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
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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
- "What can I do with this check
- "Why haven't I seen an inspector
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.
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?"
-- Posted: Nov. 17, 1999