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The Politics of Hurricanes

Michael May

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Mel Gonzales' roof was destroyed by Hurricane Ike
(Juan Parras)
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The hurricane shelters on Galveston Island closed this week. People have been living in Galveston in tents after Hurricane Ike hit on September 13. But the island is still in ruins, and many people are in hotel rooms or crashing with friends. It's fair to say that disasters tend to bring out the best and worst of government, and in the past few years, we've seen more of, well, the worst. We wondered what folks in Galveston needed to get back on their feet. Reporter Michael May went to the heart of the disaster bureaucracy in Austin to find out how things have gone in Ike's wake.

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"As far as material things, they can be replaced," says Randel Allie. "But what I need is a residence. I need a place to go, and they're having problems placing people and providing housing."

"I live in a two story house," says Anne Caroline. "and I had five feet of water in my den. When I bought the insurance, I bought it thinking my house was covered. They're saying they're not paying for that bottom level, as if I'm on a high-rise, those houses up on stilts."

"My house is right here in Bermuda beach in Galveston, right there," says Carlos Ortega. "At this point I need people get to out of the way, I need city hall to get out of the way so we can come in and rebuild stuff."

"I just want some help to get back to approximately where I was at," says Ralph Adolfis, "with a two-room apartment, my rent was paid, and just go on. I'm hoping, I'm an optimist."

Hurricane victims in need of a place to stay can call FEMA for help. Here's what the FEMA side of that conversation can sound like:

"If you want to get on a waiting list," says FEMA employee Kathleen Smith. "We'll let you know when we open a park and we got people going in there."

Disasters tend to bring out the best and worst of government, and in the past few years, we've seen more of, well, the worst. Reporter Michael May went to the heart of the disaster bureaucracy in Austin to find out how things have gone in Ike's wake.

No one wanted to experience another debacle like Katrina or Rita, especially Jack Colley. He runs the Texas Emergency Management department, and people call him chief. As hundreds of thousands of people fled the storm in early September, he was three floors below ground, in a command center with rows of desks and huge screens. "In this room," he says, "we had federal partners, local partners, we had private sector partners, and we were all focused on that one thing, and that was to be able to save lives."

With FEMA's help, Texas did hundreds of last minute search and rescue missions. Shelters were set up across the state. And in a bit of Texas ingenuity, Colley brought in huge retailers like Wal Mart to help out. "When we need food, water, ice delivered, we use them," he says. "You know, they do it quicker, faster, smarter than anybody, because they make a profit doing it."

Colley and company succeeded. The response to the disaster wasn't a total disaster. But it's early to declare "Mission Accomplished." Much too early. Consider this: Texas has only spent one tenth of the 503 million dollars the feds gave it to rebuild after Hurricane Rita and that was three years ago.

Just a block away, FEMA has transformed an old JC Penney building into a makeshift headquarters. There's a major effort underway to get Hurricane Ike's victims into temporary housing. FEMA employee Bob Alvey gives me a tour of the mammoth facility. It's got a clinic, a travel center, even meditation rooms for stressed out disaster workers, and a "war room."

"Ask the question, because you're going to ask it," says Alvey.

"What's the war room?," I ask.

"It's misnamed obviously," Alvey responds, "but it was a room that was established and staffed to ensure that we are working to get park models and mobile homes to the victims as quickly as possible."

Actually, the war room's not so badly named. Over the last couple weeks, state senators and county officials have blasted FEMA. They say people are stuck in hotels 50 miles from their homes because the agency hasn't provided trailers - which FEMA has used in the past because you can plop them in a driveway. Albie Lewis, the Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer, says that after Katrina, travel trailers are off limits."Along came along the formaldehyde issue," says Lewis. "And that really gave everyone a black eye on it."

Or burning eyes or shortness of breath. Formaldehyde is a noxious chemical. The cheap particle board in the trailers had too much of it, and people started reporting getting sick in 2005. FEMA initially denied there was a problem, but earlier this year, the CDC confirmed that most had potentially hazardous levels of the chemical. Finally, FEMA switched to mobile homes, which are less toxic, but much more of a pain to set up. "This is not a simple connection with a plug, we need to set up a meter, we need to work with the energy company and contractors."

There's a lot of red tape. Still, it's not much of an excuse. Congress even gave the agency $400 million dollars in 2006 to find alternatives. There are now designs for futuristic pre-fab disaster housing - but a safer travel trailer has proved elusive. Now FEMA has to find room for the bigger mobile homes. "So what is the expectation?" Albie asks. "Is it realistic that after six weeks after disaster we should have 4000 mobile homes placed with people living in them."

Realistic or not, FEMA has clearly felt the heat. The agency is setting up around sixty units a day now. Many of Ike's victims will celebrate the holidays in one or a hotel, something they can at least pretend is home. Let's hope it doesn't take years to help them get back to their real ones.

  • Music Bridge:
    Beams
    Artist: Tape
    CD: Luminarium (Hapna Sweden)

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