Citizens preparing for next disaster through VOAD
by Jennifer Cohron
Oct 06, 2013 | 1688 views | 0 0 comments | 35 35 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Community leaders who lived through the April 2011 tornadoes are not waiting for the next catastrophe to put a plan in place. They are working now to strengthen the local version of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.

VOAD is a national nonprofit organization that enables communities to take responsibility for their own preparedness, response and recovery by pooling knowledge and resources.

VOAD is open to churches, businesses and nonprofits as well as experienced disaster relief agencies such as Salvation Army and Red Cross.

Walker County VOAD was created in 2008 under the leadership of the Emergency Management Agency.

Members met regularly and participated in several tabletop scenarios. One month before tornadoes swept through the area on April 27, 2011, the group held an exercise investigating the fallout of a failure at Smith Lake Dam.

One of those present at the meeting, Paul Kennedy, walked away with significant concerns about Walker County’s state of preparedness.

Kennedy is now among the proponents of the revamped VOAD.

“We need to get all the right players together, come up with agreements and we need to practice. You can’t show up at 6 p.m. on Friday night at the 50 yard line with 11 guys who have never done anything together and have an effective football team,’” Kennedy said.

The tornadoes of 2011 underscored the importance of the four guiding principles of VOAD — cooperation, communication, coordination and collaboration.

Courtney Newton of United Way of Central Alabama said relationships formed through VOAD proved vital when disaster struck on an unimaginable scale.

“When we understood the scope of what we were dealing with and decided to collaborate, our core partners were already at the table and familiar with each other. So we were able to move pretty quickly,” Newton said.

For two years, the Walker County Long Term Recovery Committee guided the local rebuilding effort. Now attention is once again on VOAD.

The group, which is being called Working 4 Walker, is currently developing a resource inventory of any organization in the county that would be willing to step up in a disaster and the kind of services they are equipped to provide.

One of the flaws discovered in the local VOAD following the tornadoes was that key leaders were responsible for other agencies that were on the frontlines assisting storm survivors.

In order to provide a more organized response, a more comprehensive list of available resources is needed.

“It’d be good to have involvement from realtors because there are a lot of issues with rehousing. It would be good to have churches because they have crews or congregants who want to help. And we have to organize the help because we don’t need 75 people with chainsaws. We need 10 people with chainsaws, 20 people feeding, 30 people helping with damage assessments and emotional care and so on,” Kennedy said.

Another VOAD representative, Lona Courington of the Salvation Army, added that the planning stage is the most appropriate time to come forward and offer assistance.

“We need to know who wants to help and we need to have that contact information accessible so that once something happens, we can call everyone in and get started,” Courington said.

Brent McCarver of First Bank of Jasper said members of the local business community might not be aware that they have contacts and expertise that could be useful to VOAD.

“We can reach out for fundraisers, facilities to meet in, government grants and facilitate things between disasters,” McCarver said.

Newton said businesses also have a role to play in educating the public.

“The chances of John Q. Public walking into the Community Foundation or United Way once a week are slim. The chances of walking into the bank is pretty good. So if we need messages to get out, it is the business community who is going to get it out,” Newton said.

Experts stress that communities should be able to handle an emergency for at least three days without outside help.

Karen Neupauer, the local VISTA who is helping with the expansion of VOAD, became convinced of the importance of preparedness while serving in Walker County first with Mennonite Disaster Service and then with LTRC.

“Through that, I understood the process of what disaster response and recovery looks like. VOAD is such a crucial part because if you’re not prepared, it makes it really hard to get off the ground in a timely fashion,” she said.

For more information, contact Neupauer at 302-0001, email or visit