Peace Corps Writers
Fe, Fi, Foe FEMA (page 3)

Fe, Fi, Foe FEMA

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     Another day the FEMA management announced that the three Crisis Counselors, who had been sent from Houston, no longer would be available. Some of our group would be told we would substitute. A nurse and a substance abuse counselor stepped forward, and I, a licensed clinical social worker, agreed to do some backup, even though Peace Corps, mostly for legal purposes, forbids volunteers from providing clinical services.  Though I explained this to the FEMA official, his response was that he would be the one who would determine who would do what in that setting. Fortunately a new crew of contract counselors soon arrived so I could escape from this double bind.
     
One morning a lead supervisor brought me 24 forms that needed to be replaced in the FEMA handbooks. All the old forms on the shelves had to be discarded and new sets had to be made. The only change was that the acronym JFO (Joint Field Office) had to be substituted for DRC (Disaster Relief Center). I had photocopied sets for about four of them when another lead supervisor took the handbook away from me and told me to throw away all the work I’d completed. No explanation. A few days later the new FEMA director announced that the second supervisor no longer would be working at that particular DRC. 
     
Anxious applicants would ask daily how long the DRC would remain open in Beaumont.  If it were to be closed, the nearest one would be in Houston, two hours away. FEMA did not know for certain. The director hoped it would be there through February, but the pressure increased on reception to double count applicants who checked in and then had to go out to retrieve a missing document. “If we don’t keep the numbers up, all of the employees here will be out of a job,” one lead supervisor explained. 
     
Even away from the DRC, the effects of Hurricane Rita remained glaringly evident. I rented a bedroom from a woman in nearby Lumberton, who spent weekends with her neighbors and friends sawing up the ten trees that had been uprooted from her one-acre land.  Holes several feet deep dotted the backyard. Directly across from the DRC we could see the remnants of a former Hollywood Cineplex. Just around the corner workers were reconstructing a partially demolished Taco Bell. The curbs of the country road I lived on were littered with freezers and refrigerators, awaiting pickup. “We were under mandatory evacuation for two weeks,” one woman explained, “and there was no way to scour away the mold.”

NOW THAT I’M BACK in northeast Washington, I’m reading daily about FEMA faux pas in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, about unfair preference to the middle-class victims of Hurricane Wilma in Florida, about claims and counterclaims of bureaucratic conflict in New Orleans. FEMA continues to get a bad rap. Though my personal experience might be a small sample to generalize from, I think the fault is in the design of the agency itself, and the lines of command. Somehow red tape and regulations have thrown up barriers to the delivery of services to those who need them most. 
     
I might not want to wear my FEMA shirt again until Halloween. But by writing about FEMA, the good and the not-so-good, I’ve exorcised some of those phantoms, and am ready to embrace the holidays.

While Terri Elders was serving with the Crisis Corps she received word from the UCLA Alumni Association that she had been designated the recipient of their 2006 Community Service Award, to be bestowed by the Chancellor at an on-campus reception in June. In 2003 she received a Distinguished Alumna award from the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research and the UCLA Department of Social Welfare, largely because of her work with Peace Corps, both as a PCV and as staff. Because her Peace Corps work began in l987, after she had turned 50, she was also nominated last year for the Lillian Carter Award.
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