Running a shelter during a hurricane

 Dealing with panicking people during a storm is part of everyday life for a hurricane shelter manager.

During Hurricane Ivan, a woman started screaming in the John Gray High School shelter. The woman’s husband had decided to ride out the storm at home while she went to the shelter.

“She got a phone call telling her that a flying thing had cut off her husband’s head and she started screaming,” explained shelter manager Zemrie Thompson. “We had to calm her down.”

Thompson told her they needed to wait until official word came through the hurricane command centre before taking this seriously. And that seemed to calm her down. It turns out that her husband was just fine.

But at the Bodden Town Civic Centre, the situation became dire during Ivan when the roof was ripped off the shelter and water rose up to waist high level, said shelter manager Charlie Powell.

It would be more than 7 hours before a bus could arrive to evacuate 182 people that were at the shelter. So under those dangerous conditions, the first challenge was to keep people as safe as possible, which meant getting woman, children and elderly people in the kitchen and bathroom and then telling the remaining men to stand up against the wall to avoid flying debris, said Powell.

“I made sure people were as safe as possible,” said Powell. “Then talked to them to try and calm them down as best as you can.”

The Observer on Sunday wanted to talk with shelter managers stationed in Cayman Brac, which took the brunt of Hurricane Paloma last year. However, acting district commissioner Mark Tibbetts refused to give permission for interviews.

Nevertheless, an experienced Red Cross volunteer John Bogle stationed at the Brac Day Care Centre on the Bluff did talk to the Observer, explaining there were many people who needed help coping psychologically.

During Paloma, Bogle recalls a young woman who talked with her aunt in Little Cayman during the storm. And the roof was coming off. The young woman became frantic that her aunt was going to die.

“We had a break through when I called the aunt,” said Bogle. “I told the aunt that she and her boyfriend should go into the bathroom tub with a mattress and cover themselves.”

Because the young lady was listening to Bogle give her aunt instructions, the niece became reassured that she would be able to survive the hurricane and calmed down. The aunt did as Bogle instructed and both her and her companion survived the hurricane.

Each storm and shelter brings up different challenges, added Bogle. There are cases where Red Cross volunteers are bandaging people up and other first aid activities. And there other storms when people need more psychological support, which many Red Cross volunteers are trained to provide.

The primary responsibility of a shelter manager is to oversee the needs of the people who come for the storm. But shelter managers do not manage a facility by themselves. Shelter assistants, a Red Cross volunteer and a police officer are assigned to each facility and it is the shelter manager’s responsibility to lead the shelter management team. Some shelters have medical personnel on hand and are designated as medical units. An Environmental Health officer will also be stationed at some shelters.

For this hurricane season there are 20 shelters spread across the three islands, which can accommodate 5300 people during a storm. Of the 20 shelters, 16 are in Grand Cayman, three are in Cayman Brac and one is in Little Cayman. There are 94 shelter managers on call according to disaster services coordinator Lynda Mitchell.

People with medical conditions are directed to go to a shelter designated as a medical unit. But there are times when people don’t reveal their medical conditions, because they prefer to stay at a particular shelter without a medical unit. If the medical condition becomes apparent at a shelter without a medical unit in place, the shelter manager has to take action.

For instance, one woman had been going to the John Gray shelter for years and felt comfortable with the routine at this facility. For Hurricane Gustav last year, she did not reveal she had high blood pressure during the screening process, explained Thompson.

When her blood pressure was rising, Thompson felt she needed to be moved to a shelter that had a medical unit, but the lady was adamant that she wanted to stay at John Gray.

“We had a good Red Cross volunteer who told her to lie still and relax and her blood pressure came down. She was here for Ivan and thank God she did not have a medical problem,” said Thompson.

Another important part of managing a shelter successfully is identifying people with skills and giving them responsibilities. Doing tasks help keep minds occupied, which in turn helps them to deal with the stress of a storm, explained Thompson.

Some people may be assigned to play games with the children or help distribute food. Others can be a big help in sorting out unexpected problems such as when Ivan start to rip out the air-conditioning unit out of the wall at John Gray shelter during Ivan, said Thompson.

Two men staying in the shelter were hoisted up into the ceiling to secure the unit down and the A/C unit did not come off, she said.

Most people in the shelter come from a range of nationalities, cultures and backgrounds and the storm will bring all these different people together. When storm raging outside during Ivan, Thompson encouraged everyone to pray, regardless of their religion for God’s mercy. And she believes this helped people to cope with panicky feelings and fear.

Nevertheless, storms can be stressful and there are times when disagreements escalate, explained Thompson.

Thompson recalls a situation where a Honduran man and a Jamaican woman had a heated disagreement. The situation got so heated that Thompson was considering telling at least one person to leave the shelter. But she only uses her authority to evict people from the shelter as a last resort, preferring to use diplomacy and negotiating skills to get people to calm down.

There is a risk of burnout among shelter managers. Thompson acknowledged that she is always at risk for burnout.

She rotates with her shelter assistants,, but she finds that even during her rest time, Thompson can’t help but check on “her people”.

Mitchell said burnout comes from not having enough managers to rotate in or out.

“Managing shelters is extremely hard work because the shelter population is so diverse,” said Mitchell. “During Ivan there were shelter managers working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with only cat naps and small breaks in between.”

This is why there will always be a need to recruit and train new shelter managers each year, said Mitchell.

To volunteer to become a shelter manager contact disaster services coordinator at [email protected]