Friday, December 28, 2012

Is There Any Such Thing as Pure Altruism?

I say no. There's always something in it for the giver, even if that something is only satisfaction.

A few months ago, several of my friends and I were sitting around a picnic table in Atlanta, kicking around this very question. Is it possible to perform a truly selfless act of service, or to lead a life of service that is purely altruistic--you don't benefit at all, even emotionally? After thinking it over carefully, and hearing out the opinions of a considerable number of friends over said few months, I can't say that it is. (Since both I and the friends in question are engaged in national and community service work--that is what we do for a living right now--it's more than a merely academic question, like the other day's post was.)

I'll use myself as an example. If you're a first-time reader, I'm a proud member of FEMA Corps, a national and community service/disaster relief organization. When I sent in my application in the fall of 2011, I did it for a lot of reasons. I wanted to serve my country in a way that didn't involve the military, for one. I wanted to get my hands dirty helping others. I wanted to go out there and do righteous work on behalf of those whom I could help, and what's better than helping disaster survivors? But I'm not going to sit on a sanctimonious soapbox and pretend that selfless motivations were my only ones. Hell, I was going to be out of college in seven short months, and I needed a job! I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life as such (still don't, really), so I went looking for a one-year volunteer program. I didn't want money, I didn't need to get paid; I just wanted a chance to go out in the world and do good works while ducking (what I consider to be) adult responsibilities for another year.

I had a whole huge ball of reasons for joining FEMA Corps, some of which were those of the ideal volunteer, and some of which were not. Does that diminish the whole? Does it cheapen my decision to serve? I don't believe it does. And I wager if you doped up every Corps Member in or out of the program on movie-grade truth serum and made them talk, they'd come out with a similarly impure potpourri of motivation. That is completely okay. After all, disaster survivors most likely do not care (unless motivation impacts the quality of the service they receive) about my motivations, nor those of my teammates. They may admire us for what they perceive as our selflessness, but our job is to help them first. Our motivations don't enter into that, at least not the way I see it.

But even beyond that basic truth, I feel as though every act of service has some personal gain or growth or emotional need behind it. Why else is tzedakah, or charity, or zakat a religious obligation in the West? Why does our present tax code include a huge incentive towards charitable giving? There are both external compulsions and internal impulsions towards what Reform Jews call tikkun olam, rebuilding the world, and some of those are inevitably self-serving. The satisfaction I feel after a long day's work. A donor's knowledge that they have contributed towards a good cause, or even the simple knowledge that the cause is better armed and armored thanks to their donation. Pride needn't enter into it. The satisfaction of helping, all by itself, dispels the illusion of altruism; everything else is gravy.

Here's the kicker: serving oneself and serving others are not only complementary, they're bound together in the very core of this Americorps NCCC, this FEMA Corps that we're a part of.We can't help others without enriching ourselves, whether we feel it at the time or not. It's flatly impossible; they're all caught up in one irrepressible tide of motivation and service and satisfaction and good deeds. And hopefully, all of those feelings and desires and that irresistible will to serve are channeled into a place and a time where we can do some good. It's okay to be satisfied, or proud, or happy with what you've accomplished--whatever word you prefer. There's something in it for all of us, and nobody more than the people we help. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

How Not To Kill Everyone Within Range of Your Planet

So I spent a lot of my Christmas Eve afternoon thumbing through the Wikipedia pages on Fermi's Paradox (if there are so many stars and planets out there that could host intelligent life, why haven't we found any yet?) and then thinking about the implications of one particular answer. If it is possible for a civilization to possess a means of accelerating objects to 90% of the speed of light or better (henceforth known as relativistic weaponry), it's quite possible that everyone is hiding out of fear of getting shot first. 

The argument for killing everything in range was originally laid out in the pages of The Killing Star, a 1995 sci-fi novel by by Charles R. Pellegrino and George Zebrowski, and expanded upon in the pages of one of my favorite nerdy sites, Atomic Rockets. The argument is that any spacefaring civilization with the ability to accelerate masses and aim them accurately across hundreds of light-years possesses, basically, a planet-killing gun. You can't see it coming until it's right on top of you (since it's traveling at near lightspeed), you can't block it and you really can't withstand a hit, since the kinetic energy of even a baseball bumped up to near-lightspeed is huge. Accelerating a boulder-size or mountain-size object to near-lightspeed is therefore a game-ending weapon. 

You see the problem. If Alien Species AAA is purely pragmatic and interested in survival, then their best option is to hit us as soon as they learn we exist, because they have to assume we're going to do the same to them if we get the chance. That's the premise of The Killing Star (spoiler alert!) and it's one that I'm trying to find reasons to work around.*

It seems to me that there are basically three strategies for a species in this situation: 

A) Kill other civilizations as soon as they appear. Also, disperse your own civilization throughout as many planets, asteroids, interstellar spacecraft, star systems, etc. as you can, in the hopes that any civilization that does find you won't get all of you.

B) Stay quiet and hope that nobody finds you. Also, disperse.

C) Attempt to communicate with other civilizations and set up an interstellar truce/balance of terror. Especially, disperse.

The Atomic Rockets page discounts strategy C out of hand ("they're aliens! There's no way you can figure out how to communicate with them!") and shoves A and B into a prisoner's dilemma game that attempts to prove the validity of A. While communication would be a huge problem, there are at least common concepts (i.e. the atomic weight of hydrogen, the speed of light, a list of prime numbers à la Contact, some other constant that would hopefully be common in spacefaring civilizations) that we might be able to establish and work from there. Ideally, you only need to be able to transmit the concept of a dead man's switch. 
In my opinion, if you're not going to attack alien civilizations offhand, the next best option is to let them know that you have weapons aimed at their home planet and won't hesitate to fire if you see their projectiles coming. (If something has already been fired and is on its way, well, the electromagnetic wave carrying your warning will ironically cross theirs in mid-space, arriving just enough ahead of their weapons for their leaders to read it and say "Haha! Oops!") I'm a fan of firing warning shots outside their solar system, although there's no guaranteed way to show that it is a warning shot and not a genuine miss or act of war. Perhaps by accelerating a transmitter carrying your message instead of a simple boulder? It's not perfect, but it probably beats the first two...

Option B, hiding and dispersing, essentially hands your species' fate over to Species AAA (for there's no guarantee that they won't find everybody on your various colonies). You may think that staying silent guarantees safety, since even an insanely aggressive Species AAA wouldn't shoot at every planet they could find (it's a big universe). However, that's not guaranteed. This entire scenario only becomes reality if relativistic weaponry is technically possible to build and fire effectively, and it's a safe bet that any Species BBB would've figured out how to exploit the electromagnetic spectrum well before that. Earth is surrounded by an expanding shell of radio and TV transmissions even now, which (at least theoretically) reveals us to anyone that's watching. I'm guessing that most species would have something similar, which puts BBB in the same position that Earth is in in The Killing Star (it's not a good place to be).

So that's not really an option. But Species AAA is in an even worse spot if it wantonly kills Species BBB. If you miss any shots, you're doomed, since the enemy will have seen you miss and can fire back at leisure before you ever know you've missed (the lightspeed limit is a bear sometimes). To pile on top of that, what happens if Species AAA shoots at Species BBB and Species C, D and E all see it? Species AAA probably has its own radio-transmission shell, making them visible, and firing off relativistic projectiles would only attract extra attention (and identify them as a serious threat to whoever saw them). It's even possible that Species PPP has decided to act as a policeman in a certain area of the galaxy, enforcing a no-relativistic-weapons ban among species under its purview. The penalty, of course, would be wiping out the offending planet. 

Meteor Earth Crash Destruction

So what have we established? Namely, that in a world of perfect relativistic killing weapons, there is really no good option to pursue. What you do depends on how paranoid your decision-making class is, how expensive your weapon is to build and fire (in terms of construction and energy used) and how good your communications skills are. Also, a healthy amount of dumb luck.

The good news is that this scenario-of mutually assured interstellar destruction-isn't guaranteed to come to pass. One of the Atomic Rockets users pointed out that relativistic weapons are far from the only method of conducting interstellar war, even in "hard" sci-fi scenarios where you're stuck with this universe's physical laws. And aiming these weapons would be insanely difficult: you would probably be firing across scores of light-years, finding yourself having to account for the motion of the enemy planet (s) in orbit, the motion of their solar system and your solar system, plus the effects of any masses (stars, brown dwarfs, etc.) along the way that might deform your missile's path. Even a tiny course-correction might cause the aggressor species to miss entirely. Such complications, plus the difficulty and expense of constructing a mass accelerator capable of reaching out and touching someone across vast distances, could help prevent this strategy from ever being used.

*(A lot of this stuff is touched upon in the Atomic Rockets page, and I'm trying not to repeat them. Nonetheless, while I didn't lift words or sentences directly from AR, credit for the inspiration of this post and a lot of ideas in it go to them.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Things I Have Learned in FEMA Corps

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

-- Emily Dickinson  (Hat tip: Kevin Seifert)

The motto of Americorps NCCC is, as I've referenced a time or two in this space, "strengthening communities, developing leaders". I interpret the latter part to mean that NCCC is not simply teaching us how to command a group of fellow younglings, or how to build and market an idea, but teaching us how to be better people: at our jobs, at being part of something larger than ourselves, at life. Looking at it this way, every little revelation and every minor lesson becomes part of something bigger, part of your own personal life journey (or whatever the buzzword is these days) that will help you out somewhere down the road. Here are a few of the little things I've learned over the past four months in FEMA Corps. 


-When going on spike, it is impossible to pack "too many" pairs of socks or underwear. 

-The physical limitations imposed by your government-issued red bag (and 15-passenger van) are nothing compared to sheer willpower and determination of the Corps Member in question.

-Having said that, when you live hermit-crab style out of a house on your back, you have to suck it up and leave some stuff at home. Taking little luxuries where you can find them on the road is vastly preferable to cramming knickknacks into your overcrowded backpack.


-Canvassing door-to-door in a disaster-stricken community is a hell of a thing to do every day. The vast, vast majority of people you meet will be either a) indifferent towards you but willing to hear you out, or b) insanely kind, helpful and tolerant (of you), given the circumstances. Other people will be c) a twisted-up ball of anger and sadness and the feeling of being overwhelmed, which is totally fine. It's your job to reach them anyway and at least provide the basic information they need to get through the rebuilding process. 

-Some people, however, do not fall into any of these three categories. They will fling verbal clods of poo at you simply because you are there and they can throw 'em at a stranger without suffering remorse or future consequences. These are what anthropologists call 'jerks', and they are a part of life. 

-Canvassing hundreds of homes that have been inundated by between one and ten feet of floodwater will make you want to never, ever ever buy a home that doesn’t have a seawall that would make Herod the Great proud sitting between it and the deep dark ocean. It will also transform you into a pipe-smoking, mustachioed connoisseur of doorknobs, door-knockers, mailboxes, doorbell sounds and a dozen other totally mundane things that will eventually comprise your entire world.

-The people at the Subway on Atlantic Avenue in Freeport who let your entire team come there to pee twice a day, without hassling you about it or making you buy anything, are the nicest people in the whole entire world.

-Tangentially, there is no worse feeling on Earth than desperately needing to pee, in a residential neighborhood with no bathroom in sight, and finally happening upon a providential synagogue only to find it locked, because it’s 11 AM on a Tuesday and no rabbi in his right mind would be there. This may also lead to a serious crisis of faith, resolved only by the miraculous (and much-delayed, I might add) appearance of a filthy Citgo toilet just four short blocks away. 


-You will not always be able to help everybody all the time, because other things will get in the way. Sometimes these are imposed by the rules and regulations of your organization(s), sometimes by storm-related conditions (i.e. roadblocks, gas shortages), and sometimes because fuck you, that's why (this may also apply to the first two items). This happens. It sucks, but it happens, and it's worth putting up with because the work you do eventually get to do is important and valuable and interesting. There will be lousy bosses and paperwork and inexplicable delays, because those happen everywhere due to vexing imperfections in the human race. I'm not saying that one should blindly accept such things, but it's worth keeping in mind that they are not unique to this particular place and time.

-You have to be willing to accept that you will probably never see the full effect of your own contributions towards a survivor's recovery and well-being. Building a house with your own hands that somebody can move into is gratifying, tangible and absolutely worth doing. Handing them a flier and telling them to register with FEMA for this, that and the other reason is intangible, frequently unfulfilling and just as absolutely worth doing. You have to take that mental step beyond your immediate efforts and recognize that what you're doing has far greater effects than you can see in that moment. (And in that sentence, I realize more clearly than I ever have the reason why Service Learning Initiators are needed, and why service learning is such a thing in Americorps: it's essentially what I just said.)

-Living with a team of fellow Corps Members is tough, because no matter how much you love your team, it's hard when there is no place to be, no one to be with other than with your team. You work together, commute together, cook and eat and clean together, even sleep together (Joe: "It's a small bed and I am one octopus of a Cornflake!"). If you don't get along with somebody, or even if you do almost all the time but not always, it still takes guts to talk to each other and work out your problems. You get to know these people as well as you know anybody, and sometimes--if you're an introvert like I am--you want nothing more than to get away from everybody. It's just something you have to learn to deal with and grow thereby.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Last of New York

"Come, my friends, 'tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset..." -Alfred Tennyson

It's funny, really. After all this work, the things I've seen, the experiences my team has had... I really don't know what to say. 

It's not just the scale of the disaster that overwhelms me and leaves me powerless to express myself. I saw enough of that in Oceanside, Island Park, Freeport, Levittown, Long Beach... everywhere we went, there were flooded houses, wrecked cars, front lawns brown with spilled oil and thirty-foot boats lying cockeyed in the street. And the stories of disaster survivors, how the water went from two inches to five feet in just a few minutes, how it swallowed the road and flowed into their bottom floors? The hassle and expense that follows--the plumber, the electrician, the contractors who'll rip out floors and drywall and Sheetrock slabs, chip up tiles from the floor and hustle bags and bags of flood-drenched keepsakes out to the curb? The FEMA inspector, the insurance company's inspector, the STEP program inspector, the SBA packet to file, the FEMA letter to receive in the mail? Hundreds of thousands of people gingerly, painfully, clawing their way back. I can't count how many times I heard someone say 'I've lived here for forty years, and nothing like this has ever happened here before?' I've lost all track. 

And I'm grateful for the opportunity to help with the recovery effort. I drove here from Atlanta, was put up on the Empire State and given food and clothing on FEMA's dime, and in return I got to be an active part of the massive push--federal dollars, state expertise, local knowledge and good-hearted stubborn rebuilding--towards help and rebuilding. What my team and I did--we went to 3,477 houses, talked to something over 1,200 people, handed out enough fliers to stun a redwood, moved supplies and registered survivors and a dozen other things--changed hundreds, if not thousands, of peoples' lives for the better. And we were only one of 21 teams, which itself--~200 people--was only a small part of the FEMA force, tens of thousands strong, which itself was only a small part of everyone who came in wanting to help...

"...I am become a name; for always roaming with a hungry heart, much have I seen and known..."

All of that is true and good and I'm happy I was here for it. I just don't know what to say about any of it. This space is what I usually use to put things into some kind of order for myself, to make them make sense or to draw some kind of conclusion or lesson from them, but Sandy and my response to Sandy defy easy endings and quick analyses. I don't know if I've really grown from this, or what I've learned, other than "I'm never in my entire life buying a house on the water" or "it is impossible to bring too many socks on spike". I'm struggling to understand what the whole thing means.

And maybe there is no facile, easily digestible meaning. Maybe the meaning is that I should stop being introspective and just learn to take things as they come. Maybe the meaning is that huge, horrible disasters just happen sometimes, and all you can do is help the people who were put in harm's way fight back and rebuild their lives as best you can. Maybe it lies in the complexities of everyday life, the casual impossibilities of keeping your life together and repairing and owning a home and providing for your family when everything is a total fucking shambles around you, and the insane courage and willpower of people who have been doing that every day for six weeks now. Maybe it is nothing that I can say or figure out in this space, something I can only absorb by immersing myself in the recovery effort.

Or maybe I'm thinking too much about it. Maybe what I'm just overlooking, plain and simple, is the fact that I got to do all this, have this incredible experience, with my teammates and my friends. The way we bonded as a team when we begun to canvass in Freeport... the way we got better and better as time went on... the inside jokes, the laughs and frustrations we shared, the conversations we had and all the rest. Maybe it's the New York experience, in all its grime and all its splendor. Maybe it's plans for the future and dreams of the past, demons finally exorcised and memories that keep on coming back. Living one day at a time, cherishing each new experience and moment that comes my way, in this program and in this time that has been allotted for me. The late-night conversations, the stupid fun we had, the friends made and cherished, the feeling of standing in Times Square surrounded by happy people. 

 "And tho' we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." 

Maybe it's all these things and more. 

Maybe that's all you can really say. 

"I do what I do when I do what I do." -Malinda Probst

The soft thump you are hearing, dear reader, is the closing of the first book of the FEMA Corps story. In January, a new one shall begin. Until then, I am at your service.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Don't Be A Dumbass, Corps Members!

Well, that'll teach me to whine about not having good blog fodder

In order: if you've been following or have heard about the FEMA Bore Corps Twitter account, which has thankfully been taken down as of this writing, well... I apologize on behalf of whoever that was. The disclaimer atop their Twitter page made sure to note that their opinions did not reflect those of FEMA, but neglected to add that they certainly do not represent all of FEMA Corps. 

Now: if you were the slow-witted son of a bitch who thought it would be a good idea to set up a throwaway Twitter account and gabble stupid, juvenile garbage at the FEMA administrator and FOX News, what the hell were you thinking? How did antagonizing every single one of your bosses and making the entire Corps look like snarky twits possibly sound like a good idea?

Professionalism may be a concept attached all too tightly to the world of salaried, adult work that we're all heading towards, but it still applies when you're working for the National Civilian Community Corps and with the Department of Homeland Security. It would also matter if you were working at the local ice-cream shoppe. You don't create a scene and embarrass your entire organization (along with yourself) if you're dissatisfied, no matter what the setting. It's mortifying, it's childish, it solves nothing and it's just plain old-fashioned dumb.

This is the part where I would go into how we're supposed to be better than that kind of gibberish, how we were picked to serve as disaster volunteers in the hopes that we could actually do some good, that part of our responsibility as the inaugural FEMA Corps class is gritting our teeth and helping our parent organizations work out the inevitable kinks in the program and so on, but who am I kidding? You knew that already. All the insults I've hurled so far notwithstanding, if you made it this far in the program, surely you had to have understood that what we're doing here is not for just our class, any more than working with survivors is simply an instrument for your own gratification. Tweaking the program so it'll work better in future classes is one of our responsibilities; you knew that. How you could be so myopic as to ignore it in favor of snark is the most disappointing part of the whole stupid affair. If you're that fed up, do the rest of us a favor and quit.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

120 Miles of Toilet Paper and a POD

An average square of toilet paper is something like four inches long. There are 176 squares, or sheets, in a roll (at least the ones I'm dealing with); twelve rolls to a pack, thirty packs to the pallet, and 10 pallets sitting in a semi-trailer where John and I (plus Convoy of Hope) unloaded them earlier today. That comes out to something like 2.5 million inches, which after being divided by 12 (inches to foot) and 5,280 (feet to mile) comes out to an eerily exact forty solid miles of toilet paper. Add in the fact that it was three-ply, and we have 120 miles, roughly the distance between Pittsburgh and Cleveland and the length of a mammoth traffic jam currently underway in Russia. I was standing in the back of the trailer with a twelve-pack of toilet paper (704 feet) flying into my general zip code every 2-5 seconds, having to field it, find a place for it and get ready for the next one in that time. Preternatural reflexes aside, that was a hell of a hardworking half an hour.

The results, which probably go back at least five meters. Note how the toilet paper essentially ate those boxes to the right.

That was the highlight of my day at the Island Park Point Of Distribution, alias POD, where I've worked three of the past five days. Canvassing seems to be winding down: at long last, my team has covered Freeport with STEP (Something Temporary Electric Power? 2/4 ain't bad--Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power) fliers, and the neighboring communities have mostly been papered with the things. With barely a week left in this deployment, CR mooks like myself are beginning to wonder what'll happen if and when we return to this joint, since door-to-door canvassing is generally what we do here. 

Beyond that, life is pretty normal aboard the U.S.T.S. Empire State. Jim-Bob and Shingirai are going on an all-lemon juice and cayenne pepper diet for a week just for the hell of it, various Amerelationships are blossoming and/or dying, the (overpriced) bar up the road is slowly growing sick of our continued presence (though not our money), the new toilet in our room smells exactly like the old toilet, signifying the presence of a dead muskrat (or the aquatic equivalent--say that ten times fast) rotting in the pipes, and I have wi-fi now! The Internet shall once again be mine! 

Like I said, normal life. That's most of why I haven't been writing much lately, and why most of it hasn't been about FEMA Corps business--there simply isn't much new to say. If the blog is supposed to be about chronicling my experiences, it gets repetitive; if it's supposed to be informative for friends, family, potential Corps Members, other peoples' families, etc. it's the same deal. At a certain point, the job is the job is the job. You get some crazy people canvassing, but you get crazy people essentially anywhere; that's not fodder for blogging any more than anything else, not to mention the privacy concerns. 

So that's my current state, I suppose. I feel like a lot of FEMA Corps is in a similar place. We've had a long deployment, seen a lot of things, had our share of happiness and frustration and now it's time to make the long drive back to Vicksburg, and then on 'till morning. It's time to start looking in earnest for next year's job, it's time to get writing in earnest for this year's book, it's time to start living in earnest for this year's experience, and you don't get that on wi-fi in a belowdecks ship's classroom. Time to close the computer and go see what wackiness is going on today.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Stories, Brains, Thought and Memory

Storytelling lives in the spaces between fiction and nonfiction. It peeps out of crevices and sniffs at the air, a blend of history and half-truths and details added in or played up to make things sound better. How many times have you heard a friend tell a story, then heard the same story weeks or months later with details dramatically altered or expanded? It’s part of human nature to embellish our stories, to play up the exciting or funny bits and play down the boring parts. We change the story for our audiences, paring and adding until the story is entirely different from the way things actually happened.

There’s a fascinating parallel with my research on thought and memory. Back in ye olden times of brain research, neurologists thought that long-term memory was fixed, irrevocable and unalterable. Once it had formed, it was there in the brain for good. But recently, as I’ve read and regurgitated, new studies have seemed to say that memory is actually plastic, as subject to retelling and reshaping as any one of our stories. We edit what we saw or knew, unconsciously or consciously, every time we access that memory. “If you take that to the extreme, your memory is only as good as the last time you accessed it,” said one researcher (NOT AN EXACT QUOTE, JUST A “TO THE BEST OF MY RECOLLECTION”).

Eerily similar, no? Stories and memories function the same way, one anecdotally and the other neurologically. Which raises fascinating questions in itself. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of human experience; it’s been around, as far as anyone can determine, for what must have been tens of thousands of years. Oral traditions were what legends were made of, long before the invention of writing. Could it be that our brains are actually hardwired in a storytelling manner? Is it possible that telling stories is, neurologically and practically, a fundamental part of the human experience?

If so—and I hope so—I think that’s absolutely wonderful. It’s fascinating and amazing. It lends now emphasis to the entire world of stories that everybody knows is out there, that everybody experiences but few are lucky enough to grasp more than a small part of. If what I just wrote makes sense, it’s been around since the phrase ‘being human’ meant anything, and that’s a mind-blowing concept.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Spectacle of New York City

The first time I ever met a New Yorker was about two years ago. I was at American University, during my semester-long sabbatical from the College of Wooster. I sat down at a random table one crisp fall morning, chatted up a group of people, and presently was asked where I hailed from. “Wisconsin,” I said. One of the girls, heavily daubed with eyeliner and sporting dyed reddish-black hair, deigned to say “Oh, I’m sorry.” “Oh,” I replied, “You must be from New York!” Needless to say, she was. True story.

That was my first impression of New York City, albeit separated by two years in time and a hundred miles in space from the city itself. Having been here for less than a month , I of course cannot claim any kind of coherent opinion about the city itself, nor its residents (although the vast majority of people I’ve met on the job have been kind, understanding and insanely patient given the circumstances). However, having the other day made it to downtown Manhattan—“the nice part”, as Joe described it—I can claim an opinion on that part from a tourist’s perspective. In brief: whoa.

Times Square is… whoa. I have no idea if being in a massive snowstorm—the only reason we had a day off was because of the impending winter storm, at least to hear our leaders tell it—made it more impressive or less, this being my first time, but it was a hell of a sight. At some point during our visit to a Toys ‘R Us, where roaring robot tyrannosaurs and a ‘life’-size replica of Superman stopping a pickup truck shared space with miniature helicopters and salesmen doing magic tricks, I leaned over and said to my friend Abid, “So this is that ‘future’ I’ve heard so much about”. The place was unbelievably opulent, positively glowing with technology and demanding that visitors open their bank accounts and surrender to the wave of coolness surrounding them.

And that was just one store. Outside in the snowstorm, in the heart of Times Square, advertising reigned supreme. I saw a billboard for The Hobbit, featuring all thirteen dwarves, that could probably have covered the house I grew up in. There were seemingly dozens of gigantic TV screens flashing huge advertisements at my group, and every perfume or clothing brand I’d only vaguely heard of made its presence known at the level of a shout. Everything was flashing neon, shiny and brightly colored. It was impossible to stand there and not be impressed. And when the snow deigned not to splatter into your eyes, it only made the place more impressive.

I imagine this would be a fantastic place to spend the day if I had a capacious bank account (which living in Manhattan apparently requires) that would allow me to see Broadway shows, eat at Tad’s Steak and buy every awesome gizmo in sight. File that away on the things-to-do list for a future life.

For now, I did the tourist thing with a will. My friends and I mugged shamelessly for photos in Grand Central Terminal, walked through Rockefeller Center, ate Greek food from a sidewalk vendor (six dollars for the lamb gyro was a bargain; that was delicious) and just generally lolled around in fantastically expensive-looking places for most of the afternoon. Michella and I got epically lost on the subway shortly thereafter, since we’d both had enough of tramping the sodden streets, but that too is part of the experience (as was the ensuing snowball fight). True story—we made it back to the bus stop at roughly the same time as our compatriots, despite leaving probably an hour and a half earlier.

Like I said, there’s no way to judge New York after one time. I certainly understand the tourist appeal, though. This city is filled with things that have been hyped up in American culture for decades if not a full century or two, and at least so far, they’ve come disturbingly close to living up to all the hype.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A CR Specialist's Handbook

Ask any FEMA Community Relations Specialist what a typical day in CR is like, and they will tell you that there's no such thing as a typical day in CR. While glib and coy, this reply is almost always frustrating to the aspiring CR specialist (such as I was a month ago) who would simply like to know what CR specialists do all day. So in the name of providing information--while maintaining the knowledge that all things change, daily or sooner--here is a working handbook of what CR life has been like for me in the past three weeks or so.

The first thing to get rid of is the assumption that you have a designated role. You do not. Like many parts of the FEMA force structure, CR teams are catch-all do-anything Macgyver mountebanks. You'll be sent to a place and you'll do something that day. I've gone to half-a-dozen shelters to help people get registered with FEMA, answered Individual Assistance questions from a line of thirty irate people, canvassed so many doors I see them in my dreams and been a jack-of-all-trades at a Disaster Recovery Center. Learning to handle whatever's shoved at you is a skill in itself, and it's first among the ones that FEMA asks you to master.

Having said all that, exotic things aside (We met the President!!) most of my job has been canvassing neighborhoods for one thing or another. There are plenty of basic things you require for this--a good attitude, lots of fliers, sturdy shoes, a heart that won't break down and cry at the sight of utter tragedy, bag lunches, etc.--but the most important thing by far is maps. Get a master map from wherever you can. We've been scrounging maps from local Offices of Emergency Management, plus some grateful Providence gave us a map-handbook that covers all of Long Island. A master map allows you to actually make a decent plan of how to cover what streets and stick to it. It also allows you to coordinate with other teams in your area and figure out who's done what and who will do what else, although you will inevitably blunder into someone else's tea party or have them stagger into yours. It happens. Just think of double-covered houses as well and truly aided by FEMA and move on.

You'll also want a good working knowledge of the FEMA Sequence of Delivery, as well as the common pitfalls along that sequence. Here are three big ones that my team and I have found:

-FEMA manages the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which a quick Wikipedia search tells me is essentially government flood insurance (as it says on the tin). Some people think that since they have this insurance, they're also automatically registered with FEMA Disaster Assistance, henceforth FEMA, which is what I help provide. This is not the case. If you have flood insurance through the NFIP, you still need to register separately with FEMA for disaster assistance.

-It is possible to get aid from both flood insurance (government or otherwise) and FEMA. However, FEMA will not provide repair money until the insurance company figures out how much of the damage they're going to cover, because FEMA won't help with something that's already been covered. Unfortunately, that means that everything is on hold until the insurance company gets that paperwork to the homeowner, and that means FEMA will probably send a letter explaining the situation to the homeowner in the meantime. Many homeowners think that's a denial letter, which it is not; it just means that more information is needed before FEMA can help. Homeowners who receive such a letter should send the insurance company's decision (once it arrives) to FEMA through the appeals process.

-Finally, FEMA applicants should get a loan application packet in the mail from the Small Business Administration, with whom FEMA works. It goes without saying that most people don't want to take out a loan if they can help it while they're rebuilding from a disaster, so a lot of packets get ignored or trashed. The problem is that sending in the loan application, whether you want a loan or not, is the only way to get access to some FEMA programs; if SBA denies your application, you'll be put back into the FEMA system. This is part of FEMA's Sequence of Delivery. However, a strong majority of the packets never make it back to the SBA for one reason or another. For best results, fill it out! You don't have to take the loan, even if it's offered to you.

Whoof. Got that out of my system. So a typical day of canvassing for us: arise before 7:30 and be in the van before 8:30 (times fluctuate, usually towards "earlier"). Drive for an hour or so to Nassau County, our ancestral stomping grounds. Get an assignment for one town or another (it's been Freeport for probably a plurality of days), get in there and canvass. My partner John and I average about 2 1/2 streets per day; when not delayed by meetings or conference calls, we can get one full street, sixty or so homes, done before lunch and another right after. After that, on an ideal day, the entire team (three pairs, usually) will go take down a street as a group. If we're lucky, we can get two in before running out of daylight. I'm not sure what the team high is because different people compile the reports every day, but here's a personal best: from 3:00 PM on 11/24 to 3:00 PM on 11/25, John and I knocked out 130 homes and talked to over 40 people.

The reason for the weird times is the daily CR report we have to send in, due at 4 PM daily (that also fluctuates). That has the raw numbers for who we talked to that day: how many houses, how many contacts, how many were registered/unregistered with FEMA, how many have insurance or don't. It also has critical needs information. Let's say an elderly woman's car is busted, she can't walk to the grocery store and she's low on food. In addition to giving her the number for the local Red Cross and other helpful agencies, we'd a) call that information in to a CR specialist at The Mothership (my name for wherever all the people we talk to on the phone sit; I fancy a blimp) and put it in the end-of-the-day report, along with the help we provided. We also write in trends (e.g. 'several houses on Yabbadabbadoo Parkway are waiting impatiently on their FEMA inspectors' arrival) and rumors ('Is FEMA doing a $300 food voucher?' (No we are not!)).

That's the daily life: knocking on doors, bag lunches, maps, peeing in the bathroom at Subway, writing reports, racing the sun to get things done. If I have learned anything from the experience thus far, it would be these three tidbits: 1) NCCC work boots play havoc with my knees, 2) Houses are complicated, and 3) I will never buy a house on the water as long as I live unless it comes with a twenty-foot sea wall. No frakking way.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Thousand Different Doors

 Fancy golden door-knockers, or plain steel with a peephole? Windows in the door, or a solid portal? If there are windows, where shall they be? What sort of mailbox—plain brass or artsy iron designed to look like a backpack? Where did they put the house number? Were the steps recently redone—are they marble, slate, concrete or wood?

Canvassing makes you a connoisseur of the weirdest details.

The routine is almost always the same. Step up to the door and knock. Have you registered with FEMA? Have you heard from an inspector? No, I’m not an inspector—my partner and I aren’t trained for that. Do you have insurance, home and flood? Have you received a Small Business Administration packet in the mail, and have you filled it out? If not, here’s why you should. Do you have any other questions for us while we’re here?

Goodbyes. Leave a flier. Repeat.

We have all kinds of fliers. Blue “Disaster Assistance” fliers with French on the back, “Aide Aux Sinistres”, half-a-dozen colors of Spanish, what must have been five hundred Tagalog “Tulong Sa Kalamidad” fliers, even Hebrew fliers for a majority-Jewish neighborhood. We have special white fliers for the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) program, English on the front and Spanish on the back, neighborhood-specific sheets of emergency numbers. I haven’t had cause to hand those out yet. I’ve handed out a few STEP fliers—a new program that’s supposed to help people who are still without power get back up—since we got them earlier this week. A lot of people are still without power, even at this late date.

You want to hear an interesting story? After the Second World War, millions of soldiers and sailors came home after years overseas, looking to settle down, get married and start a family. In response to their need for housing, Levittown and its fellow towns were born, low-cost, mass-produced houses in America’s first planned suburbs. I read about those in American Society class, my freshman year of high school. The GIs moved in and settled down in Levittown, which happened to be in Nassau County, Long Island, New York—my future stomping grounds.

Fast-forward sixty-five years. Sandy hits. And these Levittown homes have their own unique issues, because they’re still heated by oil, which is kept in a tank attached to the sides of the Levittown homes. The hurricane happens, tanks get punctured, oil flows down into the streets, lawns turn brown and the gutters glisten with rainbow scum. How can you foresee that kind of issue? You can’t. You just have to handle it somehow. That’s part of what disasters are about: helping with the crazy issues that nobody saw coming.

Part of it is the heart-wrenching impersonality of the whole awful edifice, the minute variations in wind or topography or a different power grid that devastated some neighborhoods and left others untouched. I’ve heard people tell me how the water was lapping at their third front step, their fourth step, inches below their door, actually slightly inside the first floor… and came no further. And I’ve seen bags and bags of what we call ‘debris’ outside homes—antique bookcases, washing machines, nice leather couches, rugs, chairs, gewgaws, playthings, dog dishes and ornaments and piles of pink insulation—and been told that this is the sixth such load put out on the curb to be hauled away by great green garbage trucks. People sitting in houses, basements full of mold, waiting for the lights to come back on.

Kalamidad. Sinistres. Ouragan. Calamity. Hurricane. Disaster.

None of those seem to be enough.

Step up to the door and knock. Listen to their stories—amazing, horrible, perseverant, despairing. Ask your questions, get your answers. Listen to the sadness, the frustrations, the hope. Watch them rebuild before your eyes, ripping out diseased Sheetrock, laying timbers and joists and pillars bare, prying up warped floorboards with long iron crowbars. Answer the questions you can, give out phone numbers and addresses for those you can’t, ask for critical needs and call them in as necessary. Receive praise or condemnation as the situation warrants. Make your goodbyes and walk to the next house. Step up to the door—brown oak, broken doorbell, silver mezuzah, speckled band of floodline—and knock. Step up to the door and knock.

Nobody’s home. Leave a flier, Tulong sa Kalamidad, in the door. Walk to the next house with its potted plants still on the porch, Halloween decorations in the windows, scraps of knickknacks littering the lawn where the pile of memories lay. Step up to the door and knock.

Monday, November 19, 2012

I Got To Meet the Real-Life Most Interesting Man/Men In the World

Disclaimer: This post, by now, is about two months old. I wrote it on the day we left Vicksburg, because that was when I happened to have a 20-minute-long chat with the Director of Operations for the Vicksburg campus, he who shall be known as Wade. Because it's so blatantly gushing because I was that amazed, I held off on it for a long time, but I feel like now is a moderately appropriate time for it to finally go up. This was my immediate, post-conversation reaction.

I don’t think I ever truly understood the meaning of the phrase “hit by a freight train” until just now. I just spent the past twenty minutes or so talking to one Wade Williams, our Director of Operations at Vicksburg Campus, and listening to him talk about the places he’d been and the things he’d seen and done. Wade has got to be the most competent person I have ever met, and that is not an exaggeration. He is incredibly experienced, well-traveled, intelligent—despite his denials—and articulate. He talks at the speed of light and my brain is struggling just to keep up. After twenty minutes of conversation, I feel like it’s been an hour’s worth of in-depth talk and I barely said a word—and didn’t care. It was mesmerizing.

Wade is Wade. This twenty-plus-year U.S. Marine Corps veteran retired at 42 and became the DDO at NCCC in 2009. Wade is a bulky six foot two, with short hair that’s graying on the sides and green eyes that don’t look away from yours in conversation. It is impossible to imagine Wade being unsure of himself or hesitant. He taught our driving safety class and made a bone-dry subject hilarious; he has a great command of words and the mien of a born storyteller. The breadth and depth of his knowledge of the Marine Corps, of the mechanics of disaster relief operations, of the minutiae of this campus, of who-knows-how-many-other-subjects seem limitless. And to cap it off, Wade is an Energizer Bunny in human form. Our conversation was the longest I’ve ever seen him stay in one place; he’s constantly crisscrossing the campus. Down six people on his temporary staff, Wade—being Wade—simply does all their jobs himself. Himself. Apparently, he did without eight people for approximately a year and a half, buying everything from key cards to vans--everything the campus needs--by his lonesome. I'm not sure he knows what sleep is.

Wade’s stories are like nothing I’ve ever heard. One minute he’ll be describing the devastation of a Pakistani village where he did earthquake disaster relief in the Marines—bodies broken on the ground, people covered in blood, amputation tents with piles of body parts outside—and the next he’ll be describing how he dealt with petty Pakistani army leaders who were hoarding earthquake relief supplies (literally blowing them away with the rotor wash from huge Chinook helicopters), all in the same raspy Southern monotone. Wade has done disaster relief in Somalia, where he got in midnight gunfights on the streets of Mogadishu. He was there for flooding in Thailand, for volcanic eruptions in the Philippines, for hurricanes in Port-au-Prince, for earthquake relief in Pakistan, and he’s helped build four orphanages around the world. Wade rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Marines, and as an executive officer, he planned countless operations, disaster relief and otherwise, around the world. You know how people always say they need “the guy” to do things for them? Wade is “the guy”. Outside of television, he might be the ultimate “the guy”. 

On multiple occasions, Wade has described himself to me or to a group of Corps Members as “not very smart”. I would put this down to self-effacement, but Wade does not seem like that type; he is gifted with a marvelous brain and a Marine’s bluntness. Asked half-jokingly why he isn’t running his own campus by now, Wade proceeded to explain how Americorps is already staffed largely by ex-military officers—apparently all five campuses have an ex-military Director of Operations—and that the higher-ups want diversity of backgrounds in the upper ranks. He talked about things I’d never even heard of, how Americorps NCCC normally has a requirement for a certain percentage of disadvantaged kids that he works with personally, but that that requirement was waived for FEMA Corps (those people are Wade's currently-missing staff), how Americorps NCCC members, working with Wade’s stock of thirty-five chainsaws (most campuses only have four) cleared all the tornado debris in Tuscaloosa in two days. To say that he’s quick to grasp the significance of new developments would be an understatement; he effortlessly shifts between conversations and develops contingency plans on the spot. And they work. I’m really not sure there’s anything he can’t do.

The reason why I felt this is appropriate to post now is that I'm currently privileged to work with a team of Air Marshals, who are part of FEMA's "surge force" out of the Transportation Security Administration. The marshals couldn't be nicer to us; they've bought us lunch two days in a row, they've been working closely with us as far as locations for canvassing and getting us organized, and they're generally very easy to talk to. (Brad, the team leader, has the dry wit of a Louis C.K.) But apparently they're also mysterious badasses from the land beyond time. They travel all over the world hunting "bad guys"--drug traffickers, child pornographers, terrorists--and basically functioning as the U.S's most versatile and persistent law enforcement officials. They're supremely good at whatever they do, and they remind me quite a bit of Wade. They're the people who make politicians look good, the guys who make it--whatever it is--happen. One wonders if any government can function without its share of Wades.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

I Just Met the Freaking President

I just met the President of the United States.

Yeah, that high isn’t going away for a while.

Out of all 21 FEMA Corps teams in New York and all 42 responding to Sandy, out of the thousands of emergency responders and volunteers and FEMA Reservists and staff, somehow Summit Five found its way into a receiving line for the 44th U.S. President as he visited a Disaster Recovery Center on Staten Island this morning.

The funny thing was, we didn't even really find out we were going until this morning. Three days ago, Unit Leader Brendan was running around at dinner like his hair was on fire, tearing around the mess deck asking for Summit Five's birthdates and social security numbers. No explanation was given. Naturally, everyone went nuts wondering what it was all about, and most of us--knowing that the President was visiting New York on Thursday, and knowing that no other team had been asked for their info--jumped straight to “oh my God, we're going to meet Obama!” I tried to stay realistic about it, which was difficult because my friend and bunkmate Joe went stir-crazy wondering if it was indeed the President. For three days we had almost no word. Last night, Brendan told us to meet him in the mess deck at 7 AM, dressed normally. That was it. Everyone, of course, went nuts again. And this morning, dressed in overcoat, khakis and comfy running shoes, I finally learned that we were in fact going to be there for Obama’s visit.
From there, it was a blur. We drove out to Staten Island and were shown around the Disaster Recovery Center there. A FEMA Congressional Affairs man named Dana and a pair of White House staffers showed us where we'd stand and told us precisely where the President would be, when he'd come out and what we should expect. We threw anecdotes and jokes and terrible puns back and forth, grinning like loons and waiting for Obama in a rush of excitement and adrenaline and affected calm. The whole thing blurs together in my mind, so I'm going to try and knock out some of the most important bits in this post. Here goes nothing...

There was an immense flock of geese wandering around the area. I swear there were at least two hundred birds, and I was having nightmares of them flying over and pooping on the President while we were shaking hands. They did fly over right before he came out of a tent and most of the press corps ducked. Nobody got hit, but a few geese bombarded the area about ten feet to my right. As fate would have it, a Secret Service agent shortly walked over there and stepped on two separate goose turds, one right after the other. I tried to warn her, but it was too late.

We waited in the receiving line for what felt like decades before the President, all broad grin and bluish windbreaker and hiking shoes, strode out of the big white tent to our right. A small army of telephoto lenses, set up in the last minute or two, clicked and clattered like magpies as he walked over to us. I was second in line to be greeted, and it sounds stupid, but one second Joe was getting thumped on the shoulder and the next second Barack Hussein Obama was right there in front of me, shaking my hand. I've never felt so overpowered in my life. He just radiated charisma and easy confidence. He asked my name, where I was from, thanked me for choosing to serve in FEMA Corps and moved on to Katrina next door. I am honestly not sure what he or I said; it could very well have been in Tagalog and I wouldn't really know.

Fun fact: Joe is from Iowa, I'm a Wisconsinite and Katrina is a true-blue Ohioan, and the President noticed. The first thing he said to Katrina after finding out her home was “Oh, you’re all from battleground states!” I gamely offered back “That’s why you picked us, right?” but I don’t think he heard. Shingarai broke down crying when the President went up to her, and instead of doing a spiel at that point, he just went in for a hug instead. Chelsea was next to him in line, and when he got to her, she asked—bright-eyed and puppydog-hopeful—“Can I get a hug too?” He happily obliged.

After everyone had gotten their individual moments with him, Obama walked back to the center of our little semicircle and told us how glad he was to see us signing up for this program and doing the work we were doing; he said that it spoke well not just of what we were doing now, but the good we had a chance to do in the future. My clearest visual memories of the President will be him standing and speaking in the center of all of us, pausing--those famous pauses--to look down at his hand, and then looking back up and delivering his next line. I had a strong sense of TV-aided deja vu; he had the same diction, the same pauses to gather his thoughts, the same famous tone from the speeches I'd seen.

Obama was the highlight, but we met other dignitaries as well. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan was there, and he spoke to us briefly. (I missed him the first time around—was busy writing a note—but I managed to catch up with him later on.) Secretary Neapolitano was there as well, and we got a round of questions and thanks from Mayor Bloomberg. Away from the group, I got to grill the New York Federal Coordinating Officer and chat at length with Dana. Apparently the latter owns two graduate degrees (International Relation and Public Administration), has worked for the Peace Corps and interned at the White House, and spent the past 12 years on and off with FEMA. I marvelled at his career, and he told me that he hadn't planned for it to go that way. He said it was about just rolling with the opportunities you were given and enjoying the ride.

Speaking of which, I also randomly got interviewed by Reuters. Here’s how it went: I was among the first out of the van when we arrived, but remembered too late that there was a no-cameras rule and I had one hiding in my pants pocket. So I went back, threw that in the van, shut the doors and went after my teammates, now the last in a straggling line. A man walking the other way spotted me and asked who I was with, so I explained the program, thinking he was just a random survivor. He said “I’m a journalist with Reuters,” and our conversation mushroomed into an interview about FEMA Corps and how in the world I'd ended up here. He said it might be used in a story, so I’ll post the link if that ends up happening. It was so cool, though. I wasn’t flustered, gave clear answers and generally carried it off just the way I wanted. I’m glad to know I can do that off the cuff.

File that under "Just another day in FEMA Corps". It sounds like a canned spiel, but it really is true: this program can take you to places you never imagined, doing things you didn't believe you were capable of doing, having experiences that you'll never forget. Who else gets to work with disaster survivors on a daily basis? Who else lives on a ship, works seven days a week and loves every minute of it? In how many other jobs do you get to meet the President when he stops by to see a disaster, and be personally congratulated by him for the work you and your compatriots are doing? My team and I owe W. Craig Fugate a big, fat bouquet for even being allowed to come here. As I told the assembled Vicksburg class the other night, this truly is a privilege.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Prove It

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win..." -John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1962

I've been thinking about this quote a lot lately, but never more often or more intently than tonight. I met the deputy administrator of FEMA for the third time tonight, this time at an all-Corps community meeting in which he gave a short speech and then listened to our questions. And for what seemed like the thousandth time, the air was filled with complaints about the work (or lack of work) we're doing, the way we're treated by the FEMA general staff, et cetera ad nauseum. I've done my share of bitching, ask anyone, but I was quite surprised to hear variations on the same old stories coming up again. My team has been blessed with a command staff that, for the last few days, has pointed us at a target and said "Go" and left us to figure out the hows and whys for ourselves. And it's been grand. You know things are good when your team isn't talking about how bad or good they're doing, but when everyone is focused on the work because going out and doing your job is just what you're doing nowadays.

Suffice to say, I've been happy with what I've been up to, and it's odd to hear that others aren't in the place we're in. Trouble is, I guess I forgot that not all teams are in our situation, and Corps civilization does have its perennial discontents. Richard Serino already put what I'm feeling very well in one of his responses, and I'm not sure I can do it any better, but here it goes.

"Not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

We chose this program knowing that we were the first. We chose this program knowing, or finding out along the way, that our presence signaled a major change within FEMA and that we would be the new, perhaps mistrusted, kids in an agency full of seasoned veterans. And we've been told time and time again that we are smart, that we're capable, that we're amazing and trustworthy and full of hope for the future. We think we can change the world. We're full of dreams and aspirations and, apparently for some, frustration that we're not being used as well as we think we can be.

To that I have one thing to say.

Prove it.

There will always be people who see us and think we're too young, too naive, too inexperienced to be proper FEMA employees or to represent the agency properly. Sometimes they will be our bosses, sometimes they will be from outside the organization. And we can't expect them to see into our inmost hearts; we can't expect them to look at us and see what we see in the mirror. We have to show them that.

Prove it.

My team has twice now had to carve out its own work and prove what we were capable of, after periods of inactivity because the higher-ups didn't yet trust us. We did. Today, we're working a Nassau County village house by house and door by door, winning over the outside world and impressing our superiors as we go along. And more importantly than either of those, we're doing our jobs well and helping disaster survivors as we go along. That, as Mr. Serino reminded everyone tonight, is by far the priority for everyone.

Other teams can carve out that space as well. Conditions are different for everyone and I know that, but your own initiative is your most powerful weapon for expanding your role. Push for more work. Show what you can do with the assignments you get. If you're not worthy of doing more important things, you won't get to. But if you show your bosses what you can do, and show them you are capable of helping survivors in an efficient and effective manner, they will listen. I have yet to meet a person we couldn't persuade by our actions, not by asking them to watch us, but by being impossible to overlook.

You have to prove it, and I applauded after Mr. Serino said it. We all have to. That's our responsibility as part of FEMA Corps's First Class. "That challenge is one that we are willing to accept, that we are unwilling to postpone, and that we intend to win," Kennedy said. Keep those words close, because that is what we have to--nope, that is what we are going to do. That is what we are already doing. And we'll keep on helping survivors as best we can, because it all comes back to them, the reason why we're here and the heart of everything. That is our challenge and we will meet it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

We're Living on a Freaking Ship

--> One of the fun things about FEMA Corps is the wide variety of housing you get, which swings between moderately normal (hotels, church basements) and the Al Michaels-style You did WHAT? category. My current housing is definitely in the latter. After bouncing through three dorm rooms, an extended-stay motel and the floor of a Connecticut armory, we’ve hit the apex of cool. Welcome to the Corps’s new home by the sea.

Yep. We’re living on a legitimate ship.

Backstory: The ship is a training vessel that we've appropriated as our new home. Able to house 600 people in its four main decks, it’s big enough to be mistaken for a funny-shaped building that decided to go for a swim. The ship is typically used for 45- or 90-day training cruises, but now houses the entirety of Vicksburg’s FEMA Corps contingent.

How the hell did we get here? Because housing was scarce (to put it lightly) in New York City after Sandy hit, FEMA initially put the Corps in a military base in New Jersey, Fort Dix (which, coincidentally enough, is where my Opa (grandfather) got his training when he was drafted into the Army) LINK. The trouble with that was that a) it was a 2-3 hour commute one way, in a b) gas shortage-plagued city, which also happened to be c) blacked out in certain areas due to Sandy, so that my team d) got hopelessly lost in downtown somewhere on the first trip to Jersey and turned it into an e) 5 1/2 hour nightmare drive.

To employ some Gallic understatement, this was not ideal. Apparently the higher-ups realized this, because just a day into our stay at Fort Dix the Corps was yanked into the ship and informed that this was our new semi-permanent domicile. It’s still about an hour’s commute from Summit 5’s work, but the food is nice, the scenery is great and we live on a goddamn SHIP. It’s AWESOME. There are ample toilets and showers, a laundry facility and just-opened game and weight rooms. I have a locker and rack (sailor for ‘bed’) of my very own, the latter of which is racked below two others belonging to teammates. The rack measures about six feet long, two wide and two tall. (If I forget to set my alarm in the morning, the sound of my bunkmate John whacking his head on the ceiling has proven a fairly reliable wakeup call.)

Speaking of slang, it turns out that Battlestar Galactica was pretty much spot-on when it comes to shipboard slang. Yelling “Make a hole!” in a blocked hallway, calling walls “bulkheads” or stairways “ladderwells” are all pretty commonplace here. Left and right are of course “port” and “starboard” (what’s more, the ‘port’ is actually to the ship’s left), we eat on the “mess deck” and descend a modern version of a “gangplank”. The pointy end is the “bow” and the serious part is the “stern”, of course.

So we’re well-provided for, in the food, shelter and travel areas as well as the linguistic one. Phone service is unfortunately impossible belowdecks, since the ship is essentially a huge steel box, and since our team leaders usually communicate with us through Blackberry messages, this is kind of a problem. Traditional NCCC activities—physical training three times a week, Service Learning moments at least once per week, frequent team meetings—have been curtailed both by the ship’s layout and by an unrelenting disaster schedule. I’m writing this on my day off, our first since Maryland and one that only happened due to a winter storm hitting New York City. Incidentally, that’s why my blogs haven’t been posting as often as I’d like, since I need to first have time to write the thing and then beg Internet from a friend with a wireless hot-spot (the ship lacks that as well). All of these are trivial issues, though, because did I mention we’re living on a ship?? We’ll work through ‘em; FEMA Corps always does.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

FEMA Corps Van Names: A Glimpse of Our Culture

If you want to understand the unique NCCC/FEMA Corps culture, look no further than our transportation. The ubiquitous 15-passenger vans, our transportation from Gulf Coast to East Coast and everywhere in between, are pretty much central to the program. They’re also our home away from home away from home; mine, for example, has carried my team from Mississippi to Alabama to Georgia, then up through the Carolinas and Virginias to Maryland, into Pennsylvania and out again and up through New York to Connecticut before doubling back to New York City. Other teams have spent as much or more time in their vans as we have, so I guess it’s only natural that most of us would eventually name ‘em. Last night, I went around and polled members of every team about their van names. Enjoy the results!

Summit One: (No name)

Summit Two: “Petunia”.

Summit Three: (No name, although “CB” was suggested)

Summit Four: “Smokey” or “Smokey the Bear”.

Summit Five: “Hildegard”, or “Hildie” for short.

Summit Six: “The Govvie

Summit Seven: “Funk

Ocean One: “Big Bertha Blue

Ocean Two: “El Fuego

Ocean Three: “Snow White

Ocean Four: “Sandra Ocean the Fourth”, or horribly inappropriately at the moment, “Sandy” for short.

Ocean Five: (No name)

Ocean Six: (No name)

Ocean Seven: “The Mystery Machine”; apparently their team leader resembles Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.

Bayou One: “Big Nasty

Bayou Two: “Big Blue

Bayou Three: “The Mastodon

Bayou Four: “White Noise”, or occasionally “Chuckles”.

Bayou Five: “Vinnie

Bayou Six: (No name, occasionally “The Govvie”)

Bayou Seven: “Betsy

For those scoring at home, that’s 16 out of 21 teams (possibly 17) with a unique van name. I thought female names would dominate, but they only accounted for six (Petunia, Betsy, Hildegard, Big Bertha Blue, Sandy, Snow White). As common were Monster Truck-style dominator names (Funk, El Fuego, Big Nasty, Big Blue, The Mastodon, White Noise). I have to say “The Mastodon”, put to the Corps’s only black van, is still by far my favorite name. However, “Sandra Ocean IV” and “White Noise” aren’t far behind. 

This might sound like a frivolous exercise from an outside perspective. They name their vans? What kind of silliness is that? But I think it’s important to know if you want to understand Corps culture, because it speaks to our playfulness and our excitement about work. When Summit Five climbs into our beloved Hildie and heads out to do actual, legitimate work, we’re excited. We want to be there. We want to serve. We’ll spend eternities in our van to get to a project site, as long as we know we’re going to actually get out and do something good. That enthusiasm and that energy are strong assets to FEMA, if they’re used and used well. That part is out of our hands. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

New York Update No. 2 (11/3)

I don’t think I have ever been moved as much, in as short a period of time, as in my first two hours doing Community Relations work. I am not exaggerating.

We weren’t even supposed to be in the Red Hook neighborhood. On our way to help at a shelter, Summit Five stopped to get coffee and learned—in passing, from an old man tilling his garden—that there were what we call ‘critical needs’ in the Red Hook area: power still out, sanitation not working, gas and generators in short supply. So we trucked over to Red Hook, parked the van on an obliging sidewalk and set out to ascertain the truth of what he’d told us. What we found was unimaginable.

The first place I went was a newly formed volunteer center, Red Hook Recovery, which had a line of people forty or fifty strong stretching out the front door. Katrina and I spoke to the man running it, and it just blew me away. Here were these people, less than a week after Sandy blew through their city, lined up to get masks and gloves so they could help others get the drowned remains of their basements out into the street for pickup. The man—Carlos, I believe—was organizing all that and trying to get people registered for FEMA assistance as well. He pointed us to a place two blocks down the road, so we went down to leave some “How to Register” fliers.

Walking down the street in our blue FEMA windbreakers like Olympic torchbearers, we were stopped every few steps by people who desperately needed help. I will never forget some of those faces or stories—a pair of old women with volunteers carrying a Virgin Mary statue out of their ground floor, a man whose basement apartment had flooded and who now owned only the clothes on his back, a wavy-haired man with tears in his eyes who walked up to me on the street and told me his house had been declared unlivable and he didn’t know what to do. We did what we could for each person, as much as we could do or remember from our training: handed out stacks of yellow fliers, spoke about what benefits they might be eligible for, repeated “1-800-621-3362” until we were blue in the face as well as the clothing. It was gut-wrenching, but we had no time to stop and be sad. The number of people who needed help defied comprehension. 

And yet there were reasons for hope, endlessly, everywhere you looked. The massive group of volunteers was only one. Another woman had opened up her art gallery, equipped with wi-fi, for people to get online and register with FEMA. AT&T had set up a station in Coffey Park for people to come and charge their phones, essential when you’re trying to register. National Guardsmen, NYPD officers and good Samaritans had formed a human chain, unloading 24-packs of water from a pair of National Guard trucks, as a line of thirsty, freezing people waited patiently for their turn. People’s entire lives were sitting on the side of the road, pictures and books and clothing and pressboard, furniture and lamps and ruined electronics. And nearly every house had sump pumps chugging away and volunteers hauling what we have to call ‘debris’ to stay sane out of strangers’ houses. Heart and grit and pure hardworking saintliness were everywhere in that place.

We left fliers at all of those places, passed them out into scores of hungry hands, told people what FEMA did and didn’t, could and couldn’t do. There were some tears and angry looks, but they were far outweighed by just a waterfall of thank-yous—heartfelt, hopeful, accompanied by handshakes and warmth and just pure gratitude. Two hours flew by as Summit 5 scattered all over the neighborhood, then re-formed at the van (a couple of hundred fliers lighter) and wheeled away.

We never did get to the shelter, and maybe we will tomorrow. But I consider that a day as well spent as anything we could’ve been assigned. Today, Summit 5 (Community Relations) functioned exactly the way its creators wanted: we walked the streets as merchants of hope, telling everyone within earshot how to get assistance. We did what we could to put Sandy survivors on the road to recovery.