Barriere resident Wanda Nystoruk reports she was called on Monday, Nov. 15, and asked if she could assist Emergency Social Services (ESS) as some 2,500 evacuees were expected to be coming through the doors of the ESS centre set up at the McArthur Island Sport and Event Centre in Kamloops.
Nystoruk has been a Barriere ESS professionally trained volunteer for many years, and knew that it would be all hands on deck with that many people expected, and it didn’t take her long to jump into her car and be on her way to Kamloops first thing Tuesday morning.
“When I got there the parking lot at McArthur Island was packed,” said Nystoruk, “And when I entered the building I was surprised to see all the cots in the foyer area of the center and even upstairs. Evacuees were curled up on cots with a blanket – some with their pups. All forced out of their homes with nothing, and having to spend the night at the reception center.”
Once she reported in and was assigned a desk and computer Nystoruk says she was shocked to hear that Kamloops was already out of available hotel rooms and those without rooms would have to be sent to Salmon Arm unless they had family or friends who could take them in.
“With 7000 people being evacuated from Merritt it was very, very busy,” said Nystoruk. “We hoped at least half would go to Kelowna, and although I am unsure of the exact number of people we processed, it must have been at least 2300 to 3000.”
The Evacuee Registration & Assistance (ERA) tool website was released in April 2020 to improve the registration and delivery of local ESS, and was designed to allow an evacuee to self-register, responders to enter registration and referrals digitally, and suppliers to submit invoices and receipts online through any web browser.
Nystoruk says processing evacuees is stressful for all concerned. Many had no time or means to go online to sign on to the ERA registration system so instead had to attend the emergency center to begin their registration for assistance.
“Those who have been evacuated arrive downstairs at the center where they have their name, number, and some brief information placed on a note,” said Nystoruk, “The note is then sent upstairs to logistics where the information is organized and placed on a board to be handed out (one at a time to us) for registration and referrals.”
Once Nystoruk has a name she calls that person or family to her desk and inquires about their situation and if they have registered. If they have registered she can open their file. If they are not registered online she then works through the registration process with them.
“Once we get that done I find out what they need and then offer what I can help with; lodging, hotel, billeting, then food (restaurant or grocery) which I let them choose from a list.”
She also inquires and assists with incidentals such as pet food, toiletries, and clothing (items that are only available at a few locations). Transportation is also discussed with ESS being able to provide a one time only fuel allocation or taxi.
“Once all that is done the people can leave my desk while I do up their referrals which have to be typed into the computer with dates, yield, expiry, their info, the address of the store, etc.,” said Nystoruk, “Then that file has to be approved by a supervisor before I print their vouchers which go into an envelope. I then contact the people in regards to that file and let them know they can pick it up.”
Nystoruk says she, “was amazed at the enormous number of folks who came in”.
“It takes quite a trained crew to run the center,” she added, “Kamloops ESS has a truly great team. They are great to work with. From logistics to documentation, registering people, supply information, and more.”
However, she notes there were only 15 volunteers “at the most” running the computers that do the registration (R&R), and that it takes between 22 to 33 minutes to process one evacuee.
“The first day the center stayed open all night, and then on Tuesday they stayed open until midnight,” told Nystoruk, “We couldn’t keep up, or catch up to the mass numbers of evacuees. “Everyone did their best to try and allocate to the most needed first, and to ensure they had a place to stay.”
She says the delays were in no way the fault of the efforts that were being put out by the entire team.
“The system just wasn’t working fast enough, and sadly people had to wait a long time for call backs.”
She also explained some of the evacuees who had registered online did not realize they also had to report in person to the emergency reception after registering online to get the referrals.
“I started on Tuesday (Nov. 16), and have done three 10 hour days doing as much as I can while sitting beside many others doing the same,” Nystoruk told the Star Journal on Thursday, Nov. 18.
“We will be there awhile yet. The process started with a three day referral, but by Wednesday that was changed to seven day referrals.” Nystoruk added, “The ERA system is new – only about a year. We used to do it all on paper in person as many may recall from the 2003 and 2017 wildfire evacuations which was when I started with ESS in Barriere.
“Now with COVID a system had to be put in place that was supposed to be more efficient, But I think it needs a little more tweaking to stream line it faster.”
She adds being prepared to handle and process such a large number of people in a timely manner needs to be improved.
“I have read some of the evacuee’s stories,” said Nystoruk, “The frustration with lack of help, how long they have to wait for that call, returning to the emergency center every day and being told to go back and wait for a call.”
She says simple math tells the story.
“If we have 15 volunteers doing R&R, with each one only able to do two to three evacuees and hour in a 10 hour shift, that’s only 300 files out of 2500 or 3000 that need to be done. Hopefully we can learn from this and be better prepared next time.”
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