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SAMHSA News - November/December 2004, Volume 12, Number 6

Helping State Agencies Weather '04 Hurricane Season

As a relentless track of hurricanes pounded the Nation's Gulf Coast and triggered tornados and flooding throughout the Southeast region in August and September, SAMHSA mobilized its Emergency Services Team to ensure that substance abuse and mental health agencies would have the resources they needed to weather these storms and sustain public services.

"There's the initial impact, and then there's the longer process of recovery," said Seth Hassett, M.S.W., Chief of the Emergency Mental Health and Traumatic Stress Services Branch at SAMHSA's Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS). "Right from the start, we know that this is going be a several-month effort."

State agencies and local service providers have access to technical assistance, publications, funding opportunities, and sample emergency plans through the SAMHSA Web site. The site provides ongoing alerts regarding disaster readiness and response. Services available in the aftermath of the season's four major hurricanes—Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne—are posted on the site.

In response to the growing need for aid in Florida, SAMHSA is awarding an additional $11 million to help those in need of substance abuse and mental health clinic services, interventions, and treatment. SAMHSA joins the Administration on Aging, the Administration for Children and Families, and the Health Resources and Services Administration in this effort.

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SAMHSA's Team in Action

Just before Hurricane Ivan roared ashore in mid-September, teams of SAMHSA personnel prepared for the storm's landfall. Officials from all three SAMHSA Centers reached out to grantees across the Gulf Coast to solidify a broad network of support.

"A hurricane is a disaster that crosses a lot of geographical boundaries," said Mr. Hassett. "Our goal is to help get the communities back on the path to recovery."

Officers from the SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center (SAMHSA DTAC) called all state mental health and substance abuse disaster coordinators in the storm's path to offer assistance. Through SAMHSA DTAC, state officials and local service providers were able to request help with grant applications, emergency plans, and other procedures.

"They [SAMHSA DTAC] went to extended hours to be more available," said SAMHSA Emergency Management Coordinator Dan Dodgen, Ph.D. "They pulled together vital information and provided consultation."

With Ivan looming, the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention's Division of Workplace Programs used a special software program to produce a list of SAMHSA grantees situated in the path of the storm. Using this information, SAMHSA staff members were able to contact grantees, help them prepare, gauge the damage sustained during the storms, and offer assistance.

At the same time, SAMHSA developed a list of deployable civilian personnel for responding to the hurricanes. Simultaneously, through the Commissioned Corps Readiness Force of the U.S. Public Health Service, SAMHSA staffers arrived in various locations to help, including CAPT Carol Rest-Minchberg, CAPT Peter Delany, LCDR Wanda Finch, LCDR David Morrissette, and LT Christine Guthrie.

While the Gulf Coast bore the brunt of the storms, states in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions suffered through hurricane-related tornados and flooding. SAMHSA worked with officials in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Puerto Rico to offer support and assist with counseling.

"When we have a large multi-state disaster, we need to have the capacity to work with several states at one time," said Mr. Hassett.

In Florida, SAMHSA is working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Project Hope, a crisis counseling and training assistance program grant designed to help Florida agencies recover and rebuild. Project Hope, operated through the Florida Department of Children and Families, offers a toll-free information and referral hotline.

"We've been doing a whole variety of things to strengthen state planning," said Mr. Hassett. "We've had a particular emphasis on joint planning to foster our all-hazards work."

For most of the mental health and substance abuse agencies and local service providers in Florida and other states affected during this hurricane season, responding to disasters is not their usual line of business. And yet, when a hurricane or some other disaster suddenly strikes, these agencies need immediate resources to help them sustain services.

"Their usual job isn't disaster response," said Dr. Dodgen, "but now here they are in a disaster. So what do they do?"

SAMHSA offers help through personnel, the Agency's Web site, the SAMHSA DTAC, and collaborative programs like Project Hope.

"It's been an incredible challenge," said Mr. Hassett, "but it's also a chance for us to learn and refine our system. We'll learn more as we go along to improve our efforts."

The SAMHSA Web site continues to post alerts of the Agency's activities before, during, and after disasters, and to provide links to important Federal information at FEMA.

For more information about SAMHSA's disaster readiness & response, visit the SAMHSA Web site at www.samhsa.gov.

SAMHSA's Disaster Technical Assistance Center

For more information about SAMHSA DTAC, visit SAMHSA's Web site at www.mentalhealth.
samhsa.gov/dtac
or call 1 (800) 308-3515.

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