COA staff aid victims of Memorial Day tornadoes

Monday, July 15, 2019

For several months, staff in Council on Aging’s Specialized Recovery Services Program (SRSP) and Quality Improvement department had been working hard to ready more than 400 client cases for transfer to another organization by May 31. 

path of tornadoComing into the Memorial Day weekend and with just a few days left before the deadline, Jason Morgan, a COA quality analyst who led the transfer project, said the team had performed "exceptionally well" in making sure they were on track to meet the deadline. But then, in the late evening hours of Memorial Day, May 27, several tornadoes touched down in the Dayton area. SRSP staff, along with staff in COA’s Ohio Home Care Waiver (OHCW) program, suddenly found themselves in a crisis situation, on top of the looming deadline. 

COA has a contract with CareSource to provide care management and recovery management services to individuals enrolled in SRSP and OHCW. For these programs, COA’s service area includes Montgomery County, the area hardest hit by the tornadoes.

To pull in the resources necessary to confirm and secure the health, safety and well-being of clients impacted by the storms, Council on Aging activated its Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP).

Staff from both programs - and others - jumped in to help out.

SRSP supervisor, described the team as nimble and flexible during the crisis situation. "They really rose to the occasion," he said. "Adding that the team's approach was to account for everyone who could have been impacted by the storm. "We didn't want to make any assumptions, so we went after pretty much everybody." 

The OHCW and SRSP teams immediately started calling clients in the affected areas – more than 320 clients in all.

When staff made contact with a client, their primary goal was to make sure the client was stable. If they were without power or water, or if they were displaced due to the storm, COA staff stayed in touch with them until they were back home and stable, connecting them to resources along the way.

The list was whittled down each day as people were accounted for. By the third day, there were about 10 individuals unaccounted for, requiring a face-to-face visit. 

Recovery Manager, Erica McCormick

Erica McCormick, a COA recovery manager and resident of Kettering, located just south of the impacted areas, swung into action on Thursday to begin looking for clients.

As she drove through areas hit by the tornado, McCormick was relieved to see the community coming out to help neighbors in need. For example, cases of bottled water were stacked in front of homes where people had no power.

Jasmine Donald, another COA recovery manager, drove from Wilmington to help McCormick complete the visits. Donald noted that it was beneficial to be in the communities to see what businesses and services were open and serving the community. This would help give COA staff an idea of what help was available during the days following the storm. 

Together, McCormick and Donald worked to complete the face-to-face visits by a 3pm deadline, armed with lists of local resources for clients who may have needed food, water or other supplies and services. Those they were able to reach were generally safe but grateful that someone was looking out for them and concerned about their well-being. Anyone they were unable to make contact with was referred to local EMS personnel for follow up. 

"I completed my last visit at 3pm on the dot," McCormick said. "Thank goodness Jasmine helped out – I wouldn't have got them all done otherwise."

For McCormick, the mechanics of that day were business as usual. It was the size of the situation that made it feel anything other than ordinary. "We've never had a [crisis situation] where we've had to call everyone in a certain area," she said. "It was definitely a large scale operation and in that sense, it was not your normal day on the job. But as far as logistics, it felt pretty typical."

Back at the office, new COA and SRSP employee Marj'Ohnna Harris, also experienced a less-than-typical day. Harris, a recovery manager, was helping the SRSP team make phone calls to clients who may have been impacted by the tornadoes.

On the other end of the line, on her very first client phone call as a COA employee, was a man who was definitely not OK.

"It was shocking, to say the least," Harris said. "On my first call, the guy tells me he is trapped because the elevator in his apartment building wasn't working. I didn't know what to say."

Harris – whose past experience as a social worker at Women Helping Women and Mercy West, included helping people connect to community resources – consulted with others in the room. Those who could, dropped what they were doing to help her.

The man was panicking because he felt trapped in his apartment, couldn't reach his friends and family and was growing increasingly worried about his food spoiling because of a power outage.

Jasmine and Marj'Ohanna
L to R: Recovery Managers Marj'Ohanna Harris and Jasmine Donald

"I sympathized with him because I'm claustrophobic" Harris said. "He kept saying, 'I'm stuck, I'm stuck,' and it was clear that he felt helpless. Being at the mercy of other people…can be stressful."

The man used portable oxygen and was afraid to navigate the stairs from the top floor of his apartment building. Harris stayed on the phone with him for 35 minutes until he calmed down and "was in a better state of mind." She also called 911 and emergency personnel in the area went to the building to check on him. They ensured he had plenty of oxygen and water and told him where he could get a cooler and ice to save some of his food from spoiling. 

Eventually, the man felt confident enough to take the stairs and venture outside.

For Harris, the whole experience was a reminder that we can all come together as a community when something happens to help people. "Erica and Jasmine were on the ground but I was on the phone doing my part and that felt rewarding, too," she said. 

“This situation is exactly why we have a Continuity of Operations Plan,” said Council on Aging CEO Suzanne Burke. “This storm impacted clients, who, on a normal day, might struggle to manage one or more chronic health conditions. A storm like this brings additional challenges for these individuals. But because we had a plan in place, we were able to effectively and efficiently muster the necessary resources to help our clients move from crisis to recovery.”

"This was the real deal," Morgan reaffirmed. "Obviously we help people every day, but something like this, this is a whole different level."

And, in the midst of the chaos caused by the tornados, the SRSP team managed to meet its May 31 transfer deadline.