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Corrections Lends Hand to Hurricane Relief

March 16, 2018

By DOC Communications

A wall with cardboard messages and prayer notes pinned to it.

A wall used for communications such as notes, prayers, and well wishes to others. (Dr. Bart Abplanalp, DOC Health Services)

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TUMWATER – Dr. Bart Abplanalp, chief psychologist of Western Washington for the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC), was one of seven members from varying Washington state agencies, including the Department of Health (DOH), to lend a hand in the recovery efforts in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) during January and February 2018.

Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, hit the islands of St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas in early September 2017, leaving its residents without power, resources, or medical assistance. Just two weeks later, the islands were hit by another Category 5 hurricane, Maria, which compounded the devastation to an already damaged infrastructure.

Abplanalp and his team spent 22 days in the Territories, using their subject matter expertise to assist in recovery efforts ranging from environmental health and sanitation to fiscal planning. Abplanalp’s capability in the areas of mental health delivery and systems development were used to assess the mental health needs of the residents and to establish a “new normal” for mental health services on the islands.

However, even the best laid plans go awry and once he arrived on the first island (St. Croix), it became apparent that the work ahead would look different than what he had first anticipated. Power outages, unreliable internet service, and lack of cell phone coverage made communications difficult, if not impossible, at times. Damaged roads made travel a challenge.

The mass exodus of the islands' residents was very challenging as well. Abplanalp found those who remained were “unbelievably dedicated and resilient people who worked hard to repair and improve the mental health system there.”

In collaboration with island residents, volunteer groups, private practitioners, a host of federal agencies, and partners from New York and Maryland, the Washington team was able to help develop plans for returning services to the Territories in a way that would be sustainable long after their departure.

DOC Emergency Management Program Specialist Jamison Roberts helped to coordinate Abplanalp’s deployment. Roberts had received the request through a mutual aid agreement known as an Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) request. The compact, which allows states and territories to share resources during and after natural and man-made disasters, included a request for a mental health systems coordinator. Roberts knew exactly who to ask.

“Emergency management comes down to resources,” Roberts said “The more resources you have, the faster the problem can be solved. Emergency management is about building relationships.”

Abplanalp was picked by the original resource requester because of the Virgin Islands’ need for assistance in the systematic recovery of mental health care.

Asked about being selected for the mission, Abplanalp concluded that he was chosen because “I really enjoy working with this population (individuals with mental illness) and helping improve systems. I’ve worked in a lot of different states and I have come to appreciate the system of care we have here in Washington DOC. I was looking forward to taking a concrete structure (DOCs mental health care system) and seeing how I could apply it to a system affected by two Category 5 storms.”

The Department of Corrections was there to support Abplanalp’s trip. One of the agency’s values is concentrated on community interaction. DOC encourages positive interaction with the community as it strives to promote public safety, community protection and public understanding.

Although, the Washington state community was not directly served, it did allow for great partnerships with other state agencies and to impart the systematic message of unity. Abplanalp stated, “They (Territories) were quite appreciative of the support we were able to offer. It helps to integrate the care we strive to give and went a long ways toward fulfilling the mission we all have.”

Andrew Rose, emergency preparedness and response specialist from DOH stated that, “This great team has done awesome work in a very impacted area and will be leaving the USVI in much better shape than when they arrived.”

Asked if he would consider another deployment for disaster relief or recovery, Abplanalp did not hesitate to respond: “In a heartbeat.”