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‘Taint My Job!

March 5, 2007

A recent article (warning: temporary ny times link) exposed a terrible situation – an injustice heaped upon injustice. Everyone has heard, no doubt, about the trailers provided as housing for Hurricane Katrina refugees. From stories of hundreds of trailers sitting unused to the deplorable conditions of those being used; the term “FEMA trailers” has taken on a terrible connotation.

This latest expose deals with the closing of a FEMA trailer park in Hammond, Louisiana. According to residents, the site has been beset by sewage leaks and electrical problems for nearly a year. Residents were given 48 hours to find other housing, with the Agency’s help, of course.

This is truly a disastrous situation. Having folks live in temporary trailers up to eighteen months post-hurricane is no way to restore citizen’s faith in government, or to help these people become productive members of society again. After all of the failures heaped upon them during the response to Katrina, FEMA has once again failed to protect those in the Agency’s charge.

Or did they?

FEMA has been tasked with three separate goals: mitigation, response and recovery. I wonder if this is such a good idea. FEMA is obviously over-extended, but I must wonder – is the mandate too broad?

FEMA was, and will once again be, an excellent organization for disaster response. The Agency’s expertise in disaster response naturally endows them with the specialized knowledge necessary to act as the nation’s mitigation clearinghouse. It just makes sense for the nation’s emergency management agency to be the foremost experts in emergency response and mitigation. But what of the recovery aspect? Is FEMA best qualified to be owning and maintaining trailers to disaster victims EIGHTEEN MONTHS after being activated?

A few asides, though. I’m sure those folks who work for FEMA in this capacity are all exceptional people, who work hard and are good at their job. And I know that in the aftermath of a disaster, FEMA is the agency with the experience and “Boots on the Ground” that it only makes sense that they coordinate the initial recovery phase and short-term services.

But why are there still FEMA trailers in the Gulf Zone? An analogous situation might be if we asked firemen to put out a housefire, then set up the displaced family in temporary housing, find a place for the kids to go to school, and then maintain the temporary housing that the family has been placed. At the local and state level, these extra steps are taken care of by human services agencies and departments (think Housing, Child Services, Health, etc.).

According to the training I’ve gone through, I know that recovery is a key phase in emergency management. And it is one that we take great pride in – we are the folks that will help you get back on your feet after a disaster. But can we continue to be everything to everyone? When does it stop? When there are FEMA trailers in every county in the nation?

FEMA has taken some hits in the last year and a half, and not without cause. In light of most of the country’s most recent experience with the Agency, shouldn’t FEMA look to dedicate itself to it’s core mission – managing emergencies? Let Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development provide long-term human services and housing.


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