What is FEMA? A Little Perspective

With Hurricane Sandy being all the rage online right now, I’m starting to notice more of what I was seeing after our tornado: that the general public has some bizarre ideas about FEMA.

Being just a few days before a major election, also noticing that many politicians either have no idea what FEMA is about, or are just capitalizing on public misconceptions to boost their own ratings. Either way…

So, as someone who has been through a natural disaster, talked with FEMA workers at length, and actually read up on everything when I wrote Twisted: A Minneapolis Tornado Memoir… I feel the need to put this out there. I was witness to how our own city had used public misconceptions to throw FEMA under the bus, diverting blame from City of Minneapolis missteps and greed… so I need to speak up. A little education is a good thing!

Note: Most of what follows is an excerpt from Twisted: A Minneapolis Tornado Memoir.

While FEMA also exists to manage some logistics during the acute phase of a natural disaster – coordinating with shelters, food stations, and power companies – it’s the financial stuff that they tend to be mentioned for. FEMA is, as one friend puts it, “a checkbook on wheels”. When it comes to the financials, FEMA exists solely to make up the difference between what a disaster actually costs, and what insurance, city, and state will pay for. They are NOT a magical lottery for disaster victims to get rich off, they are the very last line of defense against complete financial ruin in the wake of a disaster.

To put that even more clearly: A disaster victim – whether individual or municipal – must exhaust all other major financial aid streams before FEMA will kick in. That is, insurance money, then state and city aid. If that comes up short of what is needed, FEMA kicks in.

I like to relate it to losing a job. When you lose a job, your first line of defense is your unemployment insurance. This is your homeowners insurance, in the case of a disaster.

When your unemployment runs out, and things get desperate… then you may end up looking to welfare. In the case of disaster aid, this would be your city and state disaster money.

When you are at your absolute most desperate, when things are as bad as they can get, and you are living on the street… the person that gives you a blanket? That’s FEMA.

Don’t take this as any judgment on FEMA. Unlike the city of Minneapolis, whose actions were governed by greed and incompetence, being the entity that gives you that “blanket” is their actual purpose. Their availability to aid any particular disaster is dictated by the numbers – the amount of public and private damage that occurred, and the amount of front line – insurance/city/state money available to deal with it.

FEMA’s not supposed to buy you a whole new house, or make disaster victims rich. They’re supposed to step in when you are *SCREWED* beyond belief, to put it simply. You don’t WANT to qualify for individual FEMA aid.

It seems to me like the public view on FEMA is that they are more like… a Publisher’s Clearing House Prize Team waiting for them as they leave their former job, presenting them with a big check.

In Minneapolis, we were lucky. The tornado didn’t flatten us, like many tornadoes do in other areas. Yes, there was mass destruction, but it was destruction that was relatively easy to recover from. Relatively.

So, we didn’t qualify for individual aid from FEMA, though we did qualify for some infrastructure funding for street and sidewalk repairs.

I can see why people in the area were upset. We would hear about all the money that the city and/or state was putting into tornado repairs, and hear “to help victims of the tornado” all the time – but no one seems to know anyone who actually received that help. (I know that some people were able to get help from the Small Business Association several months later, but that’s it.)

When anger was directed at the city – with good reason, in my opinion – the city decided that it would be easier to throw FEMA under the bus, than to admit that the city is run by a bunch of incompetent fuck ups. They’re not big on the whole “take responsibility for your own actions” thing.

So, playing on the public’s fuzzy knowledge of FEMA, the city blamed FEMA. They made it seem like a personal slight, not that we simply didn’t meet the requirements for individual FEMA aid.

At one point, the city elaborated on the “Blame FEMA” song, by fudging some numbers. They claimed that FEMA had put a figure on the amount of volunteer hours that were contributed to the cleanup effort, used it to decrease the value of the actual damage, and that FEMA was using it against the city. That we did not receive FEMA aid because of the volunteering.

The thing is, FEMA did put a dollar figure on that volunteering – but they used it in favor of the city, to boost the actual value of “funding” that the city contributed. They counted that “cost” of volunteer work against the 25% that the local has to pay to meet the 75/25 share of the cost of the disaster.

The city is supposed to pay for 25% of the tornado damage cost. FEMA counted volunteer labor as partial payment for that. Essentially, Minneapolis leveraged labor as part of their financial obligation.

Say we had 1 million in damage. The city would be required to pay $250k. If the volunteer labor was valued at, say, $100k… then the city would only be on the hook for $150k in ACTUAL money.

I pulled those numbers out of my ass, just to illustrate. I don’t know the actual values of the damage or volunteer “value”. The point is, it’s a far cry from “FEMA is screwing us over because they reduced the damage value because of the volunteers, and NOW we don’t qualify as a result”.

I’m all for being angry over how this was handled, but the anger should be directed at those who ACTUALLY dropped the ball.

From my view, FEMA did absolutely nothing wrong.

While FEMA was able to have people from other regions on the ground here within days… even a year and a half later, no one from the city has come by to check on things, other than the inspectors with regard to permits. The FEMA people who came to our door seemed genuinely concerned with what had happened, and actually seemed like they were working FOR us. That was in stark contrast to constantly having to fight the city for anything.

FEMA has to sit back and be thrown under the bus by a crooked, greedy, and incompetent city that is more than happy to use FEMA funds to repair (some) sidewalks and roads.

Truly, I have to wonder how often FEMA offices have to replace their desks. I’m sure they end up with many head-shaped dents from dealing with all of this idiocy.

Also, FYI: FEMA has online courses that anyone can take, free of charge. Independent study courses that teach the principles of emergency management – the same courses that FEMA makes the cities take. Most classes take about an hour, and you can even get a certificate at the end of each.

In other words, if you have an hour, you can have a better understanding of emergency management than our city apparently does.

If you’re interested, visit training.fema.gov.

In closing, I’d like to repeat what I’d said as part of the Acknowledgements section of Twisted:

“Thank you FEMA, for your quick response to the tornado, and honestly trying to help us. While we may not have qualified for individual assistance, I want you to know that some of us appreciate your efforts, and your obviously caring & concerned employees on the ground here. It’s nice to know that part of the government was looking out for us, even when our local government was NOT. ”

My heart goes out to the victims of Hurricane Sandy, and I wish you all the best for a speedy and drama-free recovery.

On the afternoon of May 22, 2011, North Minneapolis was devastated by a tornado. Twisted recounts the Porters’ first 11 months, post disaster. Rebuilding their house, working around the challenges presented by inadequate insurance coverage. Frustration at repeated bouts of incompetence and greed from their city officials. Dealing with issues such as loss of control, logistics, change, and over-stimulation, as an Aspergian woman.

Subjects covered include: Opportunistic “Vultures”, gawkers, new friendships, a bizarre gingerbread house, unique decisions made with the rebuild – including an internet-famous kitchen backsplash, “Tornado Claus”, contractor drama, water balloons, DIY design and work, music, sensory overload, and details on how to cook jambalaya for almost 300 people, in the parking lot of a funeral home… should you ever find yourself in the position to do so. Order your hard copy here, or digital edition here.

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