In the last three weeks, Barbara Harper and Donald Roy have handed out thousands of fliers, hugged dozens of strangers and even shed a few tears with people standing amid the splinters of what were once their homes.
“We listen, we laugh and sometimes we even cry with people,” said Roy, who works with Harper on a community relations team to provide information about Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster assistance.
On Wednesday, the two tackled hard-hit areas in Bridgeport, Ala., for the second time in less than three weeks, visiting houses where no one was at home the first time. They moved quickly from door to door, dodging debris and trees and watching out for dogs.
But when someone answered a door or stopped throwing tree branches on a pile, the two slowed down to talk and to listen.
“We can offer them hope,” Harper said. “They are so happy to see us — everyone has been positive. This truly is rural America at its best.”
It may be FEMA at its best, too — or at least better than what the world saw during the agency’s much-maligned response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“FEMA has done a good job, based on what I have heard, but a tornado is much easier to respond to than something like Katrina,” said Matt A. Mayer, a visiting fellow at the Washington think tank Heritage Foundation and a former senior official in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The super cell outbreak that unleashed 288 tornadoes across the South and killed at least 344 people April 27, leaving a wake of lives and landscapes forever changed, has been categorized as a Category 1 national disaster — on par with Katrina and 9/11.
Storms in Chattanooga’s tri-state area killed more than 80 people, including nine in Apison; nine in Bradley County, Tenn.; eight in Ringgold, Ga.; 34 in DeKalb County, Ala.; and eight in Jackson County, Ala. Hundreds were injured and thousands of homes destroyed in mere hours. Damage cost assessments will take months, but officials predict costs to be close to $100 million in Tennessee alone.
In the 25 days since the storms, FEMA has set up dozens of disaster recovery centers, handed out millions of dollars and assessed far-flung damage.
There have been complaints — recovery centers too far from rural damage to offer needed help, community relations teams that arrived long after volunteers stepped in to feed people, checks that don’t begin to cover damage and assessors who didn’t seem to care about the people who have lost so much.
But most of the feedback has been positive. Governors and local governments alike praise the federal money and assistance pouring into their wrecked communities. Victims hold checks for damage, received in less than a week, along with money for temporary housing and food.
In the days after the tornadoes, FEMA workers mobilized quickly, as county after county was declared a disaster area by the federal government. Harper, who came from New Jersey, and Roy, a Massachusetts transplant living in Arizona, arrived in Alabama on May 1, four days after the worst storms. On May 3, the day after Jackson County was declared a disaster area, the pair was knocking on doors in Bridgeport.
“This is the earliest we’ve ever been dropped in an area,” Harper said.
FEMA officials also have stressed they are working in cooperation with state and local officials, instead of taking the lead role in response. County and state officials make the calls on what help is needed, where and for how long, said Greg Hughes, a spokesman for FEMA working in the Chattanooga area.
“We consider ourselves here as a guest,” Hughes said. “If local officials say we need a disaster recovery center at a location, we set one up. We will stay as long as the state asks us to.”
Mayer said it is difficult to compare the tornadoes to Katrina, since FEMA is much more prepared to deal with what he called “routine” disasters, even on the scale of the recent tornadoes. The jury is still out if the same is true of another major hurricane, he said.
“This is not the size and scale of something like Katrina,” he said. “It is not really a surprise that they have done well in their response in terms of registration and helping victims. But we really don’t know if they are ready to deal with a catastrophic response.”
“THE BEST THEY CAN”
In Hamilton County’s Apison community, where hundreds of homes were destroyed, residents gave the FEMA response qualified praise.
“I think they are doing the best they can under the circumstances,” Marsha Massengale said.
On Wednesday, she picked up debris scattered in the field behind what was once her home. Only a few blocks are left on the foundation. Her sister, who lived next door, and her daughter, just down the road, both lost their homes.
Massengale cried when she described the night of the storm, wiping her tears away with the green work gloves that protected her hands.
The Massengales had insurance to cover some of the damage, she said, and they applied for a loan from the Small Business Administration under FEMA and hope it will help them rebuild. Her daughter, who did not have insurance, has gotten a check from FEMA, but Massengale said she did not know how much of the destroyed home it would cover.
FEMA representatives told her sister they could not help replace the belongings she lost when the mobile home she rented was destroyed. A debit card FEMA gave Massengale to buy food didn’t work at the grocery store when she tried to use it Wednesday.
“But I’m not going to condemn them,” she said. “When something like this happens, there is tee-total confusion. And it’s not just here — it’s everywhere. They seem to be trying to help.”
One of the biggest obstacles FEMA officials say they face are the misconceptions floating around about what FEMA will do. Many people think FEMA is like an insurance agency that will replace everything lost in a disaster, Hughes said.
“Our role under federal law is to help start the recovery process,” Hughes said. “We cannot make a family whole again. We cannot replace a home. We can only get recovery started.”
Grant funds, which do not need to be repaid, are capped at $30,200 per individual, Hughes said, but most people will not receive nearly that amount. And for someone who has lost a home and is uninsured, even that much money will not replace their losses.
Additional money in low-interest loans is also available.
FEMA’s focus is to make sure that anyone affected receives as much help as FEMA can give disaster victims under federal law, Hughes said. So they urge people to sign up, to fill out all the paperwork and go through what can seem like a lengthy process.
And along the way, Hughes expects some criticism.
“If we blink at the wrong time, everyone sees that,” he said. “But from our perspective, we feel that this [response to the tornadoes] is going the way it should go.”
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...