Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Debunking FEMA Corps Conspiracy Theories

Editor's Note: This is Andy Tisdel, proprietor of Tisdel's Tirades, talking. This post may or may not reflect the opinions of a majority of FEMA Corps Team Summit 5; it is nothing more or less than an ordinary blog post.

You would think that a group of dedicated, motivated young people signing up to serve their country for ten months, working in disaster zones and helping individuals and communities get back on their feet, would be immune from the panting fever-dreams of conspiracy theorists in the dregs of American political thought. If you thought that, well, you'd be what we in the Corps like to call an 'optimist'. It's far from a mainstream opinion even among the legions of sweating nutjobs that believe in such tripe, but this particular 'article' has been making its way around the Internet since October. It hasn't bothered me, unlike many of my fellow Corps Members--my position is that there will always be crazies, it's just something you live with, so why get worked up about it?--but it occurred to me today that pushing back on this particular conspiracy theory is right in my bailiwick. I've done quite a bit of it on this blog, and it actually pertains to me and mine, which is enough justification in my eyes. 

I'm not going to link to the article directly, because it's not worth the photons. I will link to a post that debunks the claims pretty thoroughly; because that's quite comprehensive, instead of going point-by-point on the article, I'll just offer my perspective as a member of FEMA Corps. Here are the three biggest lunacies that the letter offers up.

The first thing that jumps out at me is the idea that we are all supposed to be highly trained killers, and that millions of rounds of ammunition have supposedly been purchased for our use against Americans. Yeah, no. Like all members of Americorps NCCC, FEMA Corps members aren't allowed to bring firearms onto campus or on spike. No semiautomatic rifles, no hunting pieces, no pistols, no BB guns, no paintball guns. They even frown on us having pocketknives! The most dangerous projectile weapon in my room right now is a battery-operated Nerf gun with three plastic darts in it. Call the goddamn Special Forces. 

 Second big thing: Can these idiots count? They warn of the rise of a Hitler Youth-style FEMA army with "tens of thousands" of members. The official FEMA press release they quote from earlier in the article lists the Corps's maximum size at 1,600, which they must've just somehow missed (har har), but never mind that for the moment. Let's hypothesize about what would happen if there really were tens of thousands of us with guns. What would happen to such an army? The regular U.S. military, which has a total active and reserve force of nearly three million members, would utterly destroy it. A lot of these conspiracy theorists believe that President Obama is plotting to overthrow the government; if he was planning on doing it with an untrained army orders of magnitude smaller than the regular armed forces, he'd be less an evil mastermind and more of a total lunatic. (I know logic only gets you so far with conspiracy theorists, but I can at least give it a try.)

Third and final big thing: This isn't a dig at FEMA. I've had the opportunity to work with a great many FEMA personnel from Atlanta to Connecticut, and a majority of them are good at their jobs and interested in getting things done as quickly as possible. But can you imagine what would happen if FEMA, of all the huge government bureaucracies, tried to take over the country? Seriously? They'd get bogged down in Incident Action Plans and 215 forms and a mountain of other paperwork! I have seen with my own eyes that FEMA could not take over so much as a middle school parking lot without getting into a fight with the local mayor's representative (who was rather an odd duck herself). FEMA could not be farther from the grim, faceless, implacably evil bureaucracy imagined in the email. It just isn't even close to their personality or what they do, except in the paranoid fantasies of sad, lonely people. Don't believe the garbage.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Summit 5 is Back on the Streets (Mostly)!

Well, I guess it couldn't last forever. We members of FEMA Corps, team Summit 5, are VALs no longer; most of us now tramp the slushy streets as members of Community Relations once more. After scouting, contacting and reporting the location of every house for sale, apartment building, nonprofit, hospital, school, synagogue, church and college on the Rockaway Peninsula (Queens) over the last two weeks, we did our job so well--not to brag--that there was no job left to do. Yeah, I'll be honest: that's a big fat bin of braggadocio I'm serving up here. 

I mean, the job was always attached to a time limit; we were VALs for the purposes of doing this one project, following which we were always going to return to our home specialty. Still and all, though, I enjoyed my time as a VAL. Our POCs, Rich and Tony, had our absolute favorite soft-touch management style: point us at a target and say 'Go'. No micromanaging, no meetings, no nonsense, just sit back and watch us work. And the work was fun; we talked to rabbis and pastors and principals and superintendents, got to see the entirety of the peninsula and walk much of it on foot, and do the rest of it from the comfort of the self-heated van (it was cold last week). 

So what are we doing now? Well, most of the crew is out doing more CR work on the peninsula with various crews of FEMA reservists and local hires. I did that yesterday with Mike, J.J., Joaquin, Janelle, Stefanie, Cindy, Jean-Richard and our own Shingirai Gadsden-Sams. All of them are fun people--I spent a lot of time talking to Mike, whose work history includes politics, journalism, history and education--and canvassing with them was fun. Going back to check on whether everyone has power, hot water or unresolved problems with the FEMA process isn't the sexiest of work, but I guess it still needs to get done, so Summit 5 is doing it. I, however, am not (here's where this post drops the team "we"). Together with Malinda today and Tiffany Chu tomorrow, I'm in the division office working on a Special Project!

The project itself doesn't fit into CR, IA or any of the rest of FEMA Corps's pantheon of roles. I'm working in the Operations/Planning branch of the regular FEMA office, trying to answer some or all of the following set of questions, dubbed "master's thesis" by a coworker: "Are the Rockaways recovering? Where do we look to find out? When you put together all the data, what are the obstacles to long-term recovery, and what are the Rockaways' assets? How can FEMA help the process out? And how do we integrate FEMA's Long-Term Recovery branch--whose job it is to answer all those questions--into the ongoing disaster response, and the Neighborhood Task Force Initiative we just started up, that we're doing right now?"

You probably could write a legitimate masters' thesis on most of those, and my team should know (at least Mike has his master's degree, and Joaquin is on the final semester of his). We're still brainstorming how to tackle 'em, which will likely involve getting in contact with every relevant branch of government, canvassing area businesses, pirating the list of charitable and faith-based organizations that we created as VALs and so forth. Today, I basically just read the National Disaster Recovery Framework cover-to-cover (all 116 pages of it) and took notes, along with going over the relevant orders and reports that come out of our office. 

That's most of what there is to tell about Day One in the new gig. My table-mates seem like fun individuals; Chuck, a Reservist from Denver, has a voice like a radio host, and local hire Seth is in the early running for one of the funniest people I've ever met (after asking in vain after Malinda's and my snack food preferences, he exclaimed "You haven't even given me a state of matter to work with"). Co-worker Ray and boss Monica seem like good police (to borrow from The Wire), and the whole office work structure is something I'll get used to again pretty soon. Early reports from the rest of the team about our work structure are mixed--we're split up as a team, each with different CR or office groups, for the first time ever--so we'll see how that turns out. For now, this is what we're doing, although as usual it could change any day. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Asteroid Mining for Fun and Profit

Editor's Note: This is Andy Tisdel, proprietor of Tisdel's Tirades, talking. This post probably has nothing to do with FEMA Corps, and does not reflect the opinions of a majority of FEMA Corps Team Summit 5; it is nothing more or less than an ordinary blog post.

It's official: as of January 22nd, 2013, there are two separate companies with a plan to mine near-Earth asteroids within a decade. The unambiguously named Deep Space Industries wants to "build a fleet of robotic ships to extract resources for fuel and to mine valuable minerals from asteroids" by 2016, while Planetary Resources wants to have a space-based fuel depot by 2020. The stated goals of each company are pretty much the same: scout out profitable near-Earth asteroids, send robots out to take samples and then mine them, ship the resources back to Earth. If you find water, you have hydrogen, and perhaps you can use that to refine fuel for a depot that satellites and NASA vehicles and so forth can use. 

All well and good. But I want to think bigger. 

As pointed out, one cannot simply ship boatloads of valuable minerals back to earth without their prices crashing. Getting enough to make a profit, but not enough to wreck the market, would be really difficult. I'm no economist, but it would seem to me that you'd need a demand commensurate with the supply of what you're getting. Rare earths, gold and platinum will get you the most bang for the cost of shipping it back, but materials that can be used to make spacecraft or fuel--products usable in space--might be the biggest moneymakers.

That's where orbital manufacturing comes in. Way down in the Deep Space Industries article, they mention a "microgravity foundry" 3-D printer that's capable of manufacturing goods in space. That's the real ticket to both a profitable enterprise and an ever-expanding space industry. The biggest problem to putting things in space is the enormous fuel and monetary costs of getting out of Earth's gravity well; you have to resort to stacking your cargo atop a gigantic, expensive rocket, or else piggybacking off a 747. Manufacturing in space--say, solar panels or spacecraft parts--cuts down on the mass you have to lift, which slashes your costs. Now, with sufficiently advanced manufacturing technology, you can make satellite, spacecraft and space station parts and equipment in space, for your clients on the ground. All they have to do is send you the blueprints and pay a fee. If you can bring home sufficient resources, you might even start to turn a profit. 

Orbital manufacturing can't solve every problem, of course. You still need cheap, reliable spaceplanes--ground-to-space delivery craft--for the space tourism industry, and some components will prove difficult or impossible to fabricate in space. Getting a viable, self-sustaining (if incomplete) space-based economy is, however, a major step on the journey of humanity moving further and further into space. 

This post doesn't really have an overriding thesis, but it does bring to mind a few things I've read over the past year or so. There's a school of thought out there that successfully landing on the moon was the worst thing that could happened to NASA; without a huge, sexy, competitive goal to go after, the agency has been withering ever since. There's only so much political capital for an agency like NASA, which fiscal critics who fancy themselves clever could deride as 'throwing money down a black hole', and that places a cap on how much they can do. National governments can only throw so much money at something that doesn't directly benefit their people (although there are plenty of indirect benefits). 

That's where the profit motive comes in. I've been reading a book called Freedom's Forge, a very business-friendly account of how American businessmen overrode a weak, fumbling FDR and his New Dealer henchmen to give America the tools to win World War II. While the book makes no pretense towards being fair to its topic, the picture that does filter through the author's biases is one of the irresistible power exerted by a profit motive. Bottom line: the past sixty years of government-only exploration of space have been slow, halting, costly, full of some brilliant successes but maddeningly ready to waste time and money, or cancel projects halfway through that take years to develop (see: Constellation). The foreseeable future of space exploration will be through private investors, and if there are ways to actually make some money out there, it can only be a good thing for our hoped-for expansion out into space.

Friday, January 25, 2013

A Day of Service- By Summit 5's very own Joe "Cornflake" Light

Editor's Note: Today we're featuring a guest post by, as the title says, Joe "Cornflake" Light, Assistant Team Leader and fellow Media Rep!

    Martin Luther King Jr. Day started like many others for Summit 5, FEMA Corps. We all woke up early, sucked down some complimentary muffins from the hotel, piled into our van and headed out onto the cold streets of New York City. But this morning had a different feeling to it. We were on our way to the Rockaways in Queens to paint a community center and help out with anything else that needed to be done in that particularly hard-hit area.
    Our team was excited to get out and do some good old-fashioned hands-on work, and we couldn't help but act like the chipper young people we are on our ride in. Upon arriving at the community center we were given even more muffins, this time compliments of NYC Service. Score! We were each given a paint brush or roller and were pretty much given free rein for the next few hours of painting.
    We worked in partnership with another FEMA Corps team, for a total of about 20 Corps Members, and the work went quickly with so many capable young people on the scene. By the time we finished painting the two-part room we were assigned, we were all laughing and singing along to somebody's iTunes playlist. Sounds like a pretty uneventful day, doesn't it? Well, that's what I initially thought too. Don't get me wrong, the work we did was incredibly helpful to the community, but I was just perplexed by the thought that us painting a room was considered a way of embodying MLK's visions.
    We finished the painting much faster than had been anticipated, and there was no extra work to be had at the community center, so our team took off for home. It was still early in the day, so we ducked into a small cafe/ice cream shoppe for a quick treat and spent the next hour animatedly chatting at the counter over ice cream. I wandered off from the group to explore the cafe's customer wall of fame and mull over the seemingly uneventful day we had just had.
    While perusing the various signs, pictures and miscellaneous items hanging from the wall and ceiling I was approached by two middle-aged men. They had noticed our gray AmeriCorps hoodies and khaki pants and wanted to know more about us. I spent the next half hour answering questions and telling stories to them as they repeated the same line over and over again. "Wow, that's great. Thanks for what you guys do!"
    I get asked questions about AmeriCorps on a weekly basis and I'm thanked by disaster survivors on an almost daily basis, but these two guys' praise stood out to me for some reason. Yeah, they were charismatic and easy to talk to, but I just couldn't put my finger on the real reason I was so drawn to this conversation. It came time for us to head home and I shook hands with the two gentlemen as they wished our team the best and thanked us profusely for our service.
    On the ride back I was in a fog, split between the pleasure of having an engaging conversation with complete strangers, but still searching for the meaning in our day of service. It took a little bit of abstract "big picture" thinking, but when it hit me, it hit me hard! I was only focusing on the meaning of our individual team's day of service in memory of MLK. In reality, the day is about an entire country, or even an entire planet, teaming up and doing things to better the lives of those around us. It's about putting aside our differences and working together for a common goal, even if only for one day a year.
    Painting one room in a disaster zone that is home to 8.5 million people may seem like a drop in the bucket, but look at the big picture. Think of the thousands of rooms that must have been painted by volunteers on January 21st. Consider the tens of thousands, possibly millions, of other service projects that were completed on MLK day, none of which focused on the size of the project, rather the brotherhood and commitment involved in such an undertaking.
    I was glad to finally understand the meaning of this day of service, and I'm certain it will help me find meaning in even the most mundane tasks in my years to come. So, here's to the legacy of a great man whose vision enabled wonderful voluntary service programs like AmeriCorps. My name is Cornflake, and I approve this message!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Super-Ultra-Extra-Happy Video Promotion Post!

Hey all, 

So last Thursday or so, my Team Leader told me that there was going to be an all-Corps theme video contest, subject: "What does FEMA Corps mean to you?" I, of course, took this as just one more birthday present (I'm 23 now!) and started planning with fellow director Tiffany Chu over the weekend. We planned it on Sunday, shot it on Monday and Tuesday, and I edited (for three and a half hours) and uploaded it to YouTube on Wednesday night. If I do say so myself, it's kinda splendiferous, and definitely worth eight or so minutes of your time. Here it is below. 

All video was shot on location in Vicksburg (MS), Whitestone (NY), The Rockaways (NY), or various places on the road from one to the other. A couple of the pictures were taken in and around the Atlanta metropolitan area. 

I haven't done a video in a long time, so I'm really excited about this one. Hopefully it will not be the last one I shoot in New York, although the team would have to put up with me buzzing around with a camera even more than we already are. That's basically the story, so watch, share and enjoy! We're in the running for a $50 VISA gift card, and I think we've got a decent shot if I say so myself.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reflections on Martin Luther King Day/National Day of Service, 2013

Hours before Summit 5 and Ocean 7 FEMA Corps teams ever arrived at a community center in the Rockaways, New York City, somebody laid down a massive plastic sheet and taped the edges to protect the floor from drops of off-white primer. 

Earlier then that, the various untouchables in the room--electrical outlets, door handles, bathroom signs--got their own coatings of protective tape. Earlier still, dozens of small cardboard boxes were transformed into breakfast kits, each with an orange, a muffin and a carton of orange juice. Orange T-shirts with catchy logos arrived at the center in plastic storage boxes. Cans of paint and primer that could stun a sasquatch arrived on-site, together with shiny black paintbrushes that had never seen paint. Rollers and paint tins were also in evidence and abundance. And somewhere in the distant past, a volunteer service coordinator got an email or a phone call from the Service Learning Initiators of two FEMA Corps teams, asking if we might be able to serve at their site on Martin Luther King Day, 2013.

Yes, we went out and did a hearty chunk of direct service on Monday. Yes, our crew of service members coated a room in primer in record time, and yes, it's a wonderfully reflection-inspiring and creative activity and what have you. But it would be a disservice not to include all the little things that had to happen so we could serve, both to the people who made them happen for us and to the spirit of a service day in and of itself. I would say that's true for any kind of service work, really, or even regular old volunteering. A good, solid admin and log department is what makes it possible for the grunts to go out and do what we're supposed to do, and as seamlessly as things have gone with Summit 5's volunteering stints, it's easy to forget that they very easily could not.

But they did, and it was quite fun. We rolled paint on walls and stood on chairs to reach the bits behind the water pipes, sang songs from Les Misérables and traded funny stories as we worked around the edges of padded pillars and door lintels. Physical service is always a nice change of pace from canvassing, even the targeted organization canvassing that we're doing nowadays, and it was fun to crack wise and get covered in paint and swap outrageous mustaches. Best of all, we got finished in record time, paving the way for celebratory ice cream and a Service Learning reflection back in our hotel rooms. 

There's plenty of deeper meaning to be mined from this day, but at least for my own part, I choose to hold my peace. We took time out from one method of service to perform another, this one deeply historical and patriotic, celebrating an American icon. The day afterwards, we hopped back into the van and cruised through the streets of Hampton Beach, looking for rental properties for disaster survivors to live in. Tomorrow will be the same thing; next week, or two weeks from now, who knows what craziness will be our daily jobs. That's life in the Corps, and it's a life of service in whatever form. Right now, that's enough for me.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Reflection of Nothing

Editor's Note: This is Andy Tisdel, proprietor of Tisdel's Tirades, talking. This post probably has nothing to do with FEMA Corps, and does not reflect the opinions of a majority of FEMA Corps Team Summit 5; it is nothing more or less than an ordinary blog post.

Alienation. Uncertainty. Postmodern. Disconnected. 

These are common words in undergraduate English courses, and I should know. Descriptions of the current phase of English literature--characterized in this case by technology-assisted depersonalization, a search for a deeper meaning that may or may not exist (it usually doesn't), the replaceableness and therefore relative meaninglessness of the human body and human interactions--usually reference one or more of the above. Characters in these sorts of works don't know what they're doing, where they're going or even who they are; they share only a common yearning for some deeper purpose to distract them from the cruel, ugly chaos of technological modernity.

This is the Japanese anime/manga franchise Ghost in the Shell. These are its characters. 

Left to right: Boma, Ishikawa, Batou, Kusanagi, Togusa, Saito, Paz

GOTS deals with many different postmodern, cyberpunk-style issues: the replacement of the body and subsequent alienation of the person involved, the (cynical take on any) search for truth or meaning, the development of artificial intelligence and so forth, but none is more pervasive than the so-called Stand Alone Complex. In this complex, which Wikipedia likens to the idea of second-order simulacra, people commit "copycat" criminal acts in an attempt to emulate "original" criminal acts that have been publicized and glamorized by media attention. One would think that the word "copycat" necessitates an original crime to copy, but no such original behaviors exist; by means of clever fraud, technological manipulation or simply the belief of the masses, a fictional event has been created and then emulated without its original--an image in a hundred mirrors with nothing to reflect. This is the Stand Alone Complex, and it is absolutely fascinating.

I guess I always knew that there was a lot I didn't know about GOTS, and a lot of it began with the Complex. Why did the creators pick copycat crime, a relatively obscure phenomenon, to base their entire show around? They obviously wanted to explore the nature of reality and the validity of copies, but it always felt like there was some deeper story being told, something that an American viewer might not understand. Translation can only capture so many things, and I guess I knew that the issues GOTS was tackling had great relevance to contemporary and historical Japan. Issues like nuclear power, violence in the media, a militaristic culture, the politics of gender and a corrupt government all make appearances in the show's two-season run. Where, and how, did copycat crime fit in?

Now I understand at least a little bit better. Copycat crime is a thing in Japan—a huge, pervasive, horrifying thing. In 1932, according to Curious Events in History*, a pair of Japanese lovers committed suicide by jumping into a volcano. Their story was publicized by the Japanese media as a tragedy of forbidden love. Songs were written about the doomed pair, newspaper articles painted them in glowingly romantic terms, radio dramas resurrected the story**, theater troupes performed plays about them, and one of Japan's first movies--“The Love that Reached Heaven”--featured the suicides. Hundreds of young lovers killed themselves, many taking poison while watching the movie; it “got so bad that usherettes had to patrol the aisles to stop the suicides”, Powell reports. Then people started jumping into volcanoes themselves, and once again the press pumped it up. “Soon tourists were gathering to watch the daily suicides,” says the book’s most horrifying sentence. Film historian Peter B. High tells us that 944 people eventually jumped into the Mount Mihara crater before the craze subsided.

The crater in question, located on a small island 100 km from Tokyo.

 How do you understand something like that? How do you make sense out of it?

The Stand Alone Complex-style crimes described in GOTS cover both suicides and other forms of crime, including a mass suicide that is orchestrated by factions within the Japanese government and several terrorist attacks. Ritual suicide itself has its own long history within Japan--Wikipedia says that the first recorded act of seppuku took place in 1180, and the kamikaze attacks of World War II certainly qualify. Yet based on a cursory reading, these are also copycat crimes. A samurai's killing himself came to be highly ritualized and even desirable to wash away the shame of a defeat, while kamikaze attacks were glorified by the WWII Japanese government as acts of heroism. In both cases, Japanese warriors were supposed to want to end their own lives, and in the case of kamikazes, the lives of others.

Clearly there’s at least some precedent for the kind of copycat behavior that GOTS explores in such depth, and clearly it has some deep cultural resonances that an American viewer, like myself, has to work to understand. It also seems as though the creators were tying this history of copycat suicide, and by extension copycat crime, into the broader postmodern search for meaning and reality. Was that what the creators of Ghost were thinking of when they made their show? I don’t know, but it raises huge questions about the persistence and appearances over time of the copycat theme in Japanese culture. It feels to me like GOTS is saying that all you need is a Complex to inspire copycat behavior (particularly in Japan), that the reality of its existence or not isn't important--although the heroes of GOTS unmask the Complexes for what they are eventually, the general public continues to believe in what the Complexes tell them--and that has deep resonances both in Japanese history and in contemporary postmodern thought and culture.

*Powell, Michael. Curious Events in History. New York: Fall River Press, 2011. Print.  
**High, Peter B. The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years' War, 1931-1945. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. Online. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

We're All VALs Now! (My Apologies to My Aunt.)

Editor's note: this was written on Monday the 14th and posted in the evening of the 15th, and ordinarily I would've changed all the tenses, but the day began at 5:40 AM and is now ending at 11 PM and it's just too much bother, so here is the unfinished product. My sincerest apologia.

Well, I wanted something fresh to write about, and I got it! Here’s the latest news from Lake Woebegone: as of today, Summit 5 is transitioning out of Community Relations and working exclusively as Voluntary Agency Liaisons. We’ll always be CR at heart, but for the foreseeable future—since the role of CR diminishes every day in an ongoing recovery process, as it is supposed to—we will be working with the VAL side of FEMA. My team is so FEMA flexible that we could probably stand on our heads and spell out FEMA with our legs, but changing our position is a new thing even for us.

So what does that entail? As the name might indicate, it’s our job to bring together all the voluntary agencies—faith-based organizations, charities of all stripes, local and larger nonprofits, schools and so forth—people who are willing to donate their time and money towards rebuilding a community, and help organize them into a larger structure that will outlast FEMA’s stay in any particular area. It’s really just a smaller-scale version of what the FEMA role is supposed to be in any given disaster; our job is supposed to be to organize all efforts—local, state, nonprofit, charity, regular folks and what have you—into as efficient a process as possible. And hopefully after FEMA leaves town, as it inevitably must, we’ll leave a process in place whereby different organizations devoted to different sub-tasks (mucking and gutting houses, putting insulation into homes, hauling junk away, etc.) work together to help survivors in as harmonious a way as possible. I guess it’s a credit to the human race that so many people show up at the site of a disaster and try to help in whatever way they can, and it’s characteristic of said race that people trip over each other on the way to help those in need. Our job is to make it run smoothly.

That’s the ideal, of course. We have yet to see how it works in practice; today was devoted to sitting in meanings and learning about FEMA’s new neighborhood-centered approach in our area of Queens, mostly the Rockaways. (Essentially, the idea is to figure out how communities are doing in general—are most people back in their homes? Is the tax base back where it was? Are stores doing as much business as they did pre-disaster?—and figure out, hey, this place is where FEMA needs to send its people, while this place is not.) Recovery is a hard thing to quantify, or so I thought anyway, but it’s the job in this new initiative (which includes more than just VALs, by the way) to do just that. Again, we shall see.

But it looks pretty good to start with. We’ve been armed with plenty of phone numbers and people to call in the event of (insert x specific situation here), and told that our job is to solve peoples’ problems on the spot where possible, so that’s something. I’m still not clear on exactly how much old-school door-to-door canvassing we’ll be doing, or if we’ll be driving out to visit each nonprofit and enlist their aid, or how that’s going to work. There’ll be much more to report soon enough, though; it’s only Monday, and today was consumed by briefings of one sort or another. (News flash—one FEMA Reservist lives in Vicksburg in his off time, about two hundred yards from the Southern Region campus! Apparently, he used to travel around the country to various paper mills as well, so he’s quite familiar with Wisconsin and much of the Midwest as well.)

Until then, life on the Whitestone Expressway rolls on. Food is bought and cooked and eaten, Physical Training is wrangled together (we’re doing it in about eight minutes), games of Settlers of Catan are played (I was inches away from beating Michael of Summit 4 the other day, but lost out to his army of Knights and other dev-cards), little sleep is had and lots of settling-in is being done. We’re not sure when days off will come; as per the new policy, weekends are the best time to talk to people (since everyone is bloody at home during the day) so our off time could be at any time during the week. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Until then, this is Andy of Summit 5, signing off!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Halfway Through, What Have We Learned?

It has been one hundred and fifty-three days, five months exactly, since Americorps NCCC/FEMA Corps Class 19A arrived in Vicksburg, Mississippi on August 13th.

Three weeks into that, I met a bunch of complete and incomplete strangers. Two of them would leave the program less than two months later, but all of them would become--some quickly, some slowly--closer than friends. As much as we joked about it, it quickly became basically true: we were a family. Weird uncles, crazy aunts, teenagers, grandparents, we had everything. We were one tight little nucleus inside our metal-and-plastic shell, a van that we nicknamed Hildegaard.

After a month, we'd left Vicksburg as real, honest-to-God members of NCCC. After six weeks, Anniston, Alabama was fading into the distance as we drove east to Atlanta. After ten weeks, my team and every other FEMA Corps team was heading towards what quickly became the defining event of our term: the impact of Hurricane Sandy. We lived in a ship, the U.S.T.S. Empire State VI, and commuted from there to half-a-dozen flooded towns in Long Island's Nassau County. We registered survivors in shelters, canvassed door-to-door, fought for longer and harder work hours and were rewarded with consistent work. We met President Obama and a host of lesser lights, something none of us will ever forget.

And we helped, albeit in our own roundabout way, hundreds--maybe thousands--of disaster survivors. People with no power, no heat, no water, no car, no home, no idea what to do. We helped the kind and the overwhelmed, the broken and the lame and the elderly and the lost. We helped the ones who cried. We helped the ones who cursed. We turned them into numbers in endless reports, called in their crises to overwhelmed helplines, but I don't think any of us ever lost track of their stories.

Now here we are, back in New York, sitting on the edge of another week of work in another beaten-down borough, walking through another town and putting up fliers to make sure absolutely everyone knows that FEMA is there to help.

There will be challenges in this second half of the year. We won't always be used the way we want to be, which is a diplomatic way to put things. We'll have our fights, and we'll have our frustrations, and we'll crash headlong into issues we never saw coming. That's part of life in a program like this one, especially--as I've said countless times--one that's just getting started.

So what have we learned? I plan on finding that out through repeated interviews with the rest of the team; right now I'd only be guessing, other than the broadly held sentiment "Bureaucracy is frustrating". What have I learned?

Life is hard. Life is the accumulation of everyday events, not the great scripted flourishes that we always imagine, a scatterplot chatterbox of little, niggling things. The little things can eat you up if you let them, and the things in your way can turn you aside if you allow them to—if and only if. If I've learned anything this term, it's that the only thing standing in my way is me. And regardless of whether that's actually true, you have to believe that in order to create, in order to do what you must, and in order to rise above your circumstances. You have to believe in that, because nothing from the outside—not parents, not friends, not motivational posters, nothing can impel you without your consent. It really is on you.

I will take that with me throughout the next five months of my Americorps term. What will you take with you? Share, if you will, in the comments.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

New Year, Same Corps, Slightly Different Bloggerel

Welcome to 2013, everybody. 

I'm sitting in a hallway in a former girls' school in Vicksburg, Mississippi, shamelessly borrowing the official Americorps wi-fi and occasionally playing a video game. It's a nice, relaxing, pleasantly rainy day, five days into the new year. 

I didn't make any New Years' resolutions this year, but I did do a lot of thinking about the way I've been keeping this blog. Usually, I've been sticking to an old-fashioned journalistic idea of how to tell a story: keep the storyteller out of it and focus on the story. I don't know how it feels from the perspective of the reader, but I feel like there's a lot of things I haven't said, a lot of emotions that I haven't been able to get across, because of that focus on keeping myself out of the story that my friends and I are helping to write. That's one reason why I put up relatively few blog posts in December; I felt like I'd said everything there was to say about my work, and I didn't feel like putting more out there about myself. 

In the new year--and more importantly, in our next project round--I'll be doing things a little differently. I should be posting more often, if Internet access allows, with more day-to-day stuff about FEMA Corps life and about our duties. I also want to feature other kinds of media outreach: you can follow my team's Twitter account at @SummitFiveFEMA, and my team and I will be producing videos about Corps life during our second stint in America's biggest city. The first one, about our life on the road, should be filmed this coming week; if all goes well, it'll be up on YouTube inside two.

These changes are partly because I feel I've been neglecting some aspects of Corps life, but also because hey, we're in the same place and doing the same work as we did in late 2012. I have to find some way to keep my blogging fresh. (Also, in addition to FEMA Corps blogs, I'll be posting more of the random digressions that I did a lot of before I was in the Corps. These could be on television trends, on space warfare, on Civil War history, on anything I feel like. If you like 'em, feel free to read 'em; if you're only here for FEMA Corps stuff, I'll put a disclaimer at the top of non-FEMA Corps posts so as to avoid confusion.)

Most importantly, thank you to everyone--friends and family, future Corps Members, parents, colleagues, FEMA personnel, anxious censors and so forth--who's tuned into this little corner of the Internet, whether once or many times, over the past five months. It's always good to know that people are listening, and it's even better when the things I have to say can actually help somebody get a clearer idea of what the Corps is all about. So once again, thank you for reading.