From the Government, Here to Help

(This is the second part of a collaboration between Ken Hall and Victor Salvo, commenting on the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene in Vermont and raising awareness of Victor’s work rebuilding an earthquake-damaged school in Haiti. Part One is HERE.)

When the guy at the end of the bar yells at the TV that he could have caught the ball some well-trained professional athlete just dropped, I have the urge to say to him that no, no, he could not have caught that ball. It’s also a fairly sure bet the guy at the end of the bar wouldn’t do so well if he walked into his office one day and found himself confronted with destruction unlike any seen before, thousands of scared, battered survivors, and a memo putting him in charge.

I don’t know many people who can catch a ton of bricks.

It is easy (and fun) to bash bureaucracies and the people who work in them, especially when something comes along that completely overwhelms the system. If we can find waste and incompetence while watching them fall flat on their face it’s even easier and even more fun.

When New Orleans was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) got slobberknockered, too. The infamous trailers, thousands of perishable bags of ice being moved into long-term storage, and countless other stories — true or not — made the rounds, along with images that made us want to cry, and FEMA became a scapegoat and a symbol of failed governance.

As a bureacracy, I’m sure FEMA is as tangled and scary inside as any other. I have no need of their assistance so I don’t know a thing about what happens after registration occurs and a claim is made. I have heard all the stories of boondoggles, flapdoodles, and screw-ups, and maybe some of them are 51% true, but I think a lot of the guff FEMA takes is due to our own impossible standards and unrealistic expectations that they make everything right. Now.

FEMA currently has disaster operations going on in 36 states, including Vermont. Two very human, very concerned, representatives from FEMA were in town last Tuesday and a meeting with them was held that evening. It was the first time in more than a week that some of us had seen each other.

IN THE CHILL DAMPNESS OF THE PLAYHOUSE

Photo by Victor Salvo

Photo by Victor Salvo

Our town’s Emergency Coordinator opened the meeting with a few comments and then we heard from our Select Board Chair, Fire Chief, and State Representative. The consensus was that, while Weston had been beat up, we didn’t have it nearly as bad as a lot of other places did. We were then introduced to the guys from the government who were here to help.

Neither man was from Vermont, which was to be expected, and a sympathetic murmur rippled the gathering when one of them told us his task was to coordinate operations in all of Windsor and Orange Counties. Vermont may be one of them tiny states, but that’s quite a few towns and a lot of ground to cover, even back in the days when we had roads.

Photo by Victor Salvo

The second man was a Communications Something or Other, with a humble demeanor and a deep, soothing voice. He acknowledged the fright we must have felt as the floodwaters roared through our town and he told us that natural disasters like Irene can be very disrupting to people’s lives. He also said, several times and quite clearly, that FEMA would not, could not, make those who had suffered losses whole again.

It was then I noticed that neither man was carrying a magic wand and there were no bags of cash on the stage.

Photo by Victor Salvo

The man with the soothing voice asked for those who had suffered actual physical damage to their residence to raise their hands and a few hands went up but the vast majority did not. Some affected people might have kept their hands down for reasons of their own. Some were not able to be there to raise their hands in person, and I’m sure somewhere out there are people whose first and only instinct is that, whatever it is, it is their problem and they will deal with it themselves, but it was apparent that this was a relatively unaffected audience.

The man with the soothing voice adjusted his spiel, encouraging everyone to at least get registered, to start the process, and help their friends to do the same. He talked about benefits like Disaster Unemployment for self-employed people and Disaster Exemptions that allow certain individuals to qualify for low-interest Small Business Administration loans. It all sounded like a lot of paperwork, and an administrative nightmare, to me, but not particularly extravagant, wasteful, or instantaneous.

SOME LESSONS

I learned that FEMA will not not help you with your vacation get-away or second home. You already have at least one house. Some people have none.

I learned that if your house had eleven bedrooms and you only slept in one, FEMA will not help with the other ten, and the one you may get will not be nearly as nice as the one you had. If you can afford an eleven bedroom house you can afford insurance.

I learned that FEMA  is here to assist with critical needs. Your landscaping is not a critical need, no matter how pretty your place used to be.

I learned there are many other things FEMA can not and will not do for you after a disaster. So many, in fact, that it is easier to just give you this, from their web site: “… This assistance is not intended to restore your damaged property to its condition before the disaster.”

Photo by Victor Salvo

A large chunk of the audience stood up and left before the meeting was over, having attended under the impression we would be discussing our Town Emergency Plan, not disaster assistance. I suppose the lesson here would be that we need an accepted, central, authoritative source of information, not a grapevine.

It was perhaps one of the easiest, quietest post-disaster meetings those guys have ever conducted. It must have at least been one of the most artistic, with what was left of the set for “Saint Ex” as a backdrop.

THE MAN WITH THE BIGGEST BALLS IN TOWN

The highlight of the meeting (for me) came when one couple got up and asked to discuss their own, personal, tragic situation. I hesitate to make broad assumptions about people based solely on appearances and first impressions, but they seemed to be mature, educated, nicely dressed, and fairly well-to-do.

The husband described, in chilling detail, how run-off from Irene had overwhelmed the culvert near his house, and he related the feelings he felt as his ditch runneth over. Rushing water had cut a swath across his lawn, gouging out turf and top soil before running down the hill, knocking over a stand of beautiful trees, and he demanded to know who was going to be responsible for this tragedy.

I was surprised the man could even stand, given the tremendous weight of his giant, metallic testicles, as he waved a stack of papers and photos, pointing out that the culvert in question had been recently added to a State list of culverts needing work and implying that his losses were the result of negligence by the Town.

He was reminded that the town did not have a magic pot of gold with funds to replace every culvert that needed work. He was reminded that the Town Road Crew, along with the Select Board, had been out in the storm, all night long, clearing grass clippings and yard debris from from ditches and culverts just like the ones near his house. He was also reminded that culverts four times the size of the culvert in question had been overwhelmed and that some people had actually suffered real losses, but he pressed on anyway.

An upcoming post will cover culverts in greater detail. I must plunge ahead with this story because the man’s wife rose to stand by his side and began to speak. With a shaky voice, she told us the same things her husband had already said, lamenting the loss of her lawn and those beautiful trees, adding that she had registered with FEMA but had not heard back even though four days had passed!

“Do you even know we’re here?” she wailed.

“We just want to be sure we get our piece of the pie!” she added.

Normally, silence says nothing but the silence in that room screamed, “Good lord, woman! It is not a freakin’ pie!”

The man with the soothing voice — a man who has comforted the afflicted in the midst of death and destruction — leaned forward, looked the woman in the eye and said, “Watching that water come across your property must have been very frightening for you.”

She shook like a little elf and nodded her head.

FEMA can do nothing about the fact that you were scared. We were all scared. It was a disaster. Disasters are supposed to be scary.

Photo by Victor Salvo

Another person asked that something be done, immediately, because the river now flows around the large culvert near his house rather than through it. Exhaustion was plainly evident as our moderator asked if the man wished the Town to move the river or the culvert and which of the other needed repairs in town should be reprioritized in order to do it.

The meeting ended with a reminder that quite a few elderly and low-income families still needed help mucking out cellars and fixing foundations, as well as getting food and medications, and slowly we adjourned.

Photo by Victor Salvo

EPILOGUE

The people I’ve encountered from FEMA have been sensitive, courteous and kind. They are in an unfamiliar place during a trying time, performing a difficult task. They are on the front lines, the first contact we have with their agency. They can’t answer specific questions no matter how many times or how loudly we ask. They want to help and are trying to help but all they can really do is get the process started for us. They are our fellow citizens. They are people. Cut them a little slack.

Save the venom for your poor, overwhelmed, underpaid case worker.

I don’t know at what age it is too late to learn to count your blessings and show compassion for those less fortunate — or at least realize when you are being insensitive, selfish and rude — but I would like to think the woman who came looking for pie got a serving of perspective instead. No one comes out ahead in a disaster, or even the same. Everyone loses something, whether it be a freezer full of food, a winter’s worth of wood for heat, a driveway or a simple feeling of security, but how is it that people who have lost everything manage to show more grace than people who lost only a lawn?

My suggestion to the man who wanted to know who was going to be responsible for his “loss” is to take some responsibility his own darn self. Don’t have your wife call FEMA about your trees. Call a guy with a chainsaw. Please do not try to jump in line with people who escaped the deluge in their pajamas because your lawn was washed out. Call a guy with a dump truck. Do something. Write a check, trade the wood for work, or donate it to someone who really needs it for heat. Do something, but for goodness sake, don’t waste everyone’s time and tax dollars pointing your finger and demanding compensation for some landscaping when there are people without houses sitting twenty feet away. You’re pissing people off and gumming up the works even more.

The folks from FEMA brought a camera crew along to record the meeting so maybe the man with pointy fingers and gigantic balls, along with his pie-grabbing wife, will wind up in a training film or as a required topic of discussion. Or maybe they were actors, hired by FEMA to see just how much nonsense Vermonters can take.

I guess that remains to be seen.

Cleaning Crew at the Weston Marketplace, Photo by Victor Salvo

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Categories: Vermont | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “From the Government, Here to Help

  1. I suggest you buy the lady who wants pie, a fruit cake. After having worked along side FEMA for several years, I’ve seen it all.

  2. If they want someone in charge to complain to, I suggest they direct their comments to God. However, I’d be thanking him if I were them, not complaining about my lawn.

  3. Pingback: Vermonters Confront FEMA

  4. Cold, Mr. Quill. As in I am. Remember that rain last week we shirked at? Here it is up in Bethel. I was invited for coffee on the now porch of a river front then home. I was shivering from my photographic journey and he, without walls, tubs full of mud, piano upside down and the car sitting silted to the hilt in the feeder creek, gave me a warm and dry shirt, and a warm and dry jacket. After FEMA came by and went through the list, and gave him a hug, he drove me miles past the National Guard of Virginia and back to town, making sure I kept the clothing. I’ll fetch up your way mebbe Sunday and drop off more photos.
    Dangnabbitt them beavers. When are you gonna tell the truth about them, anyhowways?

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