Thursday, April 27, 2006

Wherefore Art Thou FEMA?

In 1994, Georgia experienced its worst natural disaster in recorded history. Tropical storm Alberto sat for days over the headwaters of the Flint and Ocmulgee rivers dumping two feet of water in less than 24 hours. Macon and Albany were inundated with frothing, raging flood water. In Albany, the river flowed over the banks for miles in all directions wreaking untold havoc on the poorest sections of the city.

Sound familiar?

I was working for the state of Georgia at the time and was part of a second wave of disaster relief crews sent from Atlanta. I will never forget the words of my director as I sat in a room, overnight bags packed, keys in hand. He told us that the disaster center in Albany was "covered like flies" and needed help. We were to immediately leave the room and drive south. Do not stop. Do not detour. Get there as fast as humanly possible, report to the center coordinator and work until they told you to stop. And that's exactly what we did.

Four weeks later, as I left Albany, the flood waters had receded, businesses were beginning to operate and people were going back to work. In short, a city that seemed on the brink of death was breathing on its own.

As I watched the tragedy of Katrina unfold, I could not help but let me mind wander back to 1994. I understand that the tragedy of Albany would never compare to the biblical scale of New Orleans. Still, I could not fathom that no one seemed to be in charge. No one was telling relief workers to get to the sites by any means necessary.

In Albany, I remember that GEMA (Georgia Emergency Management Agency), FEMA and the Red Cross seemed to be everywhere. There was the expected chaos but when desperate people needed desperate answers, someone was there to answer.

Now, I read that the U.S. Senate has determined that FEMA should be abolished and replaced.

As a person with an inherent distrust for large federal agencies, I have always looked at departments like FEMA with a skeptical eye. However, 1994 made me realize that there are some instances where the scope of the problem can only be wrangled by the massive resources of the federal governement. It should never be a crutch, but when nature uses Revelations for a playbook it should be there.

How did this happen? How in 12 short years did this agency turn rotten to the core? Logic would dictate that after 9/11 FEMA would have been made stronger. Instead, it seems to have been gutted.

That's not only sad. It's terribly worrisome.

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