Tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes. For 20 years I visited their aftermath as a reservist employee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Since this paper comes out after Tuesday’s voting, my comments aren’t political. They reflect what I know or experienced first hand.
Most FEMA employees are part-timers, from all over America, with particular training or skills. Typical: middle-aged retirees, seasonal construction workers, and small business owners with managers in place. Right now FEMA workers are busy along the East Coast. They’ve left their families or their jobs at an hour’s notice to go someplace they’ve probably never been before.
My own first FEMA assignment was flooding in Marion, Illinois. By coincidence, my last was another flood in Marion. In between I was all over the country—Hurricane Frederick out of Pascagoula, Mississippi, a flood in the West Virginia hinterlands, etc.
Wherever FEMA people go, they’re heading toward a disaster. Damage may make it hard to move around. First thing to do is to buy a map; second is to find a motel room, often miles away. When we get our assignments, we locate a damaged property, inspect it, and give people information available at the time. Then it’s on to the next, maybe dozens in a day.
At each disaster site, a FEMA office is set up. It might be a closed-up school or an unused storefront—cheap, never fancy.
The head of FEMA during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans didn’t organize well. (You remember: Michael D. Brown (“heck of a job, Brownie”). I hear good things about the current FEMA head, W. Craig Fugate. You may have seen him on TV explaining flood insurance.
FEMA management positions are full-time. But most FEMA employees work on an “on call” basis. If there is work to be done, they go. Otherwise they stay home in their regular lives. They don’t get paid unless they’re on a job. I’ve always felt that FEMA is a bargain for the American taxpayer.
My husband Jerry took me camping, for the first time. At every opportunity he passed along outdoor survival lore.
Then we got lost hiking in the deep woods. Jerry tried the usual tactics to determine direction—moss on the trees (no moss); direction of the sun (overcast day). Just as I started to panic, he spotted a cabin in the distance. Jerry pulled out his binoculars, studied the cabin, turned around, and led us right back to camp.
“Terrific!” I said. “How did you do it?”
“Easy,” he replied. “In this part of the country all TV satellite dishes point south.”
“Hello, Police Department?”
“Yes. What can I do for you?”
“I’m calling to report my neighbor, Jack Murphy. He’s hidin’ pot inside his firewood! Don’t know how he gets it inside them logs, but he’s hidin’ it there.
“Thanks for the call, sir.”
The next day, six police officers descend on Jack’s house. They search the firewood shed. Using axes, they bust open every piece of wood but find no marijuana. With a sneer back at Jack, they leave.
Shortly, the phone rings at Jack’s house.
“Hey, Jack! This here’s Floyd. Did the police come?”
“Did they chop your firewood?”
“Happy birthday, buddy!”