New Orleans – Lunch with a FEMA Inspector

I was expecting to see a lot of things and talk with a lot of people during my time in New Orleans. Much to my surprise, when I was finished checking into my hotel, I got on the elevator with a gentleman who had on a blue windbreaker that said “FEMA” (Federal Emergency Management Agency) on the back. At the time, I was on the phone with my mother, however I was able to get the man’s name. On Sunday, I had lunch at my hotel with him. Here is how our conversation went.

The man, who was 51, was originally from Marrero, LA, which is on the West Bank not far from Gretna, LA (across the bridge). He fled the storm to a town just north of Nashville, where his brother lived. He and his brother returned to his home in Marrero, LA in mid-October only to find a pile of debris that was formerly his house. It was at this point that his brother encouraged him to seek out the help of FEMA to rebuild, since he had no insurance. They had already heard the stories of people not getting their money or any other kind of help, but they gave it a shot anyway.

He called the office of Congressman William Jefferson to get a number by which he could contact FEMA. He then told them his situation, and that he’d do anything to be able to move back to Marrero and get his house back (he did own the home). He knew “God was on the phone with him” when the person on the other end said that he could likely be helped if he was willing to work for FEMA. He happily said he would, and BAM! He was now a FEMA inspector. The fact that he had no experience here did not deter him or FEMA from hiring him (he was a chef by trade, but the restaurant he worked in was destroyed by the storm).

I asked what he did as an inspector, and he said he basically went to damaged/destroyed houses and make judgement calls on whether they were “recoverable” or not. I asked how they measured “recoverability,” and he said that they looked at “the damage of the other houses on the block, the structural damage to the building, how likely that area would be to flood again, stuff like that.” He also told me that they had “an engineer” accompany him when he went to look at the different sites. “We fill out a sheet for every house and then turn it in at the office.” “What was the ‘recoverability’ of your house?” I inquired. “Well, my house is gone, but I can afford to rebuild it.” I asked then if they took into consideration the “owner’s ability to afford rebuilding” when inspecting homes, and he said he didn’t know. “They know who owns the house back at the office, but I don’t know that when me and the engineer look at the house. I sure hope not.” He’s not the only one.

I then asked that he rate FEMA’s recovery and relief efforts on a scale of 1 to 10. “I’d give them like a 6. I mean, they are helping me out, and some other people too, but there is a lot more that can be done.” I asked him how they were helping him out, and he said that after he worked for a year, they’d give him money to rebuild his house, and that they are paying him to be an inspector. He didn’t tell me how much he made, but disturbingly, he said that the thing about giving him money for rebuilding his home was NOT given to him in writing. I’m no lawyer, but I advised him to consider getting that promise put on paper. He said he’d look into it. “I’m cool now. The money the give me is enough for me to eat, and me and my brother and my sister pay for my hotel room here [in this hotel]. I’m alive, so I got no complaints. I do wish my dog could be here [in the hotel] with me though. He’s with my sister in Nashville.” I told him I though FEMA, the Governor, and the Mayor all failed the people of the city, and that I’d give FEMA maybe a 3. He said he didn’t think it was that bad. “None of them could have stopped the hurricane.”

The last thing I asked him was if he felt the New Orleans area was better prepared now for a storm this hurricane season. He said, “Hell naw. They ain’t rebuilt a levy yet that I know of. I plan on leaving again if they say a storm is coming. I’ll rebuild my house if no storm comes before my year is up.” I told him that we’d be praying together that no storms ravaged the area like this ever again.

It was good to put a human face on FEMA.

One Love. One II.

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

5 responses to “New Orleans – Lunch with a FEMA Inspector”

  1. Y says :

    Garlin you asked very interesting questions. I’m curious though, on a scale of 1 to 10 he gave FEMA a 6. However, you said you would give FEMA, the Governor & the Mayor a 3. I wonder why the big difference? Is it because he’s gotten to a place of complancency with what he’s been given/promised, as opposed to raising the level of expectation in fear of just being let down? From what I’ve either read, seen on the news or recieved first hand from friends that have volunteered with American Red Cross in Louisiana it sounds as though you are very much on point with your rating. By having an opportunity to speak to so many people, did you get a sense that they feel as though FEMA’S average results are/were acceptable as well?
    It’s so unfortunate to hear that if a hurricane were to hit New Orleans today or tomorrow, that they would still not be prepared.
    Amazing, simply amazing!
    Thank you for sharing your experience. I know that I can speak on behalf of your bloggers when I say, we support you as you continue to do great things SuperSpade. You are definitely making your presence known and I know you and everyone you touched came away with something special from this experience.

  2. Dumi says :

    This past week I got a chance to sit in a meeting with folks from the Gulf Coast who have been doing Katrina related work and learned how different and sometimes similar the areas affected are being treated. One thing that sticks out to me is that the Fema inpsector says that they assess the house based on damage and if it’s in a flood zone. To my knowledge, a number of places cannot or have not begun the rebuilding process because they have not released the new “flood plans”. Obviously some places that were not in flood zones before are now technically, so there are huge delays in the application of rebuilding in NOLA. Right now, they are discussing supplemental money in DC for Katrina relief, basically swiped from the defense budget. keep an ear/eye out. thanks for doing an indepth look at this stuff.

  3. Miss Remmu says :

    Having worked with FEMA Region 10 here in Washington State on behalf of the evacuees who are here- I could write pages and pages and pages about FEMA, but I won’t- at least, not yet! I am troubled by the red tape, troubled by the employees, troubled by the government. If the “inspector” isn’t qualified to do the work, this must be then, how the little boy in one of your pictures holding up a sign about his house being gone, was denied FEMA money, as are thousands of others, every single day. It is a “hot mess” as my mother would say. The FEMA sequence of delivery isn’t even often understood by those who wrote it and enforce it. Everything is based on “policy”. But if you find the policy does not adiquately serve thousands of people, should you continue to try and shove their round lives into the square hole, or should you widen the hole? Don’t get me started Garlin…

  4. Garlin II says :

    miss remmu, you are correct to start down the path of accountability. In my opinion, the purpose of government is to serve its constituency in good times and in times of crisis. As such, “Emergency Management” should be part of a government’s fundamental duty. With that approach, one may question the need for a FEMA organization [and the red tape it comes with] at all, but I digress. I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with people’s round lives being pushed in square holes if they at least sanded the corners a bit and did not expect circles to permanently reside in squares. However, that may be the direction we are headed in, as there are still folks in Florida who are living in FEMA trailers 13 years after Hurricane Andrew.

  5. Chad Beckwith-Smith says :

    Institutional Racism by FEMA and Parsons Brinckerhoff Alltech

    FEMA knows about this and has done every thing they can to quash it. They have done nothing. Maybe you will get denied if your Black.

    In 2004 in the Los Angles area all inspectors working that disaster were told not to write any damages what so ever for the FEMA disaster applicants. Thus they all received denial letters for FEMA assistance. In 2005 in Prichard Alabama a Parsons Brinkerhoff Alltech broadcast stated the same and gave the surrounding street borders of a Black area.

    This is Institutional Racism at its worse depriving FEMA Applicants of help because they happen to be poor and or black.

    FEMA is a bureaucracy. FEMA inspectors are supposed to give an independent inspection of the damages. In years past this was possible. How ever with the advent of ACE computer estimating, this provided the FEMA bureaucracy a system to do Monday morning quarterbacking of the inspections with ease.

    The mechanics of the system are the root of the problem. With the present ACE system, contractor review and FEMA review, no inspector will ever give an independent inspection.

    Hence this is the problem.

    The ACE inspection system records building and contents damages. The inspector does the inspection and turns it in. First the contractor does it Monday morning quarterback review. If the damages to the dwelling are not sufficient to justify the contents damage, then the contractor returns the inspection to the inspector to correct. This ratio of building damages to contents damages is totally subjective.

    For example the contractor has stated in flooding that if the flood level is not over a foot deep do not record damages to beds. The theory is that a bed should not be damaged with less than 1 foot of water because the mattress on a standard bed is over 1 foot off the floor. The problem is that in many poor sections of a community, including black communities, these folks cannot afford beds. They generally have mattresses on the floor. When you have any flood water, the mattress is ruined. The inspector cannot award the bed replacement because the contractor has set up these subjective guidelines of damage level to contents damage. Clothing is another example. FEMA and the contractor have made it nearly impossible to award clothing. Poor people put their clothes on the floor for lack of dressers. FEMA and the contractor cannot understand how a person could lose their clothing with only one inch of water. The poor generally live in run down rental properties that had many pre existing problems. This is all they can afford. Provisions within this FEMA inspection system provide for not recording deferred maintenance. This simply put is problems with the dwelling that are not storm related. You have a inspection process that equates building damages to contents damages and fails to take into consideration deferred maintenance. You have a situation where wind blows through leaking windows, damages beds, bedding, clothing and what ever. You cannot award the proper contents because you do not have the storm related building damages.

    This all ties together because of the way the review process is handled. When FEMA has a question about an inspection it returns the inspection to the contractor as a FCOR inspection. The contractor is graded by FEMA in part based upon the number of FCOR corrections FEMA sends back. The contractor then grades the inspector on the number of FCOR inspections he has on a particular disaster. The inspector is paid on a per inspection basis. The contractor does not pay the inspector for any FCOR inspection and if the inspector has only a couple corrections the inspector looses his inspection performance bonus with the contactor. . This means in many cases thousands of dollars per job. As a result of the pay system and the FCOR system you end up with what I would term a sterile inspections, a perfectly 100% clean inspection. This is an inspection that meets the pre determined computer program profile. This inspection has no basis in truth in regards to the actual contents damaged because it cannot. An inspector would be foolish under the present system to do an accurate truthful inspection. He would get them all returned to him from the contractor or FEMA, lose money on the inspection, loose his bonus and soon lose his job. When you have a system that does not allow for any independent judgment you end up with the mess you have now.

    The solution is to return to a system where the inspector can do what they are supposed to do, an impartial, independent inspection. The present system fails to take into consideration certain factors that generally apply to poor households. Building damage does necessarily align perfectly with contents damage. In a perfect world they do but when you factor in older rental properties and other factors that are predominantly poor issues they do not always align themselves. A poor person that evacuates uses what little money they have to evacuate. They have no money to return after the disaster and when they do everything is ruined and moldy. FEMA then comes along weeks later and cannot understand how clothes get ruined by just a little flood water. Well the truth is the beds and clothes are on the floor, it took a week to get back home, they have no washer to wash the clothes and no means to get them to a distant laundry that was not flooded. The result is everything is lost and no FEMA assistance because the damages do not fit the established FEMA profile. No provisions exist to give the proper award and stay within the profile. The examples cited her are just the beginning of an inspections system that started out as independent and objective and turned into a instructional profiled sterile inspection. The inspection process has been so degraded that orders are now given by the contractor not to give away money in certain areas. The contractor reviews FEMA damage area profiles and makes a determination that no damages could have occurred and hence orders inspectors not to give away any money, it does not fit the FEMA profile.

    The most blatant example of this was Los Angles. Inspectors were ordered not to give money away in certain areas because the area did not fit the FEMA profile. When residents of this area started getting FEMA denial letters, they would stop the inspector on the street and be angry. This was interpreted by FEMA as the inspectors being threatened. The FEMA answer was to withhold the denial letters until all inspections were completed and the inspectors were out of the area. This denial and accosting inspectors in poor neighborhoods has become such a problem that police patrols are now regularly increased in these neighborhoods during times the inspectors are doing the inspections. The unfortunate part of this is that the justified anger of people for being wrongly denied assistance cannot be understood by those above. The bureaucracy cannot understand such a simple issue. People get mad when you deny them the aid you promised for the losses that they truly had.

    The contractor is paid by FEMA for ever inspection done. The contractor has learned that the best money is made by having the inspector submit perfect sterile inspections. The only thing the contractor cares about is what it is going to take to get the inspection to pass the FEMA profile. Its all about money and profits for the contractor, to hell with the applicants.

    I view the actions of FEMA and the FEMA Contractor Parsons Brinckerhoff to be Racists and that they have acted in collusion with each other.

    Possible Resolution and Solutions

    To solve this problem means to return back to an independent and fair inspection of the of all applicant’s true damages.

    To implement a one hour course on Cultural Sensitivity to all FEMA inspectors, FEMA personal involved with the FEMA IFG and Contract Managers in Alltech and PaRR.

    To investigate all those in FEMA and FEMA’s Contractor that had any role in ordering FEMA Inspectors not to record damage in certain areas for the possibility of them committing a hate crime against the black communities.

    To review the Contractors cadre of Inspectors that are called out ( not just the ones they have trained which is over 75,000 Inspectors ) to see if it complies with the equal opportunity act. ( I think you shall find it short of Afro-American workers) PB had a conference in Ft Worth for it’s FEMA Inspectors out of 600 that attended there was only two black people. I know this as I attended and sat beside them.

    To immediately suspend the contract with the existing FEMA Contractors (Alltech and PaRR) for gross violations of American Law that is well documented on http://www.FEMASbest.com

    Chad Beckwith Smith

    PAFI President

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