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Persistence in Promoting Preparedness

If you’re a business owner or resident in Lewis & Clark County, Montana, chances are you have been on the receiving end of one of Paul Spengler’s disaster preparedness messaging and outreach efforts.

After 35 years in his role as the Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator for the county, Spengler has become a county mainstay and a successful advocate for disaster preparedness, which is quite the feat considering the fact that he had little to no emergency management experience before applying for the position in 1979 (unless you count being a stay-at-home father for his two sons for 8 months).              

“I got the job because I was the only applicant who read the County Emergency Operations Plan prior to the interview and had suggestions on how to improve it,” said Spengler.

That dedication to improvement has been prevalent throughout his tenure and has resulted in the whole community – especially businesses – in Lewis & Clark County taking proactive steps to become more prepared for all-hazards.

How has he made this happen?  According to Spengler, “the most important part of my job is building relationships.”

Specifically, Spengler leverages his partnerships with the Helena Chamber of Commerce and the Helena Business Improvement District (BID) to encourage businesses to conduct disaster preparedness planning and exercises and to develop continuity of operations plans. Spengler has also worked with the Business Improvement District and its members to designate their space as a back-up Joint Information Center. He has also added local businesses to the county’s Local Emergency Preparedness Committee, a group that meets regularly to plan and coordinate responses to all-hazards in the county.

Building relationships with business partners prior to incidents is one of his priorities because, “businesses are not only important for economic viability, they play a large role in recovery.”

While Spengler has seen much success in his career as an emergency manager, it hasn’t been without challenges. At times, he is frustrated by the uphill battle to change people’s behavior and to encourage business and personal preparedness and mitigation. “It is one thing to talk to them, but a big jump to get them to take action. Persistence has been the key to seeing movement,” he emphasized.

In addition to persistence, the importance of Spengler’s preparedness message has also been underscored by disasters. “One of the most challenging disasters I have faced in my career was a train explosion across from Carroll College in downtown Helena in 1989,” he said. During the response and recovery to that incident, emergency responders confronted various complexities including, but not limited to: concern about a possible toxic chemical release, frigid temperatures reaching 30 degrees below zero, power outages and communications disruptions.

After they made it out of the initial response phase, one of the County Commissioners commented that during a table-top exercise conducted by Spengler, she often thought his comments were unrealistic, but this incident quickly changed her mind. “Once we dealt with the various challenges and the complexities associated with the train explosion, it was a lot easier to get stakeholders engaged and receptive to preparedness messaging and exercises,” emphasized Spangler.

Spengler, 74, is often asked when he plans to retire.

“I have the best job in the state,” he says. “I have no plans to retire anytime soon.”

That’s good news for business owners and residents in Lewis & Clark County.

Ten Years After Hurricane Charley: Urban Renewal By Disaster

damage of punta gorda
Hurricane Charley significantly damaged the town of Punta Gorda, Florida in August 2004. The community came together to form a path of recovery that stands as a model for others to follow to this day.

The 13th of this month marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Charley’s unwelcome visit to my community. Yet in many ways, it seems as though it was only yesterday. The Category 4 storm, with sustained winds of 150 mph and gusts to 190, carved a destructive path through the heart of Charlotte County, Florida late in that afternoon and set us on a course of recovery that continues to this day.

Not long after this $3.2 billion hit to our county, including the loss of 11,000 residential units, we began referring to Charley as, “Urban Renewal by Disaster,” and the changes in both appearance and attitude speak volumes in terms of our community’s resiliency.

No city impacted by a major disaster serves as a better example of this recovery and renewal, than Punta Gorda, Florida, the “Little City That Could!”

Hit very hard on that fateful Friday the 13th, no small municipality has seen quite the complete devastation that Punta Gorda endured in about a two-hour period that sweltering August day. Thousands of homes (including 90% of the public housing) and businesses were damaged or destroyed, three schools (within the city limits) were lost, along with numerous churches, restaurants and hotels.

Temporary housing became a huge challenge, with thousands needing to be close to schools and jobs in our community. Just 10 days after Charley, a group was organized that included dozens of individuals who would have any input whatsoever in the target project. After more than 14 hours, the group had designed what would later become a 551-unit manufactured home community, where some Charley survivors would reside for more than two years.

The residents of Punta Gorda didn’t take time to fret and moan about what they’d lost, but rather immediately set about designing a plan that would help them emerge from the considerable destruction around them. An advisory panel called, “Team Punta Gorda” was formed by the City Council, and an urban planner was hired to lead the way, along with an executive director. This group met frequently and considered many proposals, the best of which were passed on to the elected council to consider.

These projects included the gleaming Events and Conference Center on the Peace River, two signature hotels, professional centers, churches and schools. Within five years, most of Charley’s scars had healed and now only those who were here would even know a major hurricane had visited the city.

Today, this Florida Gulf Coast jewel shines as a beacon of resiliency that did it the right way!

Editor's Note: The views expressed by Wayne P. Sallade do not necessarily represent the official views of the United States, the Department of Homeland Security, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA does not endorse any non-government organizations, entities, or services.

AmeriCorps Makes Disaster Response and Recovery More Agile and Effective


Editor's note: This was originally posted on the Corporation for National & Community Service blog on August 5, 2014.

Disaster Survivor Assistance Team (DSAT) member Marie Orechoff checks on the FEMA application status of Toni Talley in Brownsville, Florida. Andrea Booher/FEMA
Disaster Survivor Assistance Team (DSAT) member Marie Orechoff checks on the FEMA application status of Toni Talley in Brownsville, Florida. Andrea Booher/FEMA

Emergency management requires flexibility. You plan for the worst, but also have to make sure your team is ready to tackle unforeseen challenges and unique situations. This is what makes AmeriCorps such an asset to our nation. There’s inherent flexibility in the AmeriCorps program to do community service programs above and beyond what government can do. I have seen this play out again and again in communities across the country.

While I was Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, I had a chance to see AmeriCorps members supporting readiness, response and recovery efforts in local communities. AmeriCorps members in education and literacy programs trained and prepared to provide care in shelters and manage the influx of volunteers after a disaster’s impact. AmeriCorps members from the Florida State Parks program cleared trails with chain saws and covered roofs with blue tarps. AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) members strengthened the homes of low income homeowners against the effects of windstorm damage. AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) members managed long-term recovery needs, such as housing, for survivors. 

AmeriCorps is a catalyst that unites the whole community to engage in response and recovery. The flexibility of AmeriCorps allows members to serve as the bridge among federal, state, tribal, local, and non-government partners to address unmet needs. For example, the AmeriCorps program provided the flexibility to match volunteers up with vulnerable populations so they could remove debris on private property — a task that would have taken longer and required more administrative work if left to government alone. 

AmeriCorps members played an important role after Hurricane Dennis in 2005.  Dennis impacted many of the same places that were affected by Hurricane Ivan a year earlier – damaging homes that were still in the process of being repaired. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initiated a program that paid contractors to cover roofs of homes that were partially damaged with tarps (commonly called the “blue roof” program). Because of the flexibility built into the AmeriCorps program, AmeriCorps members, in partnership with Volunteer Florida and other state, community and faith-based organizations laid tarps as FEMA’s contract was being established. This provided disaster survivors with the help they needed to stay in their homes so they could begin the path to recovery.

In each of these examples, AmeriCorps was successful because the members lived in these communities, worked in these communities and knew these communities. More importantly, they share the passion to serve. Successful disaster response and recovery comes from the community up, rather than from the federal government down. AmeriCorps has been able to ingrain their teams in community efforts to help disaster survivors.

AmeriCorps members Joy Park Asher (left) and Ali Richardson help install FEMA blue plastic on the roof of this home in Lake Lettuce, FL, that was damaged by Hurricane Charley in August 2004. (FEMA photo by Mark Wolfe)
AmeriCorps members Joy Park Asher (left) and Ali Richardson help install FEMA blue plastic on the roof of this home in Lake Lettuce, FL, that was damaged by Hurricane Charley in August 2004. (FEMA photo by Mark Wolfe)

At FEMA, I see the value of AmeriCorps every day. Two years ago, FEMA partnered with AmeriCorps to create FEMA Corps – the integration of AmeriCorps volunteers into all areas of our mission.  Disaster response and recovery operations are part of what members of FEMA Corps do, but we’re also engaging them in areas like community preparedness and mitigation. In many ways, FEMA Corps members are becoming the face of FEMA as it relates to preparedness. Just a few weeks ago, FEMA Corps members represented FEMA at the Portland Disaster Relief Trials, a community event that showcases how bikes can be used to support community resiliency.

FEMA has benefited from AmeriCorps members’ fresh perspectives and strong desire to serve the community. Combine those two with delivering disaster preparedness, response and recovery programs, and that’s where the true value comes in. We’re proud to partner closely with AmeriCorps at FEMA and recognize the tremendous value the program brings not only to delivering services, but also to helping those in need during times of disaster.

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