A FEMA Worker Story—Part 1: What is Normal?
Disaster Relief—in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has this phrase become an oxymoron? Many people—victims or not—will answer yes. Public opinion indicates that this nation's government and relief organizations are incompetent, bogged down in bureaucracy and lacking in response capability. I believe that the workers and volunteers did make a difference, and the lack of understanding of what was and wasn't possible from any of the agencies make the workers victims too. My hope is that there are those who will become champions of the difference between the management of these agencies and their failings as a whole and those of us who are individuals that hit the ground running when Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
I have been a disaster relief worker for 16 years, a profession that I love. I believe that in whatever capacity I am assigned to work at a disaster, even if I never come face to face with a victim, my efforts are rewarded by knowing that my work was an asset to the operation, and thus ultimately made a difference to someone who suffered. Being good at my job is one reason I am passionate about it. Being good at my job is one of the reasons responding to Hurricane Katrina was hell.
In order to understand why Katrina was so different, so difficult and so very emotionally and physically exhausting, you need to understand a "normal" disaster, although I reluctantly use the word normal, since each disaster is a personal tragedy for whom it affects. An average disaster has a progressive flow to it: senior management arrives, meets with state officials, determines what services are needed, deploys support staff to deliver services and gear up or down as the weeks progress, depending on need. You find a comfortable hotel, get your rental car, and reunite with co-workers from other disasters and FEMA offices. Even on a "small" disaster—less than 5000 people affected—the staff in my section would number 25 to 50. In a normal disaster, even one with 10,000 or more people affected, three to five outreach centers would be established, serving perhaps 150 disaster victims a day. We work 12 hours days for the first two weeks with no days off, and then the hours are reduced to 10 hour days, with Sundays off, and eventually we work only half a day on Saturdays. During these first two weeks, the pace is hectic and extremely busy, but even the senior management staff can usually carve out thirty or forty minutes for lunch, even if it means you work an hour or two later than your support staff when the twelve hour shift is over. It can be grueling and exhausting, because the needs of disaster victims are the same whether there are 100 or 10,000, and it takes a lot of coordination and multitasking to get things done appropriately, but you can usually find time to take a break for soda or coffee, or just walk outside for five minutes, or chat with your co-workers in other sections whom you know from previous disasters. Even at the height of chaos when there is no time to catch your breath, you can find something to laugh about, or make your staff and co-workers smile. Working for a common goal creates a workforce bond that is immediate and lasts at least through the duration of the assignment (60-90 days) and often lasts beyond it. As the first two weeks pass and the hours are reduced, you begin to find a rhythm that allows for an hour lunch, errands if necessary, and dinner with co-workers at the end of the day. This makes living in a hotel away from family and friends much more palatable, and as disaster relief work is an addiction of sorts, we all manage to enjoy ourselves because this is what we love, even during the inevitable stretch of bad days where nothing goes right and the demands are just too much stay sane.
Co-workers are the best—and sometimes the worst—part of the job. FEMA workers are form all over the country and all walks of life. Most are wonderful and caring and extremely hard workers. Some of course, as in all aspects of life, are difficult personalities or incompetent, and require a lot of flexibility in being able to successfully work together. One of my favorite FEMA people is Mary V, from Lubbock Texas. We worked together in Ohio flooding for several months. She is friendly and funny and a very hard, competent worker. She is married with several grown children, and her Spanish speaking only mother lives close by her and her English only speaking husband which makes for some entertaining stories. Mary V's English is perfect, and it is such a blessing to have her fluent Spanish available too. She finds the Boston accent really challenging, and we laugh over her assumptions that some of the hardcore Bostonians she has worked with were from foreign countries because she couldn't understand them. Then there is Jean from Chicago who has forgotten more about FEMA programs than I will ever learn, and has become my mentor. She and I struggle to support each other to eat healthy on each disaster which is not easy. I also have Tracy, who is my age, single, a Bostonian who has moved herself to the Pacific Northwest but retains her New England sensibilities so we have a lot in common. Of course there are dozens of co-workers I could describe here, but these are the ones I mention because there were only a handful of workers during my assignment that I knew prior to deployment.
Watching Katrina unfold from the FEMA office in Boston was challenging because several staff from Boston were sent to Louisiana in advance of the storm. It was a given that after landfall, I would be deployed. Katrina made landfall on Monday August 29, and I flew to Baton Rouge on Wednesday August 31.
My assignment in Houston was also short lived. I spent two days at the Astrodome and was greatly relieved when my duties would send me to Austin. Every inch of the floor of the dome was literally covered with people; the stadium seats had hundreds of people sleeping in them. All around the stadium scoreboards flashed information; the saddest was the endless list of children and parents who'd been separated in the forced evacuation from New Orleans. Cots with children and babies and the elderly spilled out on the floor around the stadium seats, making walking from one section to another very difficult. At any given moment, at least three hundred people were in line to see FEMA workers to register for help. No matter what we did and how many workers we recruited, we could not meet the demand to service the 25,000 plus evacuees in the Astrodome alone. The heat was unbearable; it was 100 degrees with humidity you could cut with a knife. Being a plus size woman with lots of "curves", I not only wilted and became nauseated; I suffered from heat rash in places I didn't know existed on my body. Workers parked about half a mile away and walked to the Astrodome. I thought I'd have a heart attack each time I did it. I can't believe looking back on it now, that I was only in Houston for two days. It was so overwhelming it seems longer. There were dozens if not hundreds of other shelters in Texas. My job for the few days I was in Houston was to coordinate incoming workers and send them to the other shelter sites. Then due to various political reasons, we moved the FEMA office to Austin.
The first week in Austin—I think I arrived there September 5th—there were five of us in my section of FEMA—a section that normally would have been staffed with at least several dozen workers. Me, Mary, Pam, Susan and Barbara. We all had specific assignments. I continued coordination of incoming workers to the evacuee shelters, and kept track of how many shelters there were and what FEMA staff was there. This meant that all of the shelters would call me to request FEMA workers to come help their evacuees. My phone rang an average of every twenty seconds. Any call that the other workers received about shelters was automatically transferred to me. It was overwhelming and frustrating, and impossible for one worker to manage my one task, let alone only five of us handle every aspects of our programs and services. Senior management wanted reports about the shelters, FEMA workers and services at them several times a day. The first three days we had no computers and reports were hand written. Then we had computers but no printers. I had to constantly reformat my reports to meet the requests for information that never ended. There were always at least five messages waiting for return phone calls, and my desk and cell phones were ringing constantly. I never had time for lunch or dinner those first few weeks. Our day started at 6:00 a.m. and by 3:00 or 4:00 pm the five of us would toss a coin to see who'd go get lunch. Once I went into the ladies room after hours (yes, hours) of holding it, hoping for a two minute break, and Mary V. followed me so we could talk while I emptied my bladder. The shelters all over Texas wanted workers and equipment at their sites. All equipment in stock had been sent to the field already, and every able bodied worker was already assigned. We began to recruit workers form other federal and state agencies such as groups of firefighters to take a quick training in Atlanta and then arrive in Texas for their assignments. They were sent to us 100 at a time. By now we had seven workers instead of five but our work load had more than tripled. I already couldn't keep up with the groups of 20-25 that would come in and need to be assigned to all points in the state. I looked at Susan and started to cry. She followed me into the ladies room and comforted me while I wept. I was exhausted, dejected, my period had started and I hadn't eaten (none of us had) so my blood sugar was low. I was grateful to work with such wonderful women, or I wouldn't have survived those first ten days.
With the situation in New Orleans out of control, the "FEMA sucks" media frenzy went into overdrive. There were endless things to do and with every passing hour the outcry was to do more, faster and better, whether or not we could. The days blurred together with endless need—requests to send more workers in the field to help the thousands displaced went unfilled because there were no workers to send. My co-workers were swamped, overwhelmed, exhausted and frustrated. The media was so negative, the public outcry so bad, that we couldn't watch the news or wear our badges or FEMA gear in public. Then Barbara had to leave because her sister had committed suicide on the heels of her brother's recent death from cancer. I remember being in the ladies room and Susan came in, told me what had happened and asked if I would sit with Barbara for awhile. Of course we were so concerned for Barbara and worried about her traveling alone, etc., and managed to eek out a few hours of compassion for her amidst the chaos. The next few days were more morose than ever, and morale hadn't exactly been good to begin with. Susan and Mary and I would suddenly stop what we were doing, look at each other with tears in our eyes, and say "Oh God, poor Barbara." Every emotion we had was at the surface, and this was the most we could allow or not survive the tasks ahead of us. It was so hard to constantly hear that FEMA was failing, and how we managed to continue to work with compassion for anyone remains a mystery to me. But despite how hard the work was, the memories of what I felt are much stronger than those of what I did.
Every night when I'd get back to my hotel between 10 p.m. and midnight, I would cry myself to sleep because it was so hard, so overwhelming and there wasn't enough time or workers to get the job done. I felt dejected. Thousands—or was it millions?—of people were suffering and my efforts seemed so insignificant, so futile. I coordinated hundreds of incoming workers. I talked to evacuees. Most were exhausted and frustrated, but almost always kind and understanding. How could someone who lost everything thank me when I had no information and no solutions to give? I couldn't watch the news or listen to NPR. I was busting my butt to help, to make a difference, to get help to those in need, and it felt like the entire country was pointing a finger at me personally and saying "You, Becky, are failing the American people and doing a bad job." My family and friends would e-mail me asking what was really going on. I would answer those e-mails at midnight before bed, with details of what I was doing and to ask those on my list to tell everyone they knew how much it hurt to hear that FEMA sucked, and that there were good things happening. I would end up sobbing as I finished those e-mails. It hurt deeply to work so hard for what seemed like so little result, and for what results we did achieve to go unnoticed. Then the guilt would set in—here I was, in a hotel room, with food, water, electricity, and air conditioning and a life line to those I loved via e-mail, and I was hurt. I was upset. I wanted someone to say "good job." How could I even think those things when so many had lost their lives and livelihoods? How could I complain? What right did I have to feel sorry for myself? I would cry harder, bitter tears of despair, weeping and wailing for those who suffered so greatly, feeling guilty for not doing or being enough to change the relief effort. This cycle of exhaustive work, guilt and despair went on for weeks. I wanted the public outcry to become positive, for every American to realize that we were working hard to help. Every night I'd think "nobody can be this tired," and that cycle of guilt and despondency would descend again. One night after work I managed to get to dinner and started to cry in the restaurant. I called my mother from my cell phone. She answered and I began to bawl—you can't call what I did crying. I don't remember what I said, or if she could even understand my words, but that horrible pain just tumbled out and I wept and wept. When we hung up I was still crying but more quietly now. At the next table was three young gentlemen and the whole time I sobbed into my cell phone, I tried to maintain some personal space and not disturb them. When they were leaving, they came over to me and handed me a 20% off coupon. They smiled at me and said it looked like I could use something nice to happen to me, and they hated to see a pretty lady alone and so distressed, and hoped I would feel better. I think I managed a smile and thanked them. I was so overwhelmed by everything at that moment, including their kindness, that I hope I said something gracious. I hope someday they read this and recognize themselves and know how very grateful I am to them. A few minutes before I didn't think I'd ever be whole again, and then three total strangers restored my faith in the world. I knew I could go on with my work, and not say "forget it" and go home as I wanted to.
Then Hurricane Rita hit and it got worse.
By the time we moved our work space for the fifth time, we had a decent routine in place, and additional staff. The days were still really long, 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. officially, but we had to stay until all the sites were closed and statistics in, at which point we had to compile all of the reports into a master file and upload it to HQ and senior management. Most nights we were there until 10 p.m. The guards told me I worked harder than anyone because I was always the last to leave. We kept thinking it would get easier, that the load would lighten up a little. It didn't. As hard it was, there was eventually a point where I had stopped crying every night after work, and managed to not burst into tears most days too. Of course there were exceptions. But the best part was the people I worked with—I had an awesome staff and great co-workers. The intensity and demands of the two hurricanes never lessened in the fifteen weeks of my assignment in Texas, but the people I met made it more than bearable, they made it memorable.
I've already talked about the initial five of us—me, Pam, Susan, Barbara and Mary. They were amazing and strong and worked harder than anyone I've ever seen. Susan and I became very friendly and have stayed in touch. Nannette and George arrived during that second week of Katrina. Recently married, they were godsends as both were long time FEMA workers with lots of experience. Nannette was sweet and kind, and let me cry whenever I needed to. George was great—I adored him and he made me laugh. Once he left five voice mail messages for a senior manager right in a row, but in different character voices and I was in stitches. Nannette discovered she was pregnant while in Texas, and by mid October, the pace was unhealthy for her and they went home. Now they are the proud parents of baby boy Austin. Ruby was my state counterpart, and together she and I made decisions about where and when to open recovery centers for both storms. We took a two and half day road trip to visit all the centers, and we bonded even further spending all that time together in the car. Ruby was fun and fearless, a real Texas woman and as exhausted and frustrated we were, we still managed to talk about life and laugh quite often.
Then there was my staff: Mark, Patrick and Paulette were all from other federal agencies and each worked with me for four to six weeks. They learned quickly and made my life SO much easier. Mark was an intelligent young single man of 25 who looked 17, but he was hilarious to talk to because he sounded like a stoner. Paulette was quiet, but took charge of any task that needed doing without direction or question. Patrick was my assistant for a few weeks and made a huge difference to me, until I had to send him to the field during a staff shortage. The four of us were a great unit, and we took care of each other, and always found time to laugh and vent every day.
Then we had Annette, Ernestina and Kathryn join us. They did the most amazing work, and every Saturday would bring in juice and breakfast tacos and kolaches. They were each assigned a group of recovery center managers, in order to keep up with the relentless incoming phone calls from the field. The managers became very dependent on them, and it was fun to listen to each manager rave about their "girl." The adoration was warranted, as Annette, Kathryn and Ernie turned our work unit into an efficient mechanism of tracking calls and completing requests. I've kept in touch with Kathryn and Annette via e-mail and occasional phone calls, and I hope that I get to work with each of them again as they have all became regular FEMA reservists now. By now you've read about how hard the work was; I can't adequately describe how much difference these people made to me. There is such a bond that occurs—even if temporary—from working in any disaster, and the fact that all these workers were brand new and untrained and stepped up and made an enormous difference to the relief effort is a testament their dedication and resilience.
I would be remiss if I didn't talk about my co-workers in the other sections that I interfaced with regularly. It was purely random that the workers assigned to lead these other sections were handsome men, but it made my job more fun. Coordinating equipment, staff, security officers, physical locations, and support staff from other departments/agencies takes a lot of meetings, phone calls and interaction; I had the good fortune to work with Tom, Patrick, and Bob in the Security section, as they made sure our field sites had adequate security protection. All former law enforcement agents, they were SO protective of me personally that I was always felt like there was nothing they wouldn't do for me and no one whose butt they wouldn't kick on my behalf. I worked most closely with Tom, whom I had a total crush on, and really wished he was single. Then there were the boys from Logistics, who made sure we had equipment and "stuff" in all of our remote locations. There was Chance, an extremely handsome, outgoing Texan in charge of crisis counseling staff. Many women in the office would just delight in watching him walk by, including me. His boss was Daniel, another man whom I had an innocent crush on, who made me laugh whenever I saw him. There was also Chip, a long time FEMA worker, whom I would chat and laugh with every day too. The work load never relented and we worked intensely long days. After Hurricane Rita, we had two conference calls every day that were an hour long or more, and all of them were part of it. Throughout each day, there would be a dozen times I needed to go into the offices of the other sections to address issues and problems, so there were many opportunities for interactions, and of course we bonded, and became friendly and laughed and talked, and even became and stayed friends in some cases. The work was hard and demanding and didn't let up for months, and I still had raw emotions coursing through me every day. My co-workers made it all bearable, and being able to walk into Chance's office, or Tom's, or anyone's, and announce on a regular basis that I was having a meltdown or just say something really stupid and laugh with them, was what got me through, especially when morale was bad due to negative media and the other pressures I've written about. It didn't stop us from working hard, and certainly didn't interfere with any of our work, and instead made each day easier. There was a day I was panicked because Paulette, the most responsible person I've ever met, didn't come to work and didn't call. We called her cell phones, her hotel room, and called the front desk at the hotel and had them check her room. While we were waiting for the hotel to call us back, I walked into Chance's office. I told him about Paulette and all of sudden he grabbed me and said "BREATHE!" He said I had gone very pale and my eyes got huge and I think he was afraid I would faint. I was so panicked and worried that something had happened to Paulette, and he snapped me out of it. We went to Tom in Security, as I was certain that we would need to start checking hospitals and police records for accidents. Paulette called and she had not been feeling well and had overslept, and never heard the phones. Housekeeping had been able to rouse her and we let her take the next few days off to rest. But the results were that everyone was concerned about me, despite the teasing about my actual panic. All day long everyone would check in with me to make sure I was okay, as they all had been worried about my emotional distress over my concern for Paulette. I was 1500 miles away from home, exhausted and stressed, but I had an in-house family. This is exactly why I got through working this disaster, because I worked with amazing, kind, good hearted, hard working people, who took care of me and each other.
When I first started writing my "mini-memoirs" about Katrina/Rita, I had a lot of raw emotions still coursing through me, and I thought that getting my point across about what I experienced would be impossible, and that this—my final entry—would be laced with despondency and sadness that I would never overcome. Finding the courage to put my thoughts on paper and write about each segment has helped me heal and deal with whatever emotional trauma I had remaining. I can say happily now, in October of 2006, that I have been home for two and a half months and have established a normal routine at work, with my friends, and with my family. Every day my FEMA co-workers and I look at each other say with some trepidation "Whew—no hurricane this year." We know that another disaster could be around the corner and we could be sent on the road again easily, but right now we are enjoying the ability to stay home and rest and recover. What we went through as workers will never be close to what the victims suffered, and I would never want anyone to think that I think so. I hope what I've done instead is to let anyone who reads my writing understand that in the midst of such desperate suffering, there were those of us who tried to help, and were devastated by the scope and inability to do enough. And when I re-read what I just wrote, about being "happy and normal" now, the guilt comes rushing back, thinking that I have no right to say that with so much suffering still happening, and that I have some nerve complaining about what I went through. I can't compare my life to those who were truly affected, and would never try to, but I will go forward remembering every emotion, every story, every victim, every worker, every detail...and when I'm having a bad day, or the next disaster stresses me out, I'll re-read some of my chapters here and say my prayers of thanks and hope again.
Last updated: 10/14/06