Hurricane Sandy: Katrina on the Hudson?

posted at 5:11 pm on November 13, 2012 by Mary Katharine Ham

Glenn Reynolds notices similarities, in USA Today:

One parallel: A late evacuation order. Even before the storm struck, weatherblogger Brendan Loy — famous for calling for early evacuation of New Orleans before Katrina struck — criticizing Mayor Bloomberg for not ordering early or extensive enough evacuations in New York, and for making the “ignorant” statement that Sandy wouldn’t be as bad as a hurricane…

After Sandy struck, some areas did worse than others, and FEMA — as with Katrina — got bad press. Manhattan was hit hard, but the outer boroughs suffered more. Staten Island residents say they were forgotten by relief efforts and one press report called the island “a giant mud puddle of dead dreams.” Adding insult to injury, when another nor’easter approached the area FEMA closed its Staten Island office “due to weather.” Time called it “the island that New York City forgot.” Rudy Giuliani called FEMA’s performance “as bad as Katrina.”

But there is one difference:

So: late warnings, confused and inadequate responses, FEMA foul-ups and suffering refugees. In this regard, Sandy is looking a lot like Katrina on the Hudson. Well, things go wrong in disasters. That’s why they’re called disasters. But there is one difference.

Under Katrina, the national press credulously reported all sorts of horror stories: rapes, children with slit throats, even cannibalism. These stories were pretty much all false. Worse, as Lou Dolinar cataloged later, the press also ignored many very real stories of heroism and competence. We haven’t seen such one-sided coverage of Sandy, where the press coverage of problems, though somewhat muted before the election, hasn’t been marked by absurd rumors or ham-handed efforts to push a particular narrative.

It took days for FEMA to hit the ground in hard-hit parts of NYC. More than a week after the storm, FEMA representatives were just getting on the ground and opening temporary offices in New Jersey. When a nor’easter blew in, several of their offices shut down because of— wait for it— severe weather.

An army of FEMA volunteers is now housed in the USTS Kennedy near Staten Island, a 540-foot training ship. They are well-meaning, no doubt, and yet the State Island FEMA office was one of those closed for inclement weather last week, in one of the hardest hit parts of the city.

Citizen groups stepped in:

Victims of an unforgiving one-two punch from superstorm Sandy and a nor’easter that both hit New York’s Staten Island say FEMA has forgotten them…

Punch-drunk residents’ ire is also aimed at the city — which is going door-to-door to order people out of their homes — at the American Red Cross, which some say has not done enough and at police and firefighters. One group of residents, calling themselves the “Brown Cross,” is patrolling the devastated streets, armed with walkie-talkies, and helping residents clear debris and pump water from their flooded homes.

“We’ve done more for our community than FEMA, the Red Cross and the National Guard combined, directly hitting houses and people in need,” Frank Recce, the 24-year-old longshoreman and Iraq Army veteran who organized the group, told FoxNews.com.

Occupy, too!

FEMA says 1,600 people are using aid for hotels, but there are thousands more displaced, and a rental-market pinch. Church members helped find housing for victims in Middletown, N.J when FEMA’s help was late or misguided:

Colon has been trying to find housing for church members who lost everything. A few people slept stretched across chairs in the sanctuary after the storm. The nearest FEMA assistance center is in Union Beach, about five miles away, and many storm victims lost their cars to flooding.

Colon says she knows FEMA has offered some of the displaced people housing, but miles from their neighborhoods.

“It’s not doable if you put them a mile and a half out. They have to have transportation to their job. [FEMA wants] to offer help, but it has to be helpful to the person,” she said, especially storm victims with children in school who value their community. “They lost their house already; now they’re going to lose everything else.”

FEMA trailers are headed to the area, but no state has requested or claimed them yet, and it has not yet been determined where they’ll end up. Mercifully, FEMA Director Craig Fugate assures residents they’re not toxic, unlike some Katrina-era FEMA trailers, which were found to be contaminated with formaldehyde.

Here’s FEMA’s assessment of its own performance, by the numbers:

Since Hurricane Sandy struck New York, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has approved more than $338 million to help individuals and families recover from the disaster.FEMA provides the following snapshot of the disaster recovery effort as of Nov. 12:

More than 176,000 New Yorkers have contacted FEMA for information or registered for assistance with FEMA and more than $338 million has been approved. More than 91,000 have applied through the online application site at www.disasterassistance.gov.

30 Disaster Recovery Centers (DRC) are open in the nine declared counties. These include mobile sites as well as fixed sites, and to date more than 12,000 survivors have been assisted at DRCs in New York.

More than 1,100 Community Relations (CR) specialists are strategically positioned throughout affected communities, going door to door explaining the types of disaster assistance available and how to register. More teams continue to arrive daily.

1,126 inspectors in the field have completed more than 44,000 home inspections.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, critics understandably questioned the federal agency’s lack of contingency plan for disseminating information if victims couldn’t get on the Internet.

A call to FEMA’s news desk, however, found even they didn’t have any non-Internet information readily available beyond suggestions that people call 911 in an emergency. When asked where folks should turn for information if they have no power, a FEMA worker said, “Well, those people who have a laptop with a little battery life on it can try that way. Otherwise, you’re right.”

Such blind spots are perilous to the public, experts say. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell did reference during a news conference Monday two useful phone numbers — 211 for guidance on emergency shelter locations and 511 for traffic information — and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray told News Channel 8 that people should call 311 in storm-related emergencies.

But that’s about it for public information of this type.

As Glenn notes, disasters are disasters. Bad things are going to happen, some recovery efforts are going to fail in an unpredictable environment, and we shouldn’t make unfair racial and socio-economic accusations about why without some pretty good proof.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find a story about Sandy and FEMA without a sentence like this:

“She applied for FEMA assistance the day after Sandy hit, but said she hadn’t heard back.”

Or this:

“FEMA hasn’t done anything else. The inspector came out and he inspected the damage and that was it. He said he was going to forward it to his headquarters and I will hear from them, that’s it.” When asked if he has heard from anyone? Daily quickly responded, “No.”

Then, there’s this.

The effort has now moved from incomplete and incompetent immediate response to the often labyrinthine demands of applying for assistance from the federal government:

“You have to get a copy from your landlord saying that it was your living space,” Jones said. “If you get denied (from flood insurance), get a letter in writing saying what (your insurance provider) won’t cover. Then submit that letter to FEMA and FEMA can send an inspector to inspect your home.”

It should come as no surprise that smaller, more flexible organizations are filling gaps where the federal government fails (giant charity Red Cross was criticized, too), and without much of the triplicate form-signing. Many of FEMA’s problems, both during Katrina and now, are due to the nature of a giant bureaucracy. There’s a place for federal response, and tweaks can make it work better, but we shouldn’t close ourselves off from innovative solutions by insisting a bigger FEMA is always a better fix.

In the meantime, thank goodness for the kindness and quick thinking of those who are able to help where needed, neighbor to neighbor, and lessen suffering in what is still a nightmarish situation for many of our countrymen.


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