When Super Storm Sandy struck, on October 29, 2012, I was on my third United Nations contract, working in their press office. The subways started running again; the gas lines went away, and I went back to work and proofread the UN press release about Sandy. I graduated college the same week as the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. The image of the sea swallowing whole towns haunted me, and I contacted every aid agency I could think of to offer my body to the recovery. Everyone told me to stay away, that the best people to help would be the locals. I never imagined such a large natural disaster would strike my city, but when it did, I wanted to be one of those locals helping.
I was aware of the widespread public perception of FEMA as slow or inadequate, but naively assumed that, whatever its faults, the organization was doing its best in challenging environments. I interviewed for a community relations specialist position in December in the basement of an office tower. Every room had the same white walls and white-tiled ceilings hanging above a cold, grey cement floor. When it was my turn, I was led into a massive room subdivided into a dozen cubicles, each one with an interview in progress. The din of 12 conversations filled the room. It had the feel of a factory, churning out workers – but I liked that. This is a small part of a massive recovery effort, I thought. I am a small part of a massive recovery effort.
That same day I was fingerprinted and hired to work on an elite multilingual “strike team.” Returning to the basement a week later, the cubicles were gone and made into a large classroom to train 30 new hires like myself. The first day everyone stood to tell the group why they had applied for a job with FEMA. Every person’s motivations included a visceral desire to help. The woman in front of me had taken an unpaid furlough from her professional job at a law firm; the man behind had been volunteering and sleeping in a local church so that survivors could come for supplies through the night.
My first day in the field was a Sunday. I woke before sunrise and rode an empty subway back to that same office tower – this time to the seventh floor. It was the first day for a half dozen other local hires in my group, and we sat in the break room waiting for work. When we arrived, no supervisors were there to greet us. Over the next hour, the reservists – trained FEMA employees who are called up to work only after disaster strikes – began to trickle in. Most managers of FEMA’s disaster recovery in New York, even high-level ones, were reservists. With them came local hires already in the field. Cindy,* one of our Mandarin speakers who had started two weeks prior, told me, loud enough for everyone to hear, “You’re a sucker if you ever come on time.”
Some reservists brought donuts and egg sandwiches with them; others just dropped off their bags and went out again to pick up breakfast.
I sat quietly during all of this, not sure what to make of it. It was two hours before any manager even mentioned our work for the day. Well, we are working 10-hour shifts six to seven days a week, which must be a drain, I thought. It’s probably only like this on Sundays.
Our mission was to find places of worship in Nassau County with congregations needing help. I went out with Jacques,* a Creole-speaking reservist. “You are from New York? Oh the women are so nice here!” he said, as we pulled away from the garage in his rental car. Jacques was a stout middle-aged man who always seemed to be chuckling at something.
In our 10-hour shift that day, we only got out of the car at one church. “It’s better that we don’t go inside,” Jacques said. “Sometimes these people just want to talk, but all we need are numbers.” We drove by four other churches, wrote down their addresses, then guessed at the numbers we would need to include in our end-of-day report: size of congregation; percent affected by Sandy; and language needs. I said nothing. For some reason the zip code we were assigned was far from any water and mostly unaffected by the storm. Maybe he is only making up numbers because there was so little damage in the area, we wouldn’t do this on a normal day, I thought. I hoped.
We went to a Wendy’s for lunch. I only ordered a baked potato – I hadn’t worked up much of an appetite. Jacques had a burger and fries, then went back up for ice cream and retrieved his laptop from the car to write personal emails. We stayed two hours. Jacques said, serious for the first time, “If you are assigned a different supervisor, you can’t tell them my methods, and I don’t want to know how anyone else works. Just stay in your lane, and this will be a good job for you.”
“Stay in your lane” is a FEMA mantra, drilled into us throughout training and reinforced regularly in the field. Officially, it means employees must not wander outside their specific responsibilities to prevent interference and duplication; unofficially, it became the rationale for not doing work and a defense against criticism.
FEMA was adamant about maintaining a chain of command, but on my second day, I went above Jacques and asked Rose,* the overall language group supervisor, to assign me to a different team. Rose was a Spanish-speaking, Mexican-American grandmother from Texas. Her eyes seemed enormous behind her thick glasses, grey roots peaked from her scalp and her dyed brown hair puffed upward, making her head seem too large for her tiny body. Rose quietly switched me to a new group that day without asking any further questions. “Y’all come back now if you run into any trouble,” she said.
As I went out with other reservists, I realized how representative my first day’s experience was. Other teams operated differently, but not better. Some days we accomplished more of our tasks, which primarily consisted of visiting schools and asking for the number of students, percent affected by Sandy and languages spoken. We grew more efficient and started collecting information for multiple schools at the office of the superintendent, but nothing ever happened with the information. We were consistently sent to areas that had no damage. No one I worked with knew exactly why we needed this info, just that our paycheck depended on turning in numbers. Sometimes we added extra info about damage to buildings or other concerns people shared with us, but I saw a supervisor deleting all the excess information.
“Shouldn’t that be in the report too?” I asked.
“Naw, headquarters doesn’t want any of this,” he said.
We all understood the application for assistance process – which was confusing to many survivors – and, usually by chance, we were able to explain things to people and point them in the right direction. To their credit, most coworkers were patient, friendly and tried to share the best information when school secretaries or restaurant waitresses saw our FEMA jackets and asked questions. Little moments such as these were encouraging, but also rare. Each day my frustration grew, but I was not sure what to do.
Rose helped organize an event with the Mexican consulate targeting the Latino community wary of working with government. I went as a Spanish translator. “This is exactly what I signed up to do,” I told Rose afterward. But she wasn’t smiling. She told me that upper management thought she was not “staying in her lane.” She abruptly left the next week, and soon after, the language group was dissolved and I was reassigned to the Rockaways.
Perhaps in every job employees will misuse time, cut corners and generally take advantage, but I wanted so badly for FEMA to be better than that – not worse. This was not a typical job; we were not in the business of making money; our task was to help disaster survivors recover, and that must be held to a different standard.
For a few weeks, I tried to push back in small ways. I befriended Scott,* a liaison to volunteer organizations, and told him of my experience and motivation to organize projects to aid immigrants. When we drove somewhere to canvass, I exited the auto quickly hoping this would dissuade the supervisor and the rest of the team from idling in the warm car wasting time, and I intentionally did not join them in delis or restaurants for our long, on-the-clock, breakfasts. But all this only made me cold, hungry and tired of faking friendship.
I also wondered how much I could push without consequence. The only person I saw break the mold was Rose, and she was gone. Another local hire, Joseph,* age 25, told Truthout, “My first day I was told by my supervisor that if I criticized anything, I would be fired.”
Each morning while we lingered in the employee lounge, the local hires shared a general disillusion without being too specific. We kept quiet about the details because we knew that we were supposed to “stay in our lane,” but also because there was a feeling we were getting away with something – and we liked it.
We bragged to each other about the perks. Someone would share, “I was home at 4 yesterday.” Only to be topped by a smiling coworker, “Well, I got home at 2.”
We were paid to work until 6:30 PM.
I still wanted to do more, but was starting to enjoy the early days.
In the Rockaways, a reservist with Individual Assistance, who had multiple tours under his belt told me, “If you stay here long enough you’ll get it, this is an art: The art of wasting time.” We were on our way to lunch, driving past dozens of restaurants, choosing one at random a half-hour outside of our area.
The reservists had a good salary and impressive perks. Many of them stayed in $200 a night hotels in Manhattan, for at least a portion of their deployments, passing up cheaper and closer hotels for the novelty of sleeping amid the skyscrapers. They also received generous stipends, such as the $70 a day for food automatically added to their paychecks. The good salary, overtime and stipends only lasted as long as their deployments. “I’m not trying to work myself out of a job!” became the mantra of Kendra, one of my supervisors in the Rockaways.
When we did work, it was slow and inefficient. On four consecutive days, we asked businesses if we could drop off flyers at some point in the future. There never were any flyers, and we never returned, but having “made contact” with so many businesses looked good on the reports. Joseph told Truthout, “I was expecting to help people get services they needed, but for 80 percent of the time, I was sitting in a car driving around looking for things that would seem useful on our report.”
For weeks, we rode around doing followups with applicants, oftentimes with two or three carloads of people. Two people would go inside to try and give advice; six or eight of us sat in the car playing on our smart phones. Higher-level reservists not only knew we were dragging our feet; they encouraged it. We saw them openly browsing Facebook in the office and during our long lunches at restaurants far outside our zone.
“Don’t work too hard,” they would say with a laugh.
“You neither,” we would respond, sharing the joke.
Dissent started to seem like a pointless exercise. When a coworker complained about the long lunches, he was taken off the team by upper management – and our lunches became longer. If we worked ourselves out of a job, the managers would have no one to supervise, and they didn’t want to go home either.
In late February, some neighborhoods still looked like disaster zones. White plastic pipes ferrying raw sewage ran along sidewalks, dipping into cracked concrete to go under roads – the permanent system was still in disrepair from the storm. Battered boats washed up during the surge still sat awkwardly, stranded on top of sidewalks and side streets along the bay. Half the houses were vacant or abandoned, and moldy debris from gutted ground floors piled on the curbside.
One man that we kept returning to, Raul, had spent the winter in his home without heat, hot water or electricity. In his late-30s and sharing the house with two brothers, Raul somehow always seemed cheerful. He had a broken front tooth, wore two or three heavy winter jackets over his skinny frame and looked much bigger than he was. “If I leave, the looters might come back; but you get used to the cold,” he told me. Our breath froze in the air inside his house and everything reeked of gasoline from a generator he used sparingly. A sinkhole had opened in Raul’s basement during the storm, and insurance complications prevented us from doing much for him.
A few blocks from Raul, behind snow-laced debris, was the charred shell of a two-story house. The burned home was boarded up, but a neighbor in work gloves and goggles, heaping the water-damaged walls of his own house in piles on the curbside told us, “The family only moved back a couple of weeks ago, and they were heating the bedrooms with electrical heaters. But the heaters have all sorts of problems, and [one] started a fire in the little boy’s bedroom; everyone else got out all right, but the boy was killed.”
“I’m sorry to hear. . .” I began, but the neighbor, a middle-aged man with a five day-old beard, who looked like he could have been a linebacker in a former life, cut me off.
“I have the same heater in my own house.” He swept his hand across the block. “We all do. I haven’t gotten any money from insurance, and FEMA hasn’t helped me either. We all have the same heater ’cause it is the cheapest one, but it’s a fire hazard. Why can’t FEMA do something about this?”
He wasn’t angry with me, and I explained FEMA must wait for insurance claims to be settled before giving grants or loans, but he had heard it all before. He grumbled something below his breath and went back inside for another load of debris. The little boy killed in the house fire is not counted among the 285 official deaths from Super Storm Sandy.
I considered quitting early on. This was not what I wanted to do, I thought. I asked a friend at the UN to send me new job postings, but I had already officially separated from the organization, and my options were limited. I decided to stay with FEMA for the time being. When I applied, I thought it would be different; when I decided to stay, I knew exactly what it would be.
I’m not sure what happened to the woman who took a furlough or the man who stayed up nights in his church, they may have quit, but most local hires, though disappointed at first, stayed and adapted. This can still be a learning experience, I thought. I need this paycheck, I rationalized.
I still wanted to help, but I stopped trying to change things. The more I embraced the dominant work culture, the easier my days became. I woke up later, got home earlier and stayed in the warm car laughing at everyone’s jokes rather than rushing into the cold alone. I started eating long breakfasts.
It will take years for the Rockaways to fully recover, but by March there was little need for such a large staff, and everyone knew it. At that point, most of us were just coming in to collect a paycheck – we were still clocking 60 hours. “I’m hoping we make it until April,” I said, but along with the majority of the Rockaway staff, I was let go at the end of March.
I was relieved. Sure, I said I wanted to work longer, but I could feel myself slipping away. I accepted the job because I thought I could help, and sometimes I did. And sometimes FEMA did too. But with each day it became less about helping others and more about helping myself.
It’s not hard to do the math; when we chose to drag our feet to extend our jobs, we knew it was at the expense of the people we had signed up to help.
A core of permanent employees, determined to improve FEMA, has organized into a union (AFGE local 4060) and written a comprehensive report titled “Shattering the Illusion of FEMA’s Progress: 10 Recommendations for Rebuilding a Broken Agency.” An excerpt:
“FEMA continues to experience a long-term trend toward hiring and promotion practices favoring individuals whose job qualifications – and often whose ethics – are highly questionable. This trend began in 2001, increased in speed after Hurricane Katrina, and moved into high gear after the November 2008 election. As a result, FEMA has become top-heavy with less-than-qualified leaders, and well-intentioned FEMA staff who try to manage agency programs effectively (and legally) tend to be continuously frustrated in their efforts.”
Deryl Miles, 39, a reservist from South Dakota with FEMA since 2005, left the organization after a six-month deployment to New Jersey for Sandy recovery, which he described as “a disaster within the disaster.” He told Truthout, “[FEMA] has institutionalized the concept of failure to accept responsibility, deflect blame and outright lie.” Deryl has started an online petition and told Truthout he would “support Congress abolishing the agency and returning it to the civil defense model under the Department of Defense.” Joseph describes FEMA as “a broken machine that needs to be trashed so a new one can be created.”
Internal efforts such as local AFGE 4060 are important, but it’s also important that the public has a more accurate knowledge of the inside of FEMA. I now know the outside perception is wrong: FEMA is worse. The organization I worked for was willfully inefficient, intentionally slow and encouraged the worst traits of the staff. A dark culture has grown behind closed doors; it’s time to open them.
* Name changed at request of interviewee for protection from retaliation.
This was first published at Truthout.