San Diego Union Tribune

November 19, 2007

LETTER FROM WASHINGTON | DANA WILKIE
Calling, and calling on FEMA

For the moment, let's put aside that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is a post-Katrina, “we've-learned-our-lessons,” freshly reorganized federal agency on a mission to prove it has the latest and greatest in disaster-response techniques.

Instead, let's just focus on how well FEMA communicates – with me the journalist, with you the general public and with Southern California fire victims – about what the agency does after a disaster.

With that narrow perspective in mind, may we say that dealing with FEMA can be a truly annoying experience?

Recent attempts to communicate by phone and e-mail with FEMA authorities have sent me more than once to my local yoga outlet, or to my medicine cabinet.

 

NUMBERS AND NO MORE

My FEMA encounters began one evening shortly after fires broke out in Southern California. A FEMA official in Northern California said her agency had sent to Southern California shelters 50,000 cots, blankets, water bottles and food packets.


 

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It did not seem out of bounds to inquire if this meant FEMA had sent 50,000 of each type of item, 12,500 of each type of item, or perhaps 100 cots, 100 blankets, 24,900 water bottles and 24,900 food packets.

The question elicited a huffy reminder that people were focused not on media requests, but on “putting out fires.” Although to be accurate, FEMA was not at all involved in putting out fires. It was a federal agency providing cots, blankets, water and food.

 

CENTER, WHICH CENTER?

On Oct. 26 came an interview with FEMA officials at the Pasadena Operations Center. They explained that after a disaster, FEMA works with three types of centers: the Local Assistance Center, the Mobile Assistance Center and the Disaster Assistance Center.

The first is set up by cities and counties for victims' immediate needs, the second roams the disaster area trying to help, and the third is a federally run center that provides long-term relief and is apparently crammed with every government representative under the sun – the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Internal Revenue Service and Veterans Affairs, to name a few.

Would San Diego County have the federal centers? Oh yes, said the official, adding that announcements about the location of these centers would come later.

When later rolled around, questions about the Disaster Assistance Centers were relayed to a different FEMA official, who seemed bewildered that there was such a thing beyond the Local Assistance Center. Hours later, this information official apparently experienced an information epiphany, describing in a phone message how FEMA operates three different types of centers: the Local Assistance Center, the Mobile Assistance Center, and the Disaster Assistance Center.

Can you say – back to square one?

As it turns out, most of the six Local Assistance Centers set up in San Diego remain, with one having been transformed into a Disaster Assistance Center.

 

WRONG NUMBERS

Wednesday, it seemed fitting to inquire how many San Diegans had applied for housing assistance. What ensued was a conversation with yet another FEMA official who provided the numbers of people who had applied for all types of assistance – including Small Business Administration loans.

Asked the number of people who had received housing assistance, the official first provided the amount of money that had gone to fire victims.

Asked the number of housing assistance applicants who were denied, or had not heard from FEMA, the official sent a two-page release outlining eligibility requirements for FEMA housing.

 

A MATTER OF RELEVANCE

It is clear the recent fires have put FEMA under immense pressure to prove it cleaned up its act since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast more than two years ago. FEMA officials are quick to answer phone calls and e-mails. They are happy to provide mounds of statistics and voluminous descriptions about what FEMA does or is supposed to do. They are good about setting up interviews with top officials.

But attempts to zero in on what's relevant can be greeted with befuddlement, off-the-wall statistics or irritation that more is required beyond standard responses.

This reminds me of the squid analogy my college professor liked to use for organizations under pressure:

When the squid perceives a threat, its standard defense mechanism is to squirt ink.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues