FEMA Needs a New Approach to Disaster Relief

The federal agency is too bureaucratic to be effective in their disaster relief efforts.

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A flooded house with water covering the main floor deck from a swollen river after a severe rainstorm. The water level is nearly six feet and there will be significant damage to the home’s basement, kitchen and living room.
A flooded house with water covering the main floor deck from a swollen river after a severe rainstorm. The water level is nearly six feet and there will be significant damage to the home’s basement, kitchen and living room.

John H. Vogel Jr. is an adjunct professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. John Schultz is a Moretown Homeowner.

Like many towns in Vermont, Moretown was devastated when almost a foot of rain and torrents of water from the Green Mountains turned Main Street and many backyards into lakes, flooding houses with water and toxic mud. A year later, this town of 650 households has made a remarkable comeback. Virtually every family is back in their home.

The story of how this town recovered in the wake of the worst flooding in 83 years—which washed out hundreds of roads and bridges—is mostly a positive story about Vermonters at their best. It is also the story about the different kinds of help these Vermonters received.

The day after the storm hundreds of volunteers came to Moretown to clean out basements, pull up floorboards, and deal with everything that had been soaked and damaged. Many continued to come during the following weeks and months, some quite regularly. The selectmen, the volunteer fire department, and an informal group of local folks were all over town, making sure that every home had plenty of volunteers and that the volunteers had masks, cleaning supplies, and lunches. In the evening, this informal group provided dinners for the displaced homeowners.

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In the days after the storm, the mud dried out and turned to fine powder. The fire department set up signage telling traffic to slow down and regularly hosed down the road to control the dust. They also used their hoses and pumps to flush mud out of people's basements.

Many local businesses volunteered equipment. Small front end loaders cruised up and down the streets, picking up piles of rubbish and carting them off. Individuals, restaurants, and stores donated food and clothing. Neighbors shared their shop-vacs, tarps, power-washers, and other tools.

Two examples give a sense of what was happening during the first few weeks. Allen Lumber provided deeply discounted wood and other materials. When the manager learned which house we were working on, he told us that his wife was also volunteering there, and further discounted the lumber. Lenny's, a local shoe and clothing store, arranged a remarkable deal with Carhartt so that all the flood victims received a gift of three pairs of jeans, three pairs of workgloves, and a warm jacket. 

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As we reflect back on it, what is most amazing is how well the whole disaster relief effort functioned during the first few days and weeks. Homeowners and volunteers cleaned out homes, removed refuse, and made great progress. None of the firemen or townspeople had training in disaster relief, especially at this scale. Yet hundreds of volunteers were put to work and everyone felt useful and appreciated. We all feared that mold and other long-term problems might overwhelm the homeowners, but critical information about dealing with these issues circulated rapidly through the town.

In contrast to this informal, unstructured, goal-oriented approach, FEMA arrived with a more formal structure and approach. Many FEMA workers had extensive knowledge and experience, but seemed limited in what they were allowed to do. In the middle of cleaning out a basement, a FEMA worker would suddenly appear with a request that people stop and fill out forms. One crusty old Vietnam vet explained to a FEMA worker, "You've never been in a war zone. This is a battlefield and your paperwork will not be helpful at this time." Ultimately, the town's volunteer zoning administrator stepped in, filled out all the forms and then went house to house making sure she had done the forms correctly, so the homeowners could sign them.

Worst of all, local homeowners struggling to make their houses habitable were suddenly told by FEMA workers that they would have to raise the first floor of their houses five to six feet, move all their equipment out of the basements, fill the basements with sand, and dig a perimeter drain around their homes—almost all at the homeowners expense. In the end, common sense prevailed and FEMA relented on this requirement, but not before serious damage was done to their relationship with the homeowners.

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In some cases, FEMA acted efficiently. All displaced homeowners were given funds to cover lodging expenses. Some needier homeowners received additional funds without undue paperwork. Even in this core function, however, the volunteers outperformed FEMA. A group of locals created "The Mad River Valley Community Fund", collected donations from individuals and businesses and dispersed several times more money to the homeowners, with even less paperwork.

Although FEMA provided some help, the troubling question remains: Why was the most knowledgeable actor on the scene the least helpful? In looking for an explanation, we went back to the FEMA mission statement which reads:

FEMA's mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards.

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"Improve, prepare, and mitigate" are mixed right in there with "respond and recover." At times, it felt to the people in Moretown like the FEMA workers were not on the same page. The volunteers, the town, the state, the insurance companies, and even FEMA's independent subcontractors were focused solely on "respond and recover."

The "improve, prepare and mitigate" portion of FEMA's mission seemed to get in the way of the "respond and recover" portion. For example, FEMA required already overwhelmed town officials to keep track of volunteer hours. Telling the homeowners that they would have to pay for the "improve, prepare and mitigate" portion felt, as one homeowner put it, like "kicking us while we were down."

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We do not blame the individuals who work for FEMA. Most are knowledgeable and dedicated. After a natural disaster, we need the expertise and resources of the federal government. What needs to change is a system of rules and incentives that turns FEMA workers into paper pushers instead of heroes.

The contrast between the volunteers, homeowners, firemen, and local officials who performed remarkable feats when faced with overwhelming challenges and the paperwork-oriented FEMA workers makes one wonder about the federal government's approach to disaster relief. With different incentives, all the pieces were in place in Moretown for FEMA to turn the Irene recovery into a barn raising on an epic scale.

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