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Calif. HR pro comes to the rescue of Katrina recovery

By Bill Leonard  12/21/2005
 

In August 2005 the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps didnt existin fact the concept for the initiative hadnt even entered anyones mind prior to Labor Day. But now, the independent, nonprofit agency has more than $33 million in start-up funds, more than 20 employees and is poised to coordinate assistance to thousands of families in Louisiana displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The nearly miraculous formation of the recovery corps in less than six weeks took hard work and dedication from an interesting mix of professionals from the government, not-for-profit and private sectors. Rod McCowan, a senior-level human resource professional from California, was something of a surprise choice to help lead the initiative to organize the brand-new recovery corps.

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast in late August, McCowan watched with the rest of the country in shock at the extent of the devastation. McCowan, like millions of other Americans, wanted to do something to help but felt that he probably could do little more than donate money, because he worked and lived thousands of miles from the disaster in the Silicon Valley of Northern California

Little did McCowan expect that, just two weeks after the hurricane struck, he would be in Louisiana and thrust to the forefront of the recovery effort because of his expertise in HR management.

In my wildest dreams, I never expected to go to Louisiana and be directly involved in the recovery efforts to this extent, McCowan, senior vice president for global HR at Hitachi Data Systems in Santa Clara, Calif., told HR News. But once I got the call asking for my help, I knew it was the right thing to do. Less than 48 hours after Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, Louisiana officials realized that their capacity to respond to the disaster had been completely overwhelmed by the mind-boggling level of the storms damage. Gov. Kathleen Blanco quickly assembled a group of her top advisers in her office to brainstorm about ways to respond. McCowan says that during the meeting, someone hit on the idea of creating an organization to coordinate the recovery efforts of the federal, state and local governments while working directly with the many private disaster relief groups. The idea was well received and gathered steam quicklyto the point that Blanco began asking for suggestions about whom she could appoint to organize the agency.

McCowan says his name was mentioned immediately as a possible candidate. He had served during the Clinton administration in several HR-related capacities with the Department of Education, and someone on Blancos staff remembered working with him.

I really dont know who it was that came up with my name, but suddenly I was on the short list of candidates to help form this new recovery initiative, said McCowan, who is set to join the board of directors of the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation in January.

The right mix

Choosing McCowan to head the initiative made perfect sense once the governors office examined his credentials and experience, says Ann S. Williamson, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Social Services.

Rod had just the right mix of experience in government, nonprofit and private sectors, said Williamson, who now sits on the board of directors for the family recovery corps. Looking back now, I dont think we could have made a better choice to lead the team.

When Blancos office called and asked if McCowan would be interested, he was flattered and flabbergasted that they had zeroed in on him for the job.

Really, it was a bolt from the blue, but I immediately felt that it was the right thing to do, McCowan said.

However, there was one slight issue: his existing job as senior vice president of global HR for a large corporation. McCowan had been on the job as senior vice president at Hitachi Data Systems for less than a year and was guiding the company through a critical reorganization of its global HR function.

When they called, it really was at a very crucial juncture in the reorganization, and I thought theres no way that my boss will let me do this, McCowan said with a laugh.

However, it never hurts to ask, and McCowan went right to his boss, Dave Roberson, president and chief operating officer. Robersons response surprised McCowan.

He thought about it for about 10 seconds and said, OK, lets do it, McCowan recalled. It really was one of those moments in my career and life that Ill never forget. Dave and I both felt it was the right thing, and we acted on it. I was never more proud to work for a boss like Dave Roberson and an organization like Hitachi Data Systems in my life. I literally felt tears welling up in my eyes.

Roberson asked how long it would take. McCowan said he estimated at least a month. Roberson gave him a deadline of six weeks to do the job. McCowan went to Louisiana and completed the work in five.

I was sure that he was going to call me and ask to extend the time, Roberson said. But he was back a week early and ready to get back to work on our reorganization initiative.

Roberson says that he shouldnt have been surprised by McCowans quick work and dedication to help form a fledgling recovery corps in Louisiana. Rod has the skill, the vision and the determination to make a project like this work. Roberson says that he picked McCowan to head the HR function at Hitachi for the top-notch organizational and leadership qualities that have served McCowan well throughout his career.

McCowan went to Louisiana as an executive on loan from Hitachi. He took along a co-worker who McCowan says he had come to rely on heavily.

It also surprised me that Dave agreed to let us both go, and at the same time, he called every department head and told them to co-operate and give us any support that we might need, McCowan said. Again, I was incredibly touched by Daves gesture, and the commitment from [Hitachi] to do the right thing.

Going right to work

Upon arriving in Louisiana, McCowan set to work immediately. The first order of business was to decide what type of organization was needed to fulfill Blancos directive of creating a new recovery agency that would coordinate the many federal, state, local and private relief efforts.

McCowan says the task force decided quickly that the best way to meet the governors goal was through an independent and not-for-profit agency.

We needed a group that could operate outside government red tape and wasnt bound by the many rules and regulations a government agency would have to faceespecially when it came to funding and accepting donations, McCowan said.

The task force immediately began setting up a 501c(iii) organization, a not-for-profit group that can solicit and accept donations from a wide range of public and private sources. The Louisiana Family Recovery Corps was born. One of the main goals of the corps was to coordinate what had become a disjointed relief effort.

We discovered quickly that no one knew what other agencies were doing even at the state level. Communication between agencies was very spotty and really nonexistent in most instances, McCowan said. Once you combined the federal, state, local and private group efforts, there just was no coordination or communication between any of these groups.

Quickly, the recovery corps adopted a mission to deliver comprehensive recovery services to displaced families throughout the state and to provide support to Louisiana residents who were relocated to other states. According to McCowan, the recovery corps developed a three-pronged initiative:

    Comprehensive services delivery. In close partnership with the International Rescue Committee, the recovery corps will facilitate the training of case workers or family liaisons over the next year to identify and establish contact with displaced families, assess their needs, deliver immediate care and implement a comprehensive social services plan for recovery.

    Disaster relief coordination. The recovery corps will establish a humanitarian service center, based on a model used by the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The service center will collect family needs assessments and use the data to forecast the need for social services. It will communicate these needs to service providers, which will include federal, state, local and private agencies. And it will link families with the service providers.

    Model for disaster relief. The recovery corps model is a hybrid strategy that incorporates the best practices of disaster relief models used throughout the world. The innovative strategy, McCowan says, will combine a centralized information management system with extensive on-the-ground support.

McCowan and others involved in the initiative say that the recovery corps could change the way states and even the federal government manage relief efforts.

It was a privilege and an honor to work with the team that helped organize the family recovery corps, said Louisianas Williamson. With Rods leadership, our team was able to develop a new type of disaster recovery initiative. I dont think anything like the family recovery corps has ever been attempted before. Its truly amazing to me that we were able to do this in less than six weeks.

McCowan returned to his job in California on Nov. 8. Blanco appointed an interim CEO to head the newly born recovery corps, and, according to Williamson, an active nationwide search is under way to find a permanent chief executive officer for the nonprofit agency. The recovery corps has hired at least 14 family liaisons, who have begun working to provide relief support to hundreds of Louisiana families. The goal is to hire and train up to 80 liaisons during 2006 and provide assistance to nearly 45,000 individuals or 10,000 families.

The Family Recovery Corps is really in the start-up mode right now, and it seems to be working well, said Williamson. We will be working hard to make sure we deliver the assistance to families that need it the most.

McCowan reflects back on the experience with a high level of satisfaction that he was able in some way to help the hurricane victims.

Reaching out and helping people in need is really what it is all about, he said. And I was glad to be there and ready to help when they called my name.

Bill Leonard is senior writer for HR News.

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

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