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.
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.
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
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
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
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
-- Updated: Sept. 16, 2003