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.

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