“When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.”
AS I WRITE THIS on the Winter Solstice, exactly two weeks have elapsed since I returned to Colville, Washington, from my 30 days deployment in Beaumont, Texas, as a FEMA “affiliate.” As a former Peace Corps Volunteer, I had been invited to serve with Crisis Corps through the Katrina Initiative, which marked the first time in the Peace Corps’ 44-year history that Volunteers have worked domestically.
Thrilled to be one of 272 Crisis Corps Volunteers to serve in the six Gulf States since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had ravaged the southeast, I was equally overjoyed to return home. The twelve-hour, six-day weeks had worn on me. Now, two weeks later, I’m still not quite yet wholly in the holiday spirit.
Though Peace Corps has always maintained that its Volunteers overseas should expect to be challenged, to have their patience and mettle tested, to be pulled, pushed and forced into new ways of thinking and behaving, I had never anticipated experiencing culture shock and life-changing experiences within the borders of my own country, or, even more improbably, be slapped by reverse culture shock upon returning home. As I go about my holiday preparations, I am haunted not by ghosts of Christmas Past, but by specters far more corporeal.
This past weekend as I decorated our Blue Spruce with the miniature violin from Vienna, the embroidered red heart from Kenya, the carved parrot from Costa Rica, I reflected on the kind of Christmas the people I saw at the Beaumont Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) would be experiencing. And I thought how not only my holidays but my life would be altered if all of my possessions suddenly had ceased to exist, not only ornaments, childhood photographs, souvenirs from my travels, but my income tax returns, birth certificate, marriage license, either washed away in the floods of New Orleans, or melted by mold in the travel trailers of Beaumont.
I wondered about the carefully coifed 74-year-old ash blonde who had sobbed that she might as well put a gun to her head if she were to be put out of her midtown Holiday Inn on the December 1 deadline FEMA initially had announced for its hotel and motel residents to find other lodging. Though FEMA and Texas agreed to extend this deadline until February and she does have a room, will she go to church on Christmas morning? She had confided that she had lost 40 pounds since Rita roared over Beaumont, destroying her travel trailer and all of her personal belongings. She had one decent outfit that fit, purchased at a Goodwill store, but felt God was punishing her for some unknown reason.
Over the weekend as I pushed my cart through the pet supplies at Wal-Mart, I lingered to select a stocking of doggy treats for my akita. Then I remembered Cathy, the young woman who had broken her collarbone in an auto collision just days before Rita swooped through. A mandatory evacuee, she had been bussed to Houston, to be housed in a hotel there, hours from her local physician and available medical treatment. Her border collie, Heidi, had not been allowed on the bus, so she put her into a local kennel for safekeeping, but the pet escaped during the aftermath of the hurricane. Now Cathy roamed around Beaumont posting flyers, praying for Heidi’s return.
As I wrapped packages for family, I thought about the father and son who came into the Disaster Recovery Center weekly to check on the status of their applications for personal property damages. Dad had been evacuated earlier from New Orleans when his 9th Ward home had been washed away. Then he and his Beaumont son fled oncoming Rita. “I’m Rita,” the son used to identify himself with a wry grin, “and he’s Katrina.” He was savvy to FEMA’s habit of identifying applicants by disasters. “We’re just glad we got each other,” he added, “Even though we go by these girls’ names nowadays.” His father giggled.
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.
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.