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PLUS: Four phases of finding aid
Maneuvering through the maze of government aid
Second in a four-part series: Dealing with disaster
Coping with aid agencies

ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. -- It's a typical day at the Disaster Recovery Center, six weeks after September's Hurricane Floyd flooded giant swaths of eastern North Carolina.

In the corner near the plate-glass window, a county mental-health counselor chats with a guy from the city utilities department. In the back, U.S. Small Business Administration advisers speak earnestly with aid applicants.

In the middle of the room sit helpers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, ready to answer disaster-related questions and prepared to ask a few of their own.

A woman named Hattie shuffles in, pausing anxiously to take a few deep breaths before settling onto a metal folding chair. Waiting to talk to someone, she closes her eyes and bows her head.

Dealing with disaster-relief agencies can be a headache and Disaster Recovery Centers are designed to ease the pain. The centers, established by FEMA after calamities, bring together local, state and federal agencies so that residents and business owners can go to one place to get questions answered and glitches resolved.

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FEMA used to call these places Disaster Recovery Assistance Centers. But any government agency with the acronym DRAC is asking for people to make fun of it. When aid recipients started comparing the centers to vampires, the word "Assistance" was dropped to create a less fearsome acronym, DRC.

A storefront on Main Street
In Floyd-ravaged eastern North Carolina, a temporary Disaster Recovery Center has been established in each afflicted county. The one in Rocky Mount occupies a storefront on Main Street, next door to the SBA loan-closing office and across the street from the little Amtrak station.

Inside, the walls are painted Tar Heel blue and employees of various agencies sit behind folding tables. They come from the SBA, FEMA, the state attorney general's consumer protection division, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city utilities and inspection departments, and the county mental-health department. A receptionist directs visitors to the right person.

For many visitors, the first and only stop is the FEMA tables.

"People come in here for information, questions, status checks," says Elizabeth Morris, a FEMA application assistant. "They ask, 'What do I do next? I got this letter and I don't understand it.' That kind of thing."

Disaster victims could get most questions answered by phone, but Morris believes the walk-in experience is more valuable.

"We're not just looking at the computer screen," she says. "We're trying to address the whole person."

Helping out Hattie
As Morris says this, her colleague Diane is summoning medical help for Hattie, who has come in to ask why she was turned down for a loan to repair her house.

"I got pictures here," Hattie says, gasping as she reaches for her purse on the floor. The purse yawns open, revealing a pack of Newports, an envelope full of photos and a fat organizer secured by a rubber band.

Diane says she doesn't need to see pictures of the damage and asks about Hattie's labored breathing.

Hattie says she has run out of portable oxygen canisters, but she's having only a little bit of difficulty breathing; it's no big deal, she says bashfully.

"If you were at home and you were breathing the way you are now, would you use oxygen?" Diane asks gently. When Hattie replies yes, Diane quietly asks a co-worker to call paramedics to deliver oxygen canisters.

While Hattie waits, Diane explains that she was turned down for a loan because she wouldn't be able to repay it and that instead she'll get a grant, which she won't have to repay. Diane directs Hattie to the Salvation Army and the Red Cross for help finding a shelter because Hattie is staying in her flood-damaged house, which hasn't been repaired. The house is in Tarboro, 20 miles away.

"Living in your house isn't doing you any good," Diane tells her. "It won't do to have the ceiling falling on your head."

Just the FAQs
The question that brought Hattie in -- "Why was I turned down for a loan?" -- is asked frequently, but it's not one of the top three most common queries. They are:

  • "I got this letter. What does it mean?"
  • "What can I do with this check I received?"
  • "Why haven't I seen an inspector yet?"

Other questions reveal out-of-kilter priorities ("You mean you're not going to replace my big-screen TV?") and the poignancy of post-disaster life ("We're having to live with the in-laws -- can't you help me find a place to rent?").

But the most common queries arise from confusion about how government agencies work. You can't blame disaster victims for their bafflement. Checks bear vague notations about what they're to be spent on ("temporary housing," for example). Explanations of how the checks can be spent are sometimes mailed days after the checks are sent. Inspectors visit a property only after making an appointment to meet the owner there -- and sometimes property owners are hard to find because they move around a lot.

All of these problems are grist for FEMA helpers in Disaster Recovery Centers. These FEMA workers are, for the most part, temporary employees sent from all over the country. They undergo training and are placed on a call list. When disaster strikes, FEMA assembles a field staff from the call list. These temporary employees might stay on the scene for a few days to a few months.

Taking care of business and people
The Small Business Administration also sends people to disaster areas to deal with applications and questions. The agency even staffs loan-closing offices complete with lawyers and paralegals to explain to borrowers what they're signing. Without legal advice, applicants might be afraid of putting signatures on all those documents

"You can approve tons of loans, but if you don't get them closed and issued, the loan offices are a waste of time," SBA spokesman W. Donald Waite says.

The SBA employees assigned to Disaster Recovery Centers are poised to answer questions about SBA loans for both individuals and businesses.

FEMA welcomes other agencies to set up shop in the recovery centers. In North Carolina, representatives from the state attorney general's office are there to dispense advice on how to spot fraudulent repair contractors. Employees of local agencies are there to schedule inspections and utility resumptions, and to help deal with the emotional toll of disaster recovery. Internal Revenue Service employees are sometimes there to answer tax questions.

The people who work in this office are expected to know just about everything -- even if it doesn't concern disaster recovery.

"So ... " Hattie says as she prepares to walk out the door to find a way to her home 20 miles away. "Are there buses that run to Tarboro?"

Related information:
Protecting yourself before and after disaster

-- Posted: Nov. 17, 1999


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