Not long after Hurricane Katrina – the largest-ever U.S. post-emergency sheltering operation – Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) Administrator David Paulison said the following: “This has been an historic emergency sheltering effort that has assisted thousands of hurricane evacuees in their transition to longer-term housing. The process of recovery is difficult and we continue to provide rental assistance, apartment locator services, and housing referrals to help evacuees take the next step in securing longer-term housing.” Almost a million families had to be sheltered in the aftermath of Katrina, on either a short-term or long-term basis.

Sheltering is always an enormous challenge, though, not only for the evacuees themselves but also for those charged with establishing and/or operating the shelters. One essential but frequently underestimated aspect of the situation is the licensing process required to authorize and operate the shelters.

States that received evacuees from areas affected by Hurricane Katrina were able to request an emergency declaration (under Section 501 of the Stafford Act) to seek reimbursement for the costs incurred in the sheltering operations carried out by those states. Under the Act, state and/or local governments are permitted to start sheltering operations on their own – or to contract with provide-sector companies or other organizations to provide the sheltering services. The costs incurred by state and local governments, including contract costs, are eligible for reimbursement.

Common-Sense Preparation Mandates

But cost reimbursement is only one of many factors that have to be taken into consideration before a state or local jurisdiction decides to set up shelters. In areas threatened by disasters, evacuation plans are, or should be, established beforehand to prepare for an efficient evacuation and to avoid panic. Evacuation simulations, trials, and the writing and promulgation of emergency plans are further measures of preparation that are recommended and/or mandated.

The duration of an evacuation is called the “evacuation time.” There are several methods to forecast probable evacuation times – e.g., full-scale trials and exercises, calculations based on the flow of persons (hydraulic models), or evacuation simulations. These sometimes laborious efforts in the preparedness phase of emergency management may overlook one of the vital technicalities, though – the licensing process required for the establishment and operation of shelters.

The City of Boston – to cite but one example that other jurisdictions might want to emulate – has a variety of shelters, including the following, prepared for any emergency evacuation situation the city faces:

  • Adult Shelters: Men & Women
  • Adult Shelters: Men Only
  • Adult Shelters: Women Only
  • Adult Drop-In Programs: Day
  • Adult Drop-In Programs: Night

Family Shelters

With new legislation governing the evacuation of pets, animal shelters become another major category of shelter. In addition, youth shelters sometimes will be needed in the aftermath of a truly catastrophic disaster, such as after Katrina. This whole system of sheltering then relies on licensing for standards and accountability to protect not only the disaster victims, evacuees, and communities involved but also the responders, emergency managers, law-enforcement personnel, and other decision makers.

Guidelines, Safeguards, and Other Precautions

Before issuance of a permit, licensing staff must develop a plan to evaluate an operation’s ability to meet the minimum sheltering standards mandated under federal, state, and local laws. Each state has its own system of licensing and its own requirements. However, a best-practices model, and one that would be a good example for other states to follow, is the one established by the State of Texas.

The plans for all shelters should include guidelines both for inspections and for the documentation of the individual shelter’s legal basis for operations – e.g., articles of incorporation, if the shelter is a private-sector facility; if it is a public facility, enabling legislation and/or appropriate regulations are required. Moreover, if the shelter is owned or regulated by a partnership, nongovernmental organization (NGO), or other entity, documents reflecting the existence or creation of that organization or association are required; churches are subject to the same rules and regulations. Also required are the names, addresses, and titles of the officers or executive committee members of the facility’s governing body who are responsible for and have decision-making authority over the policies and activities of the shelter.

Also required, in writing, are the policies setting forth the governing body’s specific responsibilities – e.g., the responsibility for personnel policies and programs, the assurance of adequate financing, and compliance with minimum standards. The governing body is responsible for ensuring that copies of the policies required under the “minimum standards” rule are available to the facility’s staff. Finally, of course, the emergency shelter must always operate in accordance with its own written policies.

All facilities also must have, in writing, a behavior-intervention policy consistent with applicable laws, especially when the sheltering of young people is involved. If a child is absent without permission, for example, the specific steps the staff must take in locating the child must be clearly delineated, along with the designation of the person(s) responsible for taking those steps as well as the time frames specified and the law-enforcement support that might be required.

The facility’s organization chart and job descriptions must cover all staff positions, including contract staff and consultants, as well as regular and volunteer employees. Here it should be emphasized that, if the facility is a licensed youth shelter, a licensed child-care administrator is required to be on-site. Procedures for obtaining medical and dental care also must be set forth in writing, including the names of the facilities that should be used. Finally, the plans must include the specific procedures required to be taken in fire evacuations or for power outages, tornado alerts, or similar disasters.

The rules governing other emergency plans will depend, at least in part, on the facility’s location. If there is a flood hazard, for example, the facility must have plans for dealing with that kind of emergency. In short, developing, maintaining, and “growing” a shelter program is very much like any other business operation. In the beginning, the process was much less formal, but now it is a very professional operation with operational as well as legal standards, expectations, and safeguards – which, of course, is exactly what it should be.

Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss has been the president of World Disaster Management since 2012. She is the former senior assistant to two state governors, coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years at the Texas firm Electronic Data Systems as a senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She is a senior fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. She has also been a graduate professor of Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) CEM Mentor for five years, and chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010.

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