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An Insider’s Critique of FEMA (One Year After Sandy)

Re-posting for the one year anniversary (29 Oct) of Super Storm Sandy. The original posting created a bit of stir within FEMA and many employees sent me anonymous messages of support. One of the anonymous messages from an employee: 

Hey, man. I just wanted to let you know that your essay/diary/blog post is making waves- it was in the disaster-wide press clips, so everyone [could have] read it, and a lot of people higher up the food chain have been talking.

I’ve been thinking about writing something similar since my first day, from the office/admin side, so I was really glad to read it. You did a great job. More importantly, it made an impact. You might be on some watch lists now, but you also might actually get some changes made.

 

For three months I have worked 60 hours a week for FEMA, witnessing first-hand the inner-workings and organizational mentality from a wide range of inside perspectives. My initial placement was on a mobile, language-needs strike team that was based out of the Joint Field Office (JFO) in Forest Hills, Queens. I was later reassigned to a base in the field, visiting damaged homes and assisting with recovery efforts on the Rockaway Peninsula. Throughout it all I was shocked at what seemed to be an intentional inefficiency that aggressively discouraged questioning aimed at improving the speed and effectiveness of the relief effort.

FEMA has three categories of workers: a small permanent staff; several thousand ‘reservists’ who are deployed only during disasters; and ‘local hires,’ which are sourced from disaster areas and stay on after many of the reservists have gone home. I never interacted with any permanent staff, and as far as I could tell, the recovery from Superstorm Sandy was run and managed by reservists.

While generally weary of government, I naïvely assumed that FEMA would attract a staff motivated by a desire to help others. My first interactions with local hires showed more pragmatic motivations, often just unemployed workers happy to have found a job, but it was also nearly universally mixed with empathy and altruism. The quality of the local hires varied, many seemed well suited for a professional workforce while others seemed incompetent. It’s hard to believe that there were not better applicants willing to assist with disaster relief, so the first problem is poor hiring but that is relatively minor, the real issue is the work environment. Despite my initial misgivings about this group, I later realized that almost all the quality workers were in fact local hires.

My first day on the job I went out with a reservist who was also my direct supervisor and visited faith-based organizations. Our task was to collect data, assess needs and ultimately help the larger recovery effort. About half the numbers we turned in for the day were completely made up. We drove by churches and guessed the size of the congregation, its language needs and overall damage. Even with the gross exaggeration of the work that we did, even if those numbers were all real, it would still be less accomplished than I would have expected during our ten-hour shift. Almost all the reservists I encountered had mastered the art of wasting time. When I was at the JFO we sat around for an hour or two before we left on any assignment. In the Rockaways, we did not linger quite as long at the command post but like clockwork, every day we ate a leisurely breakfast at two separate places. We got coffee at one restaurant then breakfast sandwiches in another, it was all just a way to waste time.

A significant part of any day was spent sitting in a car. When I worked out of the JFO, my team would sometimes have assignments that required a lot of driving, necessitating visiting both Nassau and Manhattan in the same day for example. In hindsight, I believe that upper management (also reservists) did this intentionally, as part of the overall strategy to waste time and extend their own deployment. When we did arrive at our destination we often sat in the car for half an hour or more before exiting. Sometimes the supervisor would be on a personal phone call, sometimes sorting papers, sometimes not doing anything at all but wasting time.

The reservists had a good salary and impressive perks, such as a $70 a day food stipend that is added to their pay, and tried very hard to not work themselves out a job. There was an acute awareness that the more efficient we were—in this case the faster we helped affected communities recover—the shorter our job would be. So we worked slowly, and we intentionally worked inefficiently.  This was not isolated to the level just above me but widespread throughout the organization. It went beyond wasting time though. Many of the decisions and direction given from above were illogical. We spent a week visiting businesses to ask if we could leave fliers there, though we did not have any actual fliers to leave, nor did we ever return with any. Another day was spent writing consent forms out by hand that we would never use.

Many of the local hires were surprised and frustrated. There were also some that were happy with a lazy system and everyone at least embraced parts of it. For example, I gladly went home early nearly every day—as did everyone else.

There were some small attempts at improvement, but they never lead anywhere. When my team did street canvasing I stepped out of the vehicle immediately and stood outside, thinking it would encourage others. One reservist on my team would often step outside with me, but our supervisor never followed and no one else from the two or three car loads of workers ever stepped outside until she did.  It changed nothing but made my accomplice and me frustrated and cold—this was in early February—so we soon stopped trying and waited in the car with everyone else. The reservist who tried to encourage a better work ethic choose to leave the FEMA mission early, she was the first person to leave my team in Rockaway. When we were handwriting consent forms another team member questioned the logic of it and was shouted down with comments such as “Where can you get a job that pays you for doing so little and then lets you go home early? Don’t ruin this for the rest of us.” That team member was let go the following week. He was the second person to leave our Rockaway team.

The worst aspect of FEMA is not the general incompetence of the decision makers, nor the intentional waste, it is the workplace culture. Any suggestion for efficiency, any questioning of the modus operandi is greeted with hostility. I’ve never encountered a job that guarded its own misgivings so fiercely. As the job progressed, almost all local hires, myself included, acquiesced to the situation and eventually grew close with it. The ones who embraced the inefficiency most, the ones who were the happiest to collect a pay check for sitting idle, were rewarded. Most reservists begin as local hires and the local hires that embraced the waste and sloth are the most likely to apply and eventually advance within the organization. In essence, negative behavior is rewarded.

Workers will always take as much as they can, the difference with FEMA is that encouraging inefficiency is not hurting the bottom-line of a still profiting faceless millionaire, its hurting working families who were devastated by a natural disaster. Volunteers (occupy sandy, etc) worked much harder than FEMA and other paid workers I interacted with. The paid workers seemed to be working for a paycheck while the volunteers had no other motivation but to help people and tried to maximize their efforts and effectiveness.

Yes, there were exceptions and good workers but that’s all they were, exceptions. My critique is limited to my own narrow experiences with the organization, beginning in December and ending in late March but it seems clear that everything I witnessed was part of an organizational pattern. At the end of the day, FEMA has a very worthy mission and actually does significantly contribute to disaster recovery, but it can be so much better.

Assuming that government should provide a safety net and help overwhelmed communities recover from natural disasters, FEMA needs to exist. The way that it has evolved—the willful inefficiency and extreme hostility toward constructive criticism—is appalling and needs to be torn down and replaced. I worked as a Field Operations Supervisor during the 2010 census and was happily surprised with the quality of the other managers and the general work environment, and there are volunteer relief organizations that work well so it is possible. There are successful templates that exist. Disaster survivors deserve so much more from us.

 

Read a memoir style expose I wrote for Truthout as a follow-up here.

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