Disaster Housing 2: Focusing on Emergency Shelters

When an entire community has been destroyed, leaders must focus on emergency shelters first. Get these insights from FEMA experts.


Whether a disaster is an earthquake, tornado, hurricane or flood, the decision on where to put the displaced survivors in its immediate aftermath is rife with complications. Disaster housing typically doesn’t play a significant role at this stage of disaster recovery -- the first focus is the decision where to put emergency shelters.

“We’re not going to put people back into an area where there’s no infrastructure,” said Steve DeBlasio, the federal disaster recovery coordinator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Region 9, who added, however, “Relocation is not popular by any stretch.”

A Demanding Task

When an entire community has been destroyed, there aren’t a lot of good options when you have hundreds, if not thousands, of suddenly homeless people and not necessarily many safe places you can put them.

Temporary communal shelters, such as school auditoriums and the like, “are designed to be temporary and they’re not designed to be comfortable,” said Jeremy Heidt, of the Tennessee Emergency Management office. “You’re basically living in a cot in a church basement.”

“Sheltering is one of the emergency supports, so there’s all sorts of protocols and it gets expanded all the time,” said Paige Colburn, emergency management officer for the City of Huntsville, Ala. “Special-needs shelters are another big one that’s coming up now.”

That’s because one issue with shelters isn’t just that people need a clean, safe place to stay. Disaster survivors often have a wide variety of special needs, whether refrigeration to keep life-saving insulin, a specially soothing environment and counselors for the autistic, electricity to keep an oxygen machine going or easy access for a wheelchair.

“You have to deal with all those cultural and personal and other issues,” DeBlasio said.

That will often include family pets, which previously were often left out of shelter plans. “After Katrina, I think everybody realized that’s something you have to account for,” Heidt said. “People will not evacuate without their pets.”

Many communities now will provide special shelters for pets, and Heidt said that in Tennessee, there’s a special volunteer team of citizens ready to help rescue and shelter animals caught in a disaster.

The Pros and Cons of Shelters

Even if a community is well organized and prepared to take care of itself in the first few days after a disaster, temporary shelters will become necessary almost from the start.

This is true even if a significant number of those affected have tents, said DeBlasio. “A tent is not a good solution for most families. It’s not safe, it’s generally not sanitary.”

“There’s feeding and showering and basic hygiene,” Colburn said, adding that the lack of sewage among tented populations internationally, such as in Haiti, often brings a significant risk of diseases, including cholera. “It’s really tragic, in fact, when it creates a disaster on top of a disaster.”

Heidt also pointed out that communal shelters make a lot more sense logistically: “It’s a lot easier to provide porta-potties in one location.”

Shelters also make it easier to feed large numbers of people and provide basic information, but shelters are not a perfect solution.

Aside from the discomfort of living communally for an extended period of time, DeBlasio noted that shelters often involve moving people a significant distance from the affected area, something that’s unpopular both among those who are displaced and among local politicians. In addition to residents not wanting to relocate from communities where they’ve spent perhaps their entire lives, local politicians don’t want to see their constituents scattered hither and yon for months, or longer.

“It’s only of sheer necessity,” DeBlasio said. “If [a disaster] has cut a huge swath out of the community that puts hundreds out of their homes, then there’s no option. It’s a very tough call, politically charged and emotionally charged.”

“Communities don’t want to lose their people and that’s absolutely a consideration,” Heidt added.

A Temporary Solution

Both men agreed that ultimately, whatever their advantages, shelters are an interim measure, Heidt noting that consideration for longer-term housing should begin within days of the incident.

“We immediately put people in shelters,” he said. “That’s a stopgap to get them out of the weather, and then we start looking at the long term.”

Hotels, rental housing and options for survivors to stay with friends and family are all on the table, but there are no simple solutions.

“In most cases, longer than two weeks and you tend to see people making their own arrangements,” Heidt said, adding that what a shelter does provide is some immediate space in which there’s time to do just that.

While planning can’t solve every situation for shelters, having a plan in place is absolutely necessary for shelters to work.

“Like most things in emergency management, [the plan] has to be scalable based on the emergency,” Colburn said.

“You can’t identify every challenge,” added DeBlasio, mostly because each disaster recovery situation is different. “But you need to get your arms around it.”

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