Monday, April 03, 2006

FEMA to give the boot (and the finger) to Katrina volunteers

I want to start by giving a hat tip to new kossack Brian77 for alerting me to this story that has gone unreported virtually everywhere.

A very unheralded but certainly not undeserving group of people who have been volunteering to help gut houses, clean rubble, clear debris, recover residents' possessions are in danger of having the rug pulled out from under them by FEMA.

In a time and place where these services are desperately needed, and there are no accommodations for them to sleep, shower, etc. FEMA has recently announced that within the next couple of weeks, they will be closing many of the "camps" that they set up for these volunteers because

"It is not FEMA's responsibility to provide support to volunteer agencies."

Just to give a frame of reference as to what these volunteers can do, and can save residents in the form of time, and money (to the tune of thousands of dollars), we have this from TPM Café:

People wonder: why are we gutting houses, especially if they may be bulldozed? And more importantly, why isn't there more rebuilding and restoration going on? What's the holdup?

These are fair questions, and fortunately (or rather unfortunately) there are some solid answers. First, let's pretend you're not one of the people who is fortunate enough to have an eager team of energetic students to help you for several days of very intense physical work...Now it costs anywhere from $1.75 to $2.45 per square foot (and anything in between, more or less) to have debris removed and a house gutted -- that is to have the sheet rock, walls and floors removed.

This is not covered by insurance. In fact, many insurance companies and general contractors require the house be gutted before they're willing to make a determination on whether the structure is viable for rebuilding. Almost every home that was flooded has to be electrically re-wired and in some cases even re-plumbed. Heating and air conditioning has to be reinstalled with appropriate duct work. Of course, if your roof was damaged, it would have to be replaced before any of the above can be done. Many people are under insured, and some are uninsured. Removing debris from these homes requires incredible physical work (ask any team that has come in for this experience).

Teams that provide this service for home owners basically put anywhere from eight to twenty thousand dollars into the home owner's pocket by saving them the expense of paying someone to do the work

So, for starters, we are talking about something that is REQUIRED to be done before the insurance company (if one is lucky enough to have insurance) can even come in for "step 1".  By logical extension, that pretty much means that if the houses can't be gutted and in condition for a contractor or insurance company to EVEN GIVE THE TIME OF DAY, then there will pretty much be no reconstruction of that house, that block, that parish.  You would think that if FEMA, or the federal government for that matter, was at all serious about rebuilding New Orleans outside of a few select choice areas, then this would be pretty much a top priority.  

Thus the cycle, and the recovery and rebuilding can't even get started.  Houses need to be gutted, but people can't pay for that.  So volunteers come to help.  But then the volunteers won't have a place to stay, so then very few can afford to have the houses gutted.  Then the insurance companies and contractors won't come to make assessments, estimates or begin work on rebuilding.  And then unfortunately, the rebuilding and recovery gets stalled before it even can begin.

And from someone that lives in NYC and was here on 9/11, the debris, rubble, garbage and just about everything else was cleared in record time.  I know that it was a smaller area, but certainly every resource was thrown at the cleanup and recovery (and dare I say the potential hiding and destruction of crime scene evidence).

But I digress.

Now, FEMA has been good with having the foresight (I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one for now) to set up camps for the volunteers.  According to reports, 500 people can be housed in one camp.  Which is a lot in a city where there really are no accommodations for volunteers to stay, eat, shower and coordinate their efforts.

The cost of having these camps runs about $100 per person per day.  And with around 3,000 volunteers per day, it does run around $300,000 per day to keep all of these camps running.  Multiplying it out, it comes to around $9,000,000 per month, and around $108,000,000 for an entire year.  Not small numbers, but small when you consider this wasteful use of money by FEMA (that was noted in GAO reports earlier this year):

  • $438 per day for hotel rooms in NYC;

  • $375 per night for beachfront condos in Panama City, FL;

  • Many $2,000 debit card vouchers provided to people with invalid or duplicate SSNs, without verification;

  • $878 MILLION on 25,000 manufactured homes that can't be used in the area because of FEMA's own rules and regulations;

  • $416,000 for short term housing for a small number of people in Alabama; and

  • $40 million on homes that have been ruined while stored in Arkansas and are now unusable.

And while the waste of money on debit cards without any form of verification was called a "calculated risk" by FEMA officials, they just give the finger to those who are doing the most critical, labor intensive and first step in the recovery process. And these people are volunteers who are doing this out of the kindness of their hearts - not being paid by FEMA or anyone else.

The stories of volunteers, and victims who were helped, as expected, are heart wrenching:

Carolyn Pitre is grateful to find her Bible among her belongings, piled up in the street in front of her home in St. Bernard Parish.

Carolyn says, "I'm drawn to try and find something of value because we have nothing left... (cries)... Because we have nothing left... Everything was gone. Everything."

All along Carolyn's street, and in the entire area, it is the same: Destruction everywhere you look. Piles and piles of trash and debris. Gutted homes.

Lt. Colonel David Dysart, who is in charge of the recovery process for St. Bernard Parish points out how serious the situation is.

"I have no residents living here right now, and I have had absolutely no businesses which have been able to return."

The Lt. Colonel says it is going to take another six months to finish gutting thousands of homes to remove health and safety hazards. And that's where volunteers come in.

Dysart says it takes 10 to 12 volunteers a day to a day-and-a-half to gut just one house.

Asked if he needed volunteers right now, Dysart replied, "Absolutely. It's critical that we keep this up. We have approximately 800 homes to date that we've managed to move these items, out of the approximately 5,000 that applied."

Others in charge of disaster relief have similar stories, and pleadings:

Operation Blessing Disaster Relief Manager Jody Herrington says that not being able to provide a home means turning away a volunteer.

"Each volunteer that we turn away is another home that's not gutted, another resident that's not helped," Jody declared. "It's another neighborhood that's not coming back. It's another city that's not restored. The reality is the volunteer help is crucial and critical to the success of recovery out in these parishes."

And it isn't like these volunteers are able to pay for a hotel room either.

Pastor Randy Millet helps run a disaster relief center in St. Bernard Parish. He says the volunteers are vital in making sure that residents get the food and clothing they need to survive.

"Please don't close the base camps," Randy urged. "Allow us to house our volunteers. They're not looking for a Holiday Inn. They're looking for a cot with a pillow and a meal."

In addition, Randy says that without warning, FEMA stopped providing ice and filling up their generators with fuel.

"What we've got to do in order to get diesel fuel right now -- we have to go across the street to fill up our buckets," Randy explained, "and bring them back to fill up our generators... three or four... and that takes four or five trips.

With the summer coming up, there are many youth groups that would otherwise volunteer to help with the recovery process.  But they too wouldn't be able to have a place to stay.  

"Right now the biggest issue for us, especially coming up this summer when every youth group in the country wants to come down here, is where are we going to house them, where are we going to put them, where are we going to feed them?" questioned Aaron Arledge with the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

With stories like this, on one hand it really reinforces the fact that there are truly some great people out there.  And it also reminds you of what is great about this country - how people are so willing to pick up and lend a hand to try and rebuild a devastated area of the country.

But on the other hand, it really smacks you in the face to see what the priorities are.  Just last week, we found out that the levees being rebuilt aren't even up to FEMA standards, as well as the fact that there is a question of whether the federal government will pay for the repairs that should have been paid for years ago.  Now we see that the very first stage of recovery is in danger of being removed due to shortsightedness and just a lack of caring.

Just horrible.

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