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Lessons learned from Hurricane Floyd

Soldiers talk of a "fog of war." The term describes not only the haze of smoke that suffuses the field of battle, but the confusion that afflicts fighters in the chaos of combat.

Something similar confronts those who find themselves in the middle of a disaster. They can mistake friend for foe. Rumors run rampant. Bureaucrats make mistakes. Insurance adjusters, federal inspectors and repair contractors shove papers into the hands of the bewildered, urging them to sign.

These are some of the key lessons taught by Hurricane Floyd when it flooded vast areas of eastern North Carolina in the fall of 1999.

When disaster strikes, keep in mind that the recovery won't go smoothly. Expect glitches and misunderstandings, no matter how well you have prepared.

Nevertheless, you should prepare for disaster by doing things (protecting important records and buying insurance) and by accepting the facts of post-disaster life (that you could resent fellow disaster victims and vice versa, and that people who are supposed to help you will make mistakes).

Before disaster strikes
To pave the way for a relatively orderly recovery, keep important records (insurance policies, tax returns, leases and deeds, car titles, copies of birth certificates and so on) in one place so that you can grab them in a hurry.

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Take the example of Ray Page, who lived outside Princeville, N.C., when a devastating flood hit in the fall of 1999. His father had always told him to keep all of his important papers in a container that he could grab in an emergency, and Page followed his father's advice. When Page stepped from his mobile home into a boat, he carried an ammunition box containing important papers, including his flood insurance policy.

The day that insurance adjusters were finally allowed into the area (it took two weeks for the water to subside), an adjuster visited Page's home and wrote a check right then. Three weeks later he got a check from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay rent while waiting for a new mobile home.

On the other hand, Page's father-in-law, who lived 30 feet away, was still waiting for a FEMA inspector to visit the property six weeks after the flood. He had not prepared as well and he didn't have flood insurance.

The Small Business Administration extends low-interest loans to homeowners, renters and businesses after disasters. To get a loan, you'll need to provide information about income and debts, so it will help to have that documentation handy. The SBA won't ask for copies of federal tax returns; the Internal Revenue Service will provide the past two returns directly to the SBA.

For businesses, it helps to have backup copies of records stored away from the office. You can stash records with an attorney or accountant, or even upload a few files onto the Internet. Some Web-based file storage companies are listed here.

Finally, it will ease your mind and your bottom line if you have adequate insurance. Homeowner's policies don't cover damage caused by floods; you have to buy supplemental coverage. And if you want coverage for earthquakes and windstorms, you might have to request it -- and pay extra for it.

If your home or business is required by law to carry flood insurance because it's in a flood zone, but you ignore the law and don't buy flood insurance, the SBA will not give you a disaster loan. Depending on circumstances, you might get help from FEMA.

The aftermath of a disaster: mind and matter
Be careful what you believe. After a disaster, rumors fly faster than an F-16. Disaster-relief officials complain that radio often becomes a font of misinformation as disc jockeys and call-in hosts fill the air with half-baked information. Gossip flourishes in the hothouse atmosphere of emergency shelters. Ethnic and class grievances burst forth.

In eastern North Carolina, there was a lot of finger-pointing in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd. You could find residents of Princeville, recognized as the nation's first town founded by freed slaves, who believed that whites timed the opening of a reservoir's floodgates to inundate the historic town. Without being asked, some white residents would express resentment over the lavish media attention paid to Princeville.

A coastal mayor complained that federal officials weren't equipped to help her townspeople recover from sea surge and wind damage but were prepared to help inland dwellers deal with floods. Political leaders from inland towns scoffed at the complaints of beach dwellers.

None of this helped people recover from the disaster. One of FEMA's primary missions is to halt the spread of misinformation. The agency dispatches employees to disaster areas to quash rumors, answer reporters' and residents' questions, and burnish its image. The agency's public affairs officers go to emergency shelters, refugee camps and public forums, and talk to newspaper editorial writers. Sometimes FEMA finds a radio station that will put employees on the air during lunch hour to answer callers' questions.

Some complaints are valid
Naturally, some complaints about disaster-relief efforts have validity. Take the case of the town of Oak Island, N.C. The tourist town on the Atlantic Ocean near the mouth of the Cape Fear River took a pounding when Hurricane Floyd hit it straight on.

Co-mayor Joan Altman said in 1999 she was shocked when FEMA inspectors arrived in Oak Island, took a look around and declared that they had come with the wrong software on their laptops.

"It turned out the program wasn't for coastal towns," Altman fumed at a meeting with then-FEMA director James Lee Witt, who expressed sympathy.

The FEMA inspectors came to town with software for estimating damage caused by inland flooding. A different kind of insurance -- and a different way of estimating damage -- applies to buildings near beaches. Worse, Altman said, business owners received conflicting information from government agencies.

Altman worried that the software glitches and conflicting information could delay the rebuilding process.

"After a disaster people have a need, and the economy has a need, for a fast recovery," she said.

She said she has sympathy for FEMA and SBA employees: "Quite frankly, there's too much stuff out there for them to know."

-- Updated: Sept. 16, 2003

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