(Continued from Part I)
22) What to Expect From FEMA
There’s a common misconception about FEMA’s role in a disaster. Many people seem to think thousands of government employees wearing FEMA hats will descend on their community ahead of an approaching hurricane.
That’s not going to happen.
What the federal agency responsible for disaster relief really does is serve as a clearinghouse for rescue supplies and trained personnel from around the nation. It funnels them toward the hardest hit areas. FEMA’s biggest tool is federal funding for everything from evacuation buses to police overtime to temporary housing vouchers for people who have lost their homes.
You can expect FEMA to start delivering generators and command center vehicles to your local city hall on Day 1. They’ll start moving huge amounts of military rations and bottled water into your area by Day 3, but people in FEMA hats are going to be as rare on the ground as movie stars.
Why the delay?
It can take that long to clear roads and deliver supplies to the hardest hit areas simply because hurricanes are so much bigger than tornadoes. Tornadoes pack stronger winds, but they’re compact and may only impact a couple neighborhoods. Meaning your community can get help from adjacent towns and cities immediately afterward.
By comparison, a big hurricane like Katrina can have a radius of 450 miles and inflict damage across a 900 mile wide swath while moving 10 – 15 mph. That’s why the federal disaster declarations for Katrina covered 90,000 square miles – an area almost as large as the United Kingdom.
To get help to the middle of this huge apple of damage, the truckers pulling the FEMA trailers filled with water, ice and food would have to ignore hundreds of miles of people in need in outlying areas. They can only do that if the roads leading to the apple core have been miraculously cleared by the Hand of God.
Obviously, it’s just not realistic.
That’s why the hardest hit areas are often the last to get help as rescuers work their way in. During Katrina, the hardest hit area was the community of Chalmette, which is located between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Chalmette didn’t receive federal help in meaningful amounts until at least six days after landfall and still had bodies tied to telephone poles when it arrived.
What you should expect from FEMA are vouchers for temporary housing and food once you get out of the disaster area. The agency will reimburse you for some emergency supplies, like generators, if you still have the receipts. It will also bring temporary trailers to the hardest hit areas after a couple weeks to give you a place to stay until your home is habitable again.
You can apply for almost all of these things online at https://www.fema.gov/apply-assistance.
There’s a good side and a bad side to FEMA. The bad side is that it directs all relief efforts through big pre-certified engineering firms with political connections. Like Keiwit and Fluor.
They get the generous contracts for debris removal and placement of temporary trailers, but actually do very little work. Instead, they serve as middle men and pocket huge amounts of tax dollars while passing as little as possible on to the hard-hit locals they hire to actually do the work.
If you own a local construction company and think you’re going to make some money from FEMA though a debris removal contract in your hometown, you’re going to be very disappointed.
The Keiwits and Fluors of the world get all the fat contracts. You’re just going to get worked.
23) What to Expect From Federal Elected Officials
Most federal level politicians are opportunistic social parasites who use disasters as free political ads. The only time they care about the rest of us is when our suffering makes them look bad.
You can expect these country club sonsabitches to fly into your area with a big security team in tow after a disaster. It’s an adventure for them and they often behave as if they’re touring a safari wildlife park.
They’ll stand around like General George Patton, grasp you in their arms for the cameras, and then sanitize their hands immediately afterward like you have cooties. All rescue and recovery operations will grind to a halt while they’re around.
The DC politicians will then return to the land of air conditioning and restaurant food. While making fun of you on the flight home.
What’s the difference between the millionaire members of the U.S. Congress and the rats and raccoons tearing at the bodies of dead cats and dogs around you?
The rats and raccoons have four legs.
That’s why so many disaster survivors direct profanity at politicians when they see them.
Think about it: What can they do to you?
Lock you up in a prison cell with air conditioning, running water, and three hots and a cot?
24) What to Expect From Your Local Elected Leaders, Police and Firefighters
These folks are on your side and will be doing everything they can to help you, but they’re be well past the point of exhaustion by the time you encounter them. They’re going to be sleep deprived, nursing small injuries, and worried about their own families.
So take it easy on them.
25) What to Expect From The Military and Federal Law Enforcement
The security contractors and mercenaries U.S. Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice turned loose in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were pond scum. Almost to a man.
Everybody else was pretty awesome.
In a big disaster you’ll see FBI, ATF, Customs, state troopers and city cops from around the country, the National Guard and even The 82nd Airborne Division. They’re all awesome, but they’re still newcomers to your area. They’re going to need lots of directions, even with the GPS devices in their vehicles.
Don’t assume they know which public housing project is for the disabled, for people over 55, and the like. Because they won’t.
You’ll also see a boatload of U.S. Coast Guard personnel. They’re the true stars of every disaster because they know what they’re doing and they do it a lot.
However, you need to remember that there are never enough Coast Guard personnel to go around. Don’t expect them to carry you and your family off your roof via helicopter, drop you at a four-star hotel and make sure you’re comfy. Even if you’re rich and powerful.
They’re more likely to pull you off your roof and drop you at the nearest highway overpass with the expectation you’ll take it from there. Try not to be a dick about it. Just say thanks and let them go pull somebody else off their roof.
One of the cool things about natural disasters is that there are only a couple types of people afterward. Those with electricity and potable water and those without, and those who know how to take care of themselves and those who do not. All other class distinctions are irrelevant for a bit.
Step 26) What to Expect From The News Media
There are all kinds of journalists just like any other profession. Some are awesome, Salt-of-the Earth types and some are affluent, stuck up morons who are just interested in using your suffering to advance their careers. The best approach is to take them one by one.
If a TV reporter treats you disrespectfully you can always get even just by standing in the background of their live shot and scratching your ass or mooning the camera. There’s no law that says you have to stay out of their background.
Keep in mind that The Weather Channel is a double-edged sword at best. They tend to overstate the dangers posed by a storm to boost their ratings.
Case in point, their recent comparison showing that Hurricane Irma is many times bigger than Hurricane Andrew – which hammered Miami in 1992. Don’t look for them to make the same comparison with Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which were many times bigger than Irma.
Look, they’re not going to treat you like an adult as I’m doing here. They’re not going to say “you have to plan for the worst, hope for the best and understand that the dangers posed by nine out of 10 killer hurricanes wind up being overstated.”
Instead, they’re going to treat you like a kid and say “hurricane bad” over and over. Like a parent telling their toddler “fire hot.” Because it’s more profitable for them.
Step 27) The Importance of Suffering Well
The best approach to the entire post-disaster experience is to stay calm. Life slows down and it’s the time to think things through, rather than make rash decisions.
There’s no room for internal strife. It’s hot, people are short tempered and impatient, and sometimes it’s actually necessary to explain to them why we can’t fuss at each other.
I can be a short-tempered and aggressive cuss even at the best of times, like most New Yorkers, but I try to be a zen-like pool of calm in a disaster. Simply because it works best.
I always tell people we’re in an environment where small disagreements quickly escalate into big disagreements, and we just can’t have them.
That said, if you prepare for the worst and hope for the best your post-disaster experience doesn’t need to be that different than camping.
It’s also a great opportunity to find out who is who in a world full of posers and posturing bullshit.
Some people you may not have realized were mentally tough will amaze you with their coping skills, durability, and ability to remain calm in a crisis. Others will be huge disappointments, despite their muscles, weapons and tough-guy bravado.
Stay calm and try to understand that help is on the way. It’s just going to be a while.
The time passes more pleasantly if you take care of those around you. Even the strangers.
Humor is a big help, too. Like the the 133 mph speeding pic recorded during Katrina (below right).
Even bad jokes help blow off steam after a disaster. They’re also a great way to tell who is who.
The difference between the kind of person who tells a corny joke after a storm and the kind of person who is too quick to be offended by one is the difference between someone with coping skills who refuses to see themselves as a victim and is worth knowing, and someone who can’t wait to be a victim and is not.
I’m quite fond of the former. I have absolutely no use for the latter.
The bottom line is that things suck immediately after a disaster and you have to learn to suffer well. Whining about every little inconvenience just makes things worse.
In my experience, posers are always exposed.
That’s the real silver lining for me and the reason I love covering disasters. It’s also the reason I believe you don’t really know someone until after you’ve seen them deal with the adversity of living in a post-disaster environment for a few days.
Cynical Times columnist Victor Epstein has covered 15 hurricanes, four tornadoes and four tropical storms during his journalism career. His favorite MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) is jambalaya. His first-person tale of the body count at St. Rita’s Nursing Home in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is called Lady in the Hall.