*Editor’s Note: At this time, due to the seriousness of Covid-19, it should be considered when making evacuation plans. A shelter may require masks to be worn. If you are not comfortable wearing a mask due to PTSD, you may need to speak with a counselor in advance or look into alternative solutions with which you are comfortable. In the past, if your plans to evacuate have included staying with older or more vulnerable people, you may want to re-assess those plans as they may need some alterations.
In Louisiana, it’s hard to escape the effects of hurricanes. Even those who are inland may experience threatening weather or may house friends and family who are seeking refuge from the direct path of an oncoming storm. One safety concern associated with natural disasters is that they can have a big impact on victims of sexual and domestic violence.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website, studies indicate that there are increases in domestic violence and sexual assault in association with natural disasters. Hurricane Barry’s destruction was relatively mild and in essence, the storm served as a drill. In its wake, there is opportunity to assess and better prepare for future disasters. With this in mind, now is a good time to make and practice a personal disaster preparedness plan. This will benefit those who suffer from trauma or have experienced sexual assault, and can prevent sexual assault from happening in a disaster.
LaFASA offers these suggestions:
- Arrange in advance a place you can seek adequate shelter with someone you trust and where you feel safe. It may be with family, with a friend, a church member, or a co-worker.
- Know how you will get to this place. If it’s in a different city, ensure your transportation is reliable. If it’s not, work with outside resources (friends, family, advocates) to be able to get where you want to go. If your only option is public transportation or a ride-share program, you must evacuate early enough so that you don’t find yourself in a compromised situation. Address this with your employer so that they are aware that you may need time off earlier than other employees.
- Shelters should always be considered a final option. Shelters are generally set up by local government and organizations such as the ARC, the Salvation Army, or churches. Survivors of sexual assault should be aware that displacement from your home along with the lack of privacy in a shelter can be re-traumatizing.
- If you have documentation of a sexual assault protective order, or any other necessary paperwork, have it readily available to bring with you.
- Always have the number of someone you feel comfortable talking with in your contact list. Most parishes in Louisiana have a local sexual assault crisis center. Your local center’s number is a must to have in your contact list. Each accredited center number can be found at LaFASA.org. However, keep in mind that your local center may be compromised as well, due to the disaster. Two good numbers to have as back-up are LaFASA’s helpline – 888-995-7273 or RAINN’s national helpline – 800-656-HOPE (4673). Cell phone service is often crippled during a disaster. Don’t be afraid to ask if there is a landline.
We would like to bring to mind for employers that when it comes to a person’s safety, there should be no debate in allowing adequate time off from work. If an employee’s plan involves being out of town, then please understand, this is probably the best option for that person. Regardless of a person’s circumstances or experiences, employers must always put their employee’s safety first without threat to employment.
Most shelters are run by volunteers. Many times, shelters continue to house evacuees for days on into weeks after the disaster. Organizations should vet in advance anyone who enlists to volunteer at a shelter and understand that conditions can present opportunity for sexual predators. With appropriate preparation, shelters can prevent nefarious actions. LaFASA offers a brief list of recommendations for any organization that serves as a shelter during a disaster:
- Ensure that evacuees are supplied with information about how to report sexual abuse or assault.
- Ensure that all security, responders, staff and volunteers are briefed on sexual assault response procedures including who to contact, where to bring the victim and his/her chosen support people, and how to ensure privacy and confidentiality; offer this information during mandatory trainings and orientations.
- Train shelter staff and volunteers that disasters may cause re-traumatization to survivors and survivors may need counseling from rape crisis professionals or advocates.
- Ensure that private spaces are created for individuals who wish to report sexual assault and seek assistance.
LaFASA and NSVRC have created a guide to assist partners in the development of practices and policies for the prevention of, and the optimal response to, sexual assault during and following disasters. This book provides much more extensive detail to the brief recommendations listed above. The guide provides agencies recommendations to develop a comprehensive plan that activates prevention and response to sexual violence during disasters. This guide book is available free of charge to any organization involved with disaster response. Please contact LaFASA to have a copy shipped to your organization. Contact information is 225-372-8995 or firstname.lastname@example.org.