zimmerman, whose organization ran case management for the coalition and helped coordinate other functions, said that for the past couple decades, there had been no functioning disaster recovery organization for Luzerne County.

He said previous attempts to get a coalition going years before the flooding splintered, and it “never became a functional unit. I think what we have now is highly functional.”

In the first phase of recovery, the coalition identified 308 homes that sustained more than $11,000 in damage and the homeowner was over 60 and/or disabled. A second phase targeted homes with less than $11,000 in damage whose owners were 60 or under and failed federal income test requirements for assistance.

Repairs to 67 homes in Luzerne County have been completed to date because of the work of the coalition, Zimmerman said.

Charles Barber, of the Luzerne Foundation, said the organization distributed about $450,000 in funds raised through grants and donations. And money is left over in a fund in the event of a future disaster in the county.

County EMA director Steve Bekanich summarized the federal and state recovery processes and identified the monetary thresholds that had to be met for disaster declarations. He also spoke about the efforts of individual towns such as Shickshinny and West Pittston to rebuild with federal planning experts to help guide volunteer committees.

And while the federal and state government provided significant aid, Bekanich said recovery would have been much slower without the work of the coalition. “We from county government deeply appreciate the services you provided,” he said.

Bekanich said it’s important that member agencies continue to meet regularly and keep information updated.

“We don’t want to have to start this again from scratch the next time a disaster occurs … because there will be a next time. It’s not a matter of if it occurs, it’s a matter of when,” he said.

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