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HR consultant helps create a community for evacuees

By Kathy Gurchiek   12/13/2005
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When the nonprofit Housing Assistance Corp. (HAC) of Cape Cod, Mass., suddenly found itself assigned to assist Hurricane Katrina evacuees arriving at Camp Edwards at Otis Air National Guard base in nearby Bourne a few months ago, it didnt know where to start.

But HR executive Lou Cimini did, by using the kind of skills HR professionals apply to their everyday world.

Turning military barracks into a neighborhood for 245 people was simply a matter of applying project management and change management skills that HR professionals can apply to their own organizations in nonemergency situations, according to Cimini.

It meant thinking of evacuees as customers and guests instead of faceless people to be shuffled through a bureaucratic maze.

It meant giving evacuees ownership of their living conditions.

It meant using communication styles to fit all the groups involved.

And it meant helping HAC host the evacuees who arrived from the Gulf Coast Sept. 8. HAC drew the assignment because of its experience running shelters, and it turned for help to New Directions, a Boston-based group that uses volunteer senior executives to mentor small firms and nonprofit and volunteer organizations.

New Directions recommended Cimini, a former volunteer. He came in as a consultant but within four hours had accepted the job of executive director of the village at Camp Edwards, he told HR News. We agreed right away that we needed a new and separate group to handle this mission, he said, and a separate entity was set up for that purpose. Normally, creating an infrastructure for project management takes a fair amount of time; Cimini accelerated the process, which included shadowing HACs CEO to learn what needed to be done. One of the things he observed was that HAC simply didnt have the resources to run this in their current organization. For example, while people there would run through walls to support the people they were supposed [to help], he felt certain that the employees would fail to meet the evacuees needs if they did not have a specific structure of clear priorities.

Cimini tapped into various networks to find an HR professional with a strong training background and another with a strong staffing background who would screen 750 applicants over the phone for the 200 eight-hour shifts at the barracks and would establish the behavioral competencies we needed.

Volunteers would serve as a kind of concierge for evacuees and as first responders, sometimes interceding when feuds erupted.

That meant training was a top priority, but HAC, which had little turnover and whose employees had worked together for a long time, had no training program set up. Within 10 days Cimini had established one. It took staffing longer to get under controltwo and a half weeksand even then the role continually evolved, he said.

The customers

It was crucial, Cimini believed, to view the evacuees as guests or customers.

If we think of them as customers, we think of them very differently than if theyre being shuttled through a government process such as at the Department of Motor Vehicles, he said.

It also was important that the evacuees have ownership of their living situation.

As quickly as we could, we set up barracks councils made up of evacuees who determined house rules such as when music should be turned off at night.

This was particularly important because of the unique environment of living on a military post; evacuees were searched every time they came on base.

That environment, while set up for their protection, could be very onerous unless they had some ownership of it, he explained.

In addition, it meant that while it was important that volunteers had experience working at shelters, they had to be comfortable with the shelter environment they would be working in.

Some shelter providers were more autocratic, and this [environment] was more democratic, Cimini explained. If they didnt understand the unique nature of this guest relationship, then [they] wouldnt be a good fit.

Also, all of the government agencies working with evacuees integrated well together, Cimini said, but there was no body of people [that] was focused on the outcomes of decisions.

The barracks, for example, were dry and safe, but doors lacked locks.

Our guests felt like they were in a fishbowl. We had to create a policy that you knock but you never go in unless you are invited.

That policy was the result of an HR practice of looking for unintentional consequences to decisions, Cimini said.

Often it falls to human resources or the people who own the organization to think outside the gray area not covered by specific groups or specific functions, he said.

It also was important to recognize that the government agencies, the nonprofit organization, the volunteers and the evacuees had different communication needs and styles and had to be treated accordingly, Cimini said.

One of the things I learned in dealing with government agencies and highly dedicated nonprofit people is you have to treat them differently, he said.

People working in nonprofits, for example, need to feel part of the solution. Planning meetings took twice as long because everyone tried to be part of it. It was important for me to maintain their energy, he said.

Cimini saw his group as advocates for evacuees, and it learned to address inherent risks firstrisks to the individual, the group, the basewhen communicating with government agencies.

We simply adjusted our style, and when we presented things, thats what we talked about, he said. We actually planned how we would communicate with each of the groups, what style they would require, the sense of [communication] frequency, who would be the main communicator.

The last of the evacuees left the base Oct. 8. About half settled in Massachusetts under support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to Cimini; the others reunited with family around the country or resettled at a FEMA community in Alabama.

Its unbelievable what people can do if everyone works together, he said. We created a community.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor at HR News . She can be reached at

For more articles and information related to the natural disasters, go to SHRMs Hurricane Response Page


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