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DeKalb alderwoman talks relief efforts in wake of local fires

Red Cross officials detail their coordination in times of crisis

DeKALB – First Ward Alderwoman Carolyn Morris, who has been in office three months, said she thinks the city’s emergency response coordination efforts can be improved, after she witnessed about 200 residents in her ward lose their homes in two days.

“We need to try to unite these forces,” Morris said Wednesday. “Because together we can do so much more. This whole effort was really kind of a mess. That resource fair, God bless the Red Cross, but their shelter location, across town? Really? It’s worthless. We’ve got people who are trying to walk to it, people who missed the fair because they were working.”

About 200 residents were displaced between July 9 and July 11 after two suspected arson fires at 808 Ridge Drive and 930 Greenbrier Road.

In the days afterward, social services such as the American Red Cross, the Family Service Agency, the DeKalb County Community Gardens and city officials came together to provide aid to families affected, including temporary or permanent housing, clothing and food.

The Red Cross and FSA have so far hosted three Resource Fairs and open houses to collect donations, and the agency will hold another Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 14 Health Services Drive.

Red Cross response

Immediately after the July 9 fire, the Red Cross used 73 volunteers to open an emergency shelter at 507 E. Taylor St., three miles south of 808 Ridge Drive.

After the second fire, they moved the shelter to the DeKalb Park District’s Sports & Recreation Center, more than three miles from Ridge and 930 Greenbrier.

Harold Cubillo, a disaster program manager for the Red Cross, and part of its immediate response team that was on the scene of the 808 Ridge Fire, said the organization has an extensive checklist to ensure preselected locations comply with Red Cross standards and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We measure the space, sweep the area, make sure the feeding area is separated from the sleeping area, make sure there’s lighting in the parking lot, elevators and ramps,” Cubillo said Friday. “The morning of the [808 Ridge Drive] fire, I was there in person, and [DeKalb Fire Chief] Jeff McMaster offered to have city buses pick up any residents that did not have transportation.”

Carlo Heathcote, a senior disaster program manager for the Red Cross, said the organization has trailers around the region packed with 150 cots each and other emergency supplies in case of a disaster.

“Since it was a multiunit fire in a building owned by a professional landlord, we got the rent role and tenant list to communicate tenant by tenant to minimize people missing out [on our services],” Heathcote said.

The FSA reported helping 120 people – 75 families so far – in the days afterward, and during Friday’s donation period helped dozens.

The agency also set up an online donation portal with matching donations from Morris and others, the latest one by DeKalb Township that will match donations up to $5,000, Executive Director Tynisha Clegg said.

The fundraiser reached $17,500 of its $60,000 goal as of 5:45 p.m. Friday.

After the fires, Morris has been in constant contact with many residents upset that they can’t get the help they need, and she went to the site of the fires each morning to try to help.

“I talked to the other moms, and my kids are a little older now, but I remember the desperation of not having exactly what you need when you need it.” Morris said. “[One woman] was telling me her baby had been in a diaper since last night, and I was like ‘Oh God.’ ”

County collaboration

Morris said she will begin work at the city level with fellow aldermen to try and draft a better crisis preparedness plan. She also is working with the FSA to research ways to provide low-income residents with renters insurance, which she said would cover basic needs more efficiently in an emergency.

The city currently has access to a local model it can study.

DeKalb County Board Chairman Mark Pietrowski said that the 2015 tornado in Fairdale – which killed two people and destroyed dozens of homes – served as a catalyst for the county to ensure their emergency protocols were efficient. He said DeKalb County Coroner Denny Miller also is the appointed emergency manager for the county.

Part of that job description puts her in charge of coordinating crisis efforts.

“You really just have to have an open communication line,” Pietrowski said. “The most important thing we found is that you can’t necessarily do it alone, so having local nonprofits that can coordinate with national ones and make sure everybody’s on the same page.”

Pietrowski said the county amended their emergency disaster plan after the tornado, with an updated contact master list, clear guidelines for department heads and first responders and an established group of people with identified responsibilities.

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