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.
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.
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
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
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
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