Fe, Fi, Foe FEMA
Luxuriating in a bubble bath last Sunday afternoon, I thought about the FEMA folks who had been working 12-hour days, 7-day weeks for months, and how little rest and relaxation they might be getting over the holidays. Though we received contradictory instructions daily, and nobody seemed to be sure what rules and regulations were currently in effect, the FEMA workers on the ground showed endless patience and compassion for those who had survived the disasters.
How must they feel when people entered the DRC wearing popular anti-FEMA t-shirts (“FEMA: Fix Everything, My Ass” or “FEMA: Forget Every Minority American”)? What inner reserves did they call upon to continue day after day, week after week, with people who had drifted to the outer edges of civility. I remember the man who started shouting the minute he got to the reception area: “I’m an American citizen! I’m a member of the NRA!” Albert, one of the lead supervisors, attempted to introduce himself, offering his hand. His courtesy was met with a screamed, “I’m not shaking your hand, you jerk!” Yet within half an hour Albert had settled the man, navigated through the FEMA database to discover what had happened to his reimbursement checks, and received an appreciative clap on the back as the man exited.
As the days drew closer to the holidays people became more desperate. “I’m hoping for a reimbursement for my generator and chainsaw before Christmas,” one man explained. “I won’t have any money to buy presents this year for the kids.” “My baby and I have been sleeping on the floor of my disabled father’s subsidized housing, and he’ll be evicted if they discover us.” “What’s taking the government so long to give us what we’ve been promised?” “What happened to the forms I faxed FEMA two months ago?” “How come all my friends and neighbors got their $2000 emergency assistance and I’ve been found ineligible?”
Some of the strangest stories were from applicants who came in with bundles of photographs of their ruined home. Clearly, a tree occupied most of a kitchen. Clearly, an entire wall had collapsed in a back bedroom. Yet the inspector had recorded “insufficient damage.” I began to hear stories of FEMA inspectors who would not enter homes, just browsed around outside. One man claimed he hopped into his car to chase down a departing inspector who refused to return and look at the upstairs where the damaged property was. Others claimed their inspector had been named Nicolas Cage. Or James Bond.
One of our Crisis Corps Volunteers came to me in reception with a personal request. “Could you send me only happy people for the rest of the day? I’m exhausted by people yelling at me.” Even some of the FEMA stalwarts had begun to snap at one another and at us. FEMA staff cautioned us we should probably bring a change of shirt should we plan to get a quiet dinner immediately after work. Though it was not mandatory that we wear our FEMA shirts, I felt uncomfortable in mine, a little like an impersonator.
After Thanksgiving, the Texas State Manager’s office attempted to promote some holiday spirit, draping with candy canes the boxes in the reception area that contained granola bars, Goldfish, and other snacks for the famished. I watched a trio of female evacuees from Orleans Parish stuff handfuls into their purses and pockets.
A few hours later a young woman asked what she could do to obtain food stamps, no longer being issued at the DRC. I directed her to the candy cane man, knowing that his office had cartons of canned spaghetti, chili, corn, cereal and raisins for the neediest people coming through. I was sorry I had neglected to let the women from Louisiana know of this resource.
One cheerful young man who came in to talk with the Small Business Administration about repairs to his church, where he had been a choir director, demanded to know what we had against Christmas music. I explained that the former preschool where the DRC was housed probably had no sound system. Even so, I agreed, music might lift people’s spirits.Then again, I was reminded that we had many clients in the building to arrange for hurricane-related funerals, and maybe they would not appreciate a festive atmosphere.
Late one afternoon a car in the neighborhood hit a power line, plunging us into darkness. The people in the waiting room began to joke, “There goes FEMA, still keeping us in the dark.” Sometimes it almost seemed true, that secrecy and evasion had become a way of operating. For instance, though the Army Corps of Engineer’s Blue Roof tarp program had ended the Saturday after Thanksgiving, people continued to complain that their tarp had blown away and that it was raining inside their living room. FEMA supervisors came around and tore down the flyers with the telephone number we’d been told to give out. “That number’s no longer in service.” When I asked what to tell the complainers, I got a terse reply: “It’s the homeowner’s responsibility. Tell them to climb up on the roof with some duct tape.” Even if they are in their 80s? Even if they are in walkers and wheelchairs?
Examples of inefficiency emerged daily. One afternoon as new people were being trained, all the experienced people were taken away from the computers to do menial tasks while the trainees were left with only a lead supervisor to answer questions. This was on a day that I had logged 310 people into the reception area, all with dozens of questions about their cases.