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.)


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