When I was a kid, I used to be all about disasters. Natural, man-made, man-contributed, whatever—if it affected humans, I read about it. I learned about fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, avalanches, tsunamis, floods, famines and plague events. I read about ships and aircraft that sank or crashed or caught afire. The Titanic, the Andrea Doria, the U.S.S Scorpion, the World War II-era ammunition ship that blew up in Halifax harbor, and of course the Cyclops and her sister ships; I learned about them all. Cruise ships that caught on fire, grain elevators that blew themselves to pieces, trainloads of jet fuel that erupted like bombs, airplanes nose-diving into the ground. To this day, I’ll still go on Wikipedia binges about ancient supervolcanoes or the Challenger disaster that last me hours and hours.
I’m not really sure why this is. For whatever reason, I’ve always been intensely interested by and in the stories and photos of disaster events. I was insanely excited when I got the assignment for FEMA Corps, because that meant I would have the opportunity to help fix disasters, not just read about them. But I was stunned even so when I learned that full-fledged recovery from a natural or man-made disaster can take as long as a decade; indeed, seven years after Hurricane Katrina, that some families are living in FEMA disaster trailers to this day and waiting for their homes to be rebuilt.
Maybe it’s because of all that disaster reading I did—the sensationalist accounts of the day the deed went down, of men jumping out of the Hindenburg or rowing away from the Titanic—that the length of disaster cleanup and recovery efforts was so startling to me. The literature—especially children’s versions—tells the story of the disaster itself, but stops when the hurricane leaves or the fire is extinguished. There’s no account of the years of rebuilding, of the legal complexities of getting families resettled in newly refurbished homes or anything else. And because such books tend to focus on the raw numbers—1,200 killed, half a million displaced, 380,000 homes destroyed, etc.—it’s easy to lose track of the human stories behind each disaster.
As I’ve learned more and more about FEMA’s role in disaster recovery, short- and long-term, I’ve only become more astonished at the incredible complexity and difficulty of rebuilding a disaster-stricken community. Bodies must be buried, water and power and sewer services restored, evacuations conducted and shelter found for the newly homeless. Insurance claims must be processed and granted, and government aid from a hundred agencies must be coordinated and focused in the right places. Unsafe buildings must be demolished and new ones erected; historic buildings must be saved when possible. Temporary schools must be set up, or the children relocated to other districts. Hundreds of millions of dollars must be spent wisely, and waste and fraud prevented from occurring. And even if these formidable challenges are met and matched, the real work is still to come.
All of that is just the short-term response, the quantifiable results of a disaster relief effort. The qualifiable or unqualifiable results are even more difficult. The fragile web of interprersonal relationships and community bonds must be allowed to regrow, slowly and haltingly, over time. These are the parent-teacher associations, the YMCAs, the swimming lessons and museum trips and local athletic teams. They are the breast cancer awareness centers, the coffeehouses and bars where people come together to talk and exchange stories, the concerts and outdoor festivals where people dress up in silly clothing and forget about tomorrow. It takes time for everyone to feel safe in their new homes; it takes time for everyone to be safe in their new lives. Businesses, driven underground like perennials, must come back. The community must regrow itself, year by year and layer by layer. It will never be the same as it was before the storm, but every community will—however eventually—get back on its feet again. It is FEMA’s job to give them everything they need to get to where they have to go. And it is our job to help FEMA help these people. I can’t think of a more honorable or worthier task for us to perform. In the past, I’ve concentrated all of my energies on understanding the disaster itself, figuring out the intricate mechanics of the problem. Now, as a FEMA Corps member, I’m all about the solutions--and it feels good.