Thursday, May 23, 2013

Vicksburg's Last Round is Done

Our last round is over.

Although there are currently no aggregate numbers for the amount of work we did at the NPSC, I do have my own totals. In approximately four weeks, or around seventeen days of work, I did the following:

-Made 340 calls to people identified by FEMA algorithms as having passed a certain threshold of assistance from FEMA, inquiring if they by any chance needed long-term rental assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. I divided them later on into “calls” and “extra”, with “extra” being multiple calls to different numbers for the same people (since accounts frequently had two or three numbers in them), but sadly my numbers in the first two weeks were for different purposes and I did not record that particular stat.
-Spoke with 130 people, comprising just about every Sandy-related situation imaginable. Some were still in apartments or somebody’s basement or someone else’s second home and would be for months to come, and who gladly accepted an offer of long-term help. Some were long since back in their homes and needed no aid. Many seniors and grandparents were staying with their children without rent, and thus had no need for our assistance. Others had maybe a month to go before they were back in the home; most of these were covered by regular FEMA rental assistance, who struck the database in a great wave in mid-May and recertified just about everybody I found for a few days, rendering my program somewhat obsolete.
-In all those hundred and thirty, there existed 37 people who needed what FEMA had to offer. I asked about their renting situation, the name, number and address of their landlord, what their plan was, how long it would take, referred them to a caseworker and set up a time for an appointment with them.
-After this came the twenty-two DHAP calculators that I completed. The calculator is a beastly, nasty piece of software that was forever developing new warts or asking for documents that simply were not in the records, occasioning a great deal of muttered cursing. These were meant to calculate the applicant’s income and total housing costs, to see what they could pay on their own and what HUD would have to chip in to keep them afloat.
-Forty-one cases I placed in the incomplete file, either through the natural progression of each case while the DHAP calculator was done, or from want of needed documents or somebody at the JFO putting in a case that clearly wasn’t needed. All of these were duly completed, solved or removed as they deserved. 
-Finally, I marked eighty-eight cases ineligible. These were people who had been swept up by the FEMA algorithms based on their having received $20,000 in assistance or more, and who manifestly did not need the help; many of them, in fact, had gotten back into their homes in November and December. It was sometimes the work of a moment, sometimes much longer, to puzzle through the documents and the signs and the tells in their file and figure out what each person’s deal was. If there was any doubt about whether they were back in the home or not (maddeningly enough, the official JFO Case Review in all its might and glory does not trouble itself to ask that question except by accident, and so the majority of reviews do not include this essential fact), a simple remedy was a quick phone call.

So passed my time at the National Processing Service Center. It was full of minor problems that I learned how to surmount; communications foul-ups, unclear instructions, calculator issues, JFO skullduggery, arcane casework and the like. I felt quite good about myself by the end of it; with a month’s on-the-job experience, I had gotten pretty decent at this whole call-out business. hopefully that’s a skill, or bit of experience or what have you, that will transfer to whatever job I end up with next.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

FEMA Corps Is Going To Be Okay.


Today, my team and several others, from both Vicksburg and Vinton, got to go to the headquarters of our lord and master, the Corporation for National & Community Service. I had never been there before, knew nothing about it, except that that was where our leaders (Brendan, Gary Turner) periodically vanished off to and that someone there took exception to my posts once upon a time. (And based on a reaction when I introduced myself, I'm just about certain that I now know who that was.) We were there for an all-day Service Learning Whatchamadoo, with the goal of learning more about the history and future of our program and getting a real honest-to-goodness talk from the people who ran it. 

And based on all that, for the first time in a long time, I feel legitimately optimistic about the future of FEMA Corps. There are good people in charge and they are listening to us

Let me expand on that last for a minute. We have been making suggestions all year, passing them up the various chains of command at the bottom of which we sit, and hearing nothing in response. There was rarely any feedback that filtered back down or any visible result that manifested itself in our daily lives. And saying the same things over and over again without a change, or really an acknowledgement, wore us down. 

Today, we were treated to an extended lecture from Kate Raftery, head of Americorps NCCC. And like a magic trick, like some kind of wonderful dream, she knew what we had been talking about. She spoke our language. She was speaking to us, not past us. I swear to God we connected, her and the dozens of Corps Members sitting around the room. She told us all kinds of stories about the program's founding, about the inter-agency agreement that made it happen, about the problems they were were working to address. Here, from my notes, are a few of the things she told us: 

-FEMA originally asked for 3,000 FEMA Corps members. 
-FEMA people across the agency who've worked with us praised our efficiency, our drive, our problem-solving abilities, our skill with technology. In effect, we are what happens when you introduce a young, dedicated, motivated population into a fairly old workforce. 
-Apparently that's not just FEMA, by the way. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has an unbelievable fifty-six percent of its entire workforce at or near retirement age.
-FEMA asked about sending us out one at a time, but NCCC rebuffed them on that. They ended up with a core list of things they didn't want to give up: the residential nature of the program (us being housed as a part of the program, that is), the team aspect, the age range, the pool of people from which they wished to recruit.
-Apparently, the project sponsor usually provides the housing, not NCCC. This may be a contributing factor to why we're all at Extended Stay Motels. (KR cracked that she was going to buy stock in the company.)
-NCCC has been approached about doing a kind of Park-corps and Housing-corps, but is holding off for now. 

-The FEMA Corps approval process went something like this: the Inter-Agency Agreement (the general idea), the Implementation Plan (how to do it, how much it would cost, what positions we'd be in, etc) and a budget agreement. Apparently it went ridiculously quickly for a government program, going from idea to actual thing in less than a year. Said Raftery: "It kept making me nervous. I was thinking, we must be missing a major piece here, like Oh my God, we forgot X". (See why I like this person?)

-FEMA personnel have told me that it's a small organization, and maybe it is by federal standards (7,474 people in 2011; the State Department, for comparison's sake, has nearly 50,000 all told. Defense has kajillions). But it is "monstrous" compared to Americorps NCCC, whose entire office fits on one rather cramped floor of the CNCS building. It just took a long time for information to percolate across that huge expanse of people; Raftery described how she and four aides were going to every meeting with FEMA, and every time it'd be "fifty new people" on their end.

-This is not according to KR, but to a passing dignitary who happened to be the lady who runs the budgets for EVERYONE. I asked her how much a FEMA Corps team typically cost, and she told me that each individual Corps Member cost $34,000 throughout the entire ten-month program--for training, clothing, food, everything. Now, I have worked 1879.70 hours this term as of today, according to If I die tomorrow and never work another minute for the Corps, that's $18.08 per hour. Are we worth it? Signs point to yes.

-We also represent a significant cost savings over normal FEMA operations when we're deployed in disasters, according to KR, although they didn't plan for us to be in hotels all the time and that makes the savings rather smaller than projected. They're working on that. In fact, I'll jump ahead here: one of the solutions they're proposing, which I think is brilliant because it addresses the problem of expensive housing and the problem of stultifying work, is this: we go to a regular-NCCC project sponsor, such as Habitat for Humanity, and work for them part-time (earning our keep) and work with FEMA the rest of the time. Swoosh. No more Extended Stay, we get to do direct service, and the total cost goes down. 

-Oh, fun fact: in the original plan, there were to be no Independent Service Projects, the extra community service things that I've written about extensively and that kept a lot of people sane during this year. None allowed. The campuses revolted, the requirement got changed, the program began, FEMA began to see that it was a phenomenal way to connect with the communities we were working in, and now it's actually a requirement to wear FEMA uniforms when you're out doing this work. (For some other campus maybe; that's the first I'd heard of it.)

-When they were putting the program together, FEMA had a communication problem: field staff had worked with regular NCCC teams on various disasters, but FEMA HQ had no idea what we were about. In fact, a lot of the bad experiences we've had with FEMA happened because FEMA Rumsfelded before we got there. They didn't know what they didn't know: they had yet to experience the "quality, flexibility, creativity and innovation" that Corps Members are capable of. And the more they've worked with us, the more they've liked us, and the more they've been willing to push the limits of what we are allowed to do. For once, they're being flexible about us. They've even created the FEMA Corps office solely for purposes of helping make it work. And again, this was the first time I felt like it actually meant something--we'd heard about this thing before, but to hear it mentioned by someone I liked and trusted, and to hear it commended as actually doing something for the program--that is a new thing, and something we could use more of.

After maybe ninety minutes of this tremendously revealing thing, the floor was opened for questions. The floor had been opened several times already, but this was the first time for suggestions about how to improve the program, if somewhat obliquely stated. And the suggestions were good. Revamping Team Leader Training to teach TLs how to work on project sites with multiple teams, something they were never trained for? How to manage people in an office setting, another novelty? These were good suggestions. There were many like them. And they were said to somebody who appeared to be genuinely listening, and who has an unmistakably genuine interest, professional and personal, in improving the program. That kind of person is in short supply in any organization, and I'm glad my program has one of them at the top. She was asked about better member development, about recruitment, and answered well and with solutions that made sense. She was asked about non-disaster work, and answered that her staff was developing a "stockpile" of non-disaster projects for us to work on. She left the room, after a very long, very noteless, thoroughly informative couple of hours, to what was (at least from me) tumultuous applause.

The rest of the presentations were anticlimactic. There was an extended one from city-planner-turned-pollster Colleen, whose job it is to measure what we're doing and what kind of impact we have through stats. (Seriously, I don't know what her official job title is, but she's a pollster.) Gary Turner, former Vicksburg campus director, randomly appeared on an upper floor and threw half the Vicksburg crowd into hysterics. Jackie and Shane and two Vintoners told their stories to senior staff. The chief of External Affairs (my guy, I think), Ted Miller, spoke to us and heard some of our stories. They all seemed nice enough and capable enough, although obviously we couldn't watch them work. But attitude reflects leadership, as Summit 4 says, and it is beyond good to hear and see that NCCC's leadership is committed and listening and working on fixing the program's problems. That is more of a luxury than we probably think it is.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Bring It Home Hard, Corps Members

"Go hard or go home is the motto this year/See the game don't wait, ain't no time for fear..." -Giz, soloing with Roy Jones Jr. 

I know. I get it. I feel it, too.
We're nine months deep in a long, hard program and we can see the end just ahead. Two weeks, maybe less, till we're back on the road and in Vicksburg for a long transition. Two weeks to the Upper End and the Biscuit Company and the Tomato Place, two weeks 'til we get to see our friends for the last time for who knows how long. Less than a month 'til we're quits of FEMA Corps, almost all of us gone for good. (To the Corps Members who are returning as Team Leaders, I salute you.) We see the last days ahead of us, often with our next jobs already lined up, and we slow down. We marinate. Doze. Lollygag. Whatever you want to call it, I don't care. We've lost any semblance of an edge, or a drive, or a desire. And that is probably perfectly normal for a group of kids at this stage of this kind of a program. 

I do not care about any of that. Nor should you. 

There is no excuse, including in all the things I just wrote, for slacking off right at the end. Sorry if that's blunt, but there are people in New York City and Nassau County that are still out of their homes. I'm working on a project, the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, wherein we call people who are still in rental properties and try to get them some longer-term rental assistance. It's not remotely sexy and it involves sitting in front of two computer screens and yakking on the phone all day, but we are getting disaster aid to people who still need it. It seems like that concept has slipped away from us, but what we are doing matters. And when we're not doing it, when we're not working as hard as we could be, that matters too. 

I'll be the first to admit it: I'm nowhere near as productive as I should be. I check my email, read articles, kill time when I should be making calls or running calculations. There's nobody watching me (so far as I know) and I'm in a cubicle by myself, so the temptations are always there and always strong. But none of that is an excuse, and I know that, and I fight it and I get some work done every day. Not as much as I should, but a decent amount. I have a lot of room to get better. And whether you're running DHAP or taking registrations or doing who knows what FEMA-related thing out in Texas or New Mexico or New Hampshire or D.C., you probably do too. 

Yes, the next gig is probably in sight. Yes, we have something like five more workdays and then we're headed home. And as Battlestar Galactica's Colonel Tigh might have put it, "Yes, we're tired. Yes, there's no relief. And yes, we are still expected to do our jobs." (I may be the first blogger ever to quote BSG and a boxer-turned-rapper in the same post...) Come on, guys. We're right at the end. And it's worth pointing out that we're not exactly earning the right to not be treated as kids, if kids are exactly what we're acting like. 

Take the last few days of this term as a chance to put some good work in. Whatever you're doing, do it hard and do it well. If you have no work, surprise your supervisors and ask for something to do. Let's bring this class, and this year, home hard. Let's earn this.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Ripping Down Houses

The smell was unforgettable, a lifeless miasma of mold and decay and rot. Gnats swarmed around our heads and into our eyes. Piles of debris spilled out of the gutted trailers, covering the green grass and burying a flowerpot full of bright red petals. Soggy mattresses, sodden clothes, sweating boards and cabinets and all manner of wooden furnishings and paraphernalia lay scattered atop each other, a ruined, discarded mess. Whole walls lay on the ground, yawning open to the sky, insulation and wooden skeleton mixing with wires and a metal outer layer that was hard as hell to tear through. The Maryland sun rushed down upon us and the humidity swallowed us, the garbage, the houses, the mountains around us and everything else in one gulp.

Now this was what we had signed up for.

As Summit 5 learned in our muck-and-guts in New York City, there's really nothing so satisfying as taking your frustrations out on a house that needs to fall. Habitat for Humanity had found an old lot with half a dozen trailers, and needed to dispose of said trailers--built into the ground, mind you, with iron frames and wooden floors and all the accoutrements of any house--in order to build a condominium habitat. Enter FEMA Corps. With a day off work and an urge to wreck, we took sledgehammer in hand and dug for some sweat. The day's assignment: moving trash into two huge Dumpsters and gently persuading things that didn't want to move by themselves.

It was extremely hard work, harder in terms of physical labor than anything we'd done since leaving New York. We lifted whole fallen walls up and over and into the maw of the garbage disposal, walls with electrical cords still hanging off and panes of glass still in their frames. John and I swung sledgehammers at uncooperative floorboards ("When all you've got is a sledgehammer, everything looks sledgehammerable"), pried and hammered and pried some more, and swung into action long iron crowbars out of a martial arts movie to wrench boards from the very frame of the house. (We also resorted to good old-fashioned kicking things really hard, every so often.) I don't know how many beams we chucked into the Dumpster or how many cubic yards of junk we'd thrown in there by day's end, but in the scientific determination of this witness, it was a lot.

I didn't see as much of Chelsea, Katrina, Malinda and Tiffany, although Chelsea worked on the same ruin that I was at for a time, but from what I saw they were also busily engaged in cleaning muck and slop out of those trailers that were still standing. Katrina (or somebody) found a whole long bleached-white skeleton of a rat, from skull to tailbones, and John found a massive something-skull under our house that had had deer antlers wired to it. Malinda found a live brown snake and there was much squawking until it disappeared under her house. I had various encounters with centipedes (ugh) and spiders, including one fat black monster with a yellow spot that scurried away as soon as daylight found it.

At the end of the day, we smelled a fright and looked a sight. I had mud all up and down my right side, a mask-mark on my face, several minor cuts, a hearty batch of unidentifiable stains on my uniform and Lord only knows how much particulate matter draped about my person. The rest of the team was in similar shape. We piled into Humbert/Roberto, our replacement van while Hildie's in the shop, and careened back to campus in contented silence. One thought, unspoken, coiled around each of our heads and slid silky-smooth through the tired air: now that's more like it.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Working at the Winchester Apple Blossom Festival


The teenager was clad in pure white cargo shorts, a white polo shirt and a logo-less, backwards white baseball cap. Behind the orange construction fence that he had climbed over, waiting their turn, were his companions: a grey-haired oldster sporting a red shirt and a little blue young'un who couldn't have been more than eight. I'm still not sure whether their flag ensemble was deliberate. The white guy, who had just climbed over the temporary barrier separating him from the festivities, glanced sideways in my direction and shuffled his feet indecisively. "I don't give a...", he mumbled at me, before swinging  one and then the other leg back over the fence and retreating down the hot black path. 

That was the highlight of Day One at the Apple Blossom Festival, an otherwise fairly unexciting eight hours spent watching the perimeter for would-be fence-jumpers. I got ferociously sunburned, heard some incredible stories from the security guards in our area (one was an ex-infantryman who had spent a year in Afghanistan and been shot in the leg and blown up, on different days), and otherwise did very little. Day Two, although it might sound mundane, was a hell of a lot more fun: I was assigned a parking lot, one of maybe a dozen FEMA Corps members to receive the privilege, and ran it for probably seven hours. (Those CMs who participated totaled 19 ISP hours for the weekend.) A man in his seventies with a huge potbelly and a Hawaiian shirt, on a motor scooter and smoking a cigar the size of my foot, rolled through Parking Lot #3 during the day; later on, a brigade of living, breathing camels from the children's show passed by in a gigantic red trailer. I gave more out-of-towners directions around the festival than I could reasonably count, barked gibberish into a walkie-talkie and shrugged helplessly when people asked me the way to I-81. It was a hell of a time. 

When I could get away from lot-minding or fence-watching and venture into the show, I found it a fairly nice place; there were a great many craft tents, a boat show, a Greek restaurant's tent (sadly I couldn't go--my meal ticket was for another local restaurant's trailer that served no sandwiches not including meat, including a bacon cheeseburger with Krispy Kreme donuts for a bun. I did not get that because I wish to not die). It was county fair meets boat and antique car show meets mild circus, all the way through.

 I have to say, though, I had by far the most fun with the walkie-talkies that all the parking-lot minders were issued. We were communicating throughout the day, letting each other when lots were filled or how many spots were still available where, and there was a delightful air of what I imagine chaotic battlefield communications must be like underlaying everything. "P10 is full, P10 is full!" "Okay, P2, I'm sending them around to your side!" "P1 is being overrun, we need help over here!" "P3, do you copy?!" People got unduly excited or yell-y, everything sounded worse than it was, and it all contributed to this glorious atmosphere of general bedlam. I enjoyed it immensely. Things didn't calm down until well into the afternoon, when I got to simply sit and watch the legions of antique cars pass by my spot as they sped out towards Cork Road. 

Overall, it was a pretty fun couple of days, although I'm paying for it in sunburn as I write this (not that there's much sun to trouble the rest of my peeling companions at the moment, as we're driving through a rainstorm and have been living in one since yesterday.) We have another ISP tomorrow, weather permitting, at a Habitat for Humanity somewhere in the general area of Maryland. I don't know, I just get in the van. Should be a nice break from DHAP work though.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Life at a National Processing Service Center

 In the last year or so, I've worked in a FEMA Regional Office, a FEMA ad hoc disaster command post, a Disaster Recovery Center, a Point of Distribution, a FEMA branch office in New York City, and canvassed innumerable homes in Long Island and in NYC itself. Although I have yet to visit Headquarters or work in a Joint Field Office, it does certainly feel like I've had the opportunity to inspect FEMA at almost every level. Now my team is at a National Processing Service Center (NPSC or 'Nipsy'), which is the backstop for basically every telephone call FEMA ever tells anyone to make. There being no disasters currently generating masses of incoming calls (although the floods in Chicago's Cook County may yet turn into one), we're working on something called the Disaster Housing Assistance Program. 

The idea behind this program, which is operated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and whose Cabinet secretary I met once upon a time, is that FEMA pays 'rental assistance' to families displaced by disasters, and that Congress sets a maximum amount on what FEMA can pay to any one person. This year, it's $31,900. Not all disasters deign to allow their victims to get back into their respective houses before everyone hits that limit, so FEMA gets around the ban by giving the folks to HUD and letting them pay the rent for up to another 12 months, regardless of however much money FEMA's already given them. (File that away in the it's-really-hard-to-truly-estimate-disaster-costs folder.) 

One of the catches is that FEMA doesn't know just by looking who needs this program and who doesn't. So they're taking everyone who has received a certain amount of assistance so far, I'm not sure what, and putting them on a call-out list of about six thousand people. We, that is the three FEMA Corps teams currently working at the Virginia NPSC and a handful of regular FEMA employees, are going through that list person by person. A really good day is maybe forty calls, half of which will be answered and maybe an eighth of which will be people who need the program. The rest are back in their homes, living indefinitely with family members without paying rent, or have found some other way to negotiate the post-disaster process. I have a hands-free headset that I love, a two-monitor setup that is ridiculously convenient and probably perfect for computer gaming (sadly, I'll never know), and really every accoutrement a cubicle drone could wish for except clarity. 

The clarity mostly is lacking with the DHAP Calculator, an Excel spreadsheet that is supposed to absorb all of a given applicant's information and then tell you if they meet certain thresholds for program eligibility. Unfortunately, the thing is a crock*. Interpreting it is 'more art than science', as I've said several times. It has a pack of persnickety and unique rules and ailments that our training did not cover, it's not clear who is responsible for doing it and who's responsible for answering the related sheet of questions that needy applicants must be asked, and it just plain doesn't make sense at times. I completed seven DHAP calculators today and couldn't shake the nagging feeling that every one of them was in some way wrong. (This is while I'm seeking advice from every outlet I can possibly find.) Nobody except my roommate John, to my knowledge, is doing any better with it; we simply don't know the thing's rules or how it works, and are finding them out only as we go. 

Aside from that, life is quiet. The office where we work is a maze of cubicles, lit by fluorescent light and full of decorations (somebody apparently has a thing for plastic butterflies and flowers and shared it with EVERYONE). My neighbors are nice, a few of my teammates are close enough to ask questions of or share jokes with, and a benevolent Packers fan gave me a Green Bay magnet today to plaster over the Steelers logo on my wall. We eat lunch out on a glorified porch, weather permitting, and drive an hour back and forth to the place over a three-state commute (VA, MD, WV) that takes us through some really beautiful parts of the Shenandoah Valley. 

The only catch is that the whole arrangement is stultifying.

Quick reminder: My virtual door is always open to prospective Corps Members, parents, current Corps Members and anyone else who's interested in the FEMA Corps program. Just drop me an email at, as a few people have done over the past year, and I'll try and get you a response as quickly as I can. Ask me anything you like, but know that I'm more qualified to answer questions about FEMA Corps or being an English major or Viking history instead of, say, the beneficial bacteria in the human large intestine or why camels are the world's most disgusting animals. (There is no why. There is only the result.)