Instead of Blaming FEMA, We Need a National Safety Net

As the water rose in his Cedar Rapids home, Frank refused to leave, even when a FEMA boat pulled up to his porch. FEMA wouldn’t take his two dogs, Romeo and Angie, and he wasn’t leaving without them.

Finally a fire department boat plucked Frank and the dogs out as the water continued to rise. A fireman even lunged into the water to grab Angie, a German Shepherd puppy, after she jumped overboard.

Now Frank, 59 and in a wheelchair, is living in a Red Cross shelter set up at a high school. He has applied for FEMA aid, but as a renter he doubts he will get much. He is looking for an apartment where he can move and be reunited with his dogs, who are staying at an animal shelter. But coming up with the first and last month’s rent and security deposit is hard on his disability income.

Meanwhile Ken, 58, has gotten his FEMA aid — all of $481. He thinks his home in working-class southwest Cedar Rapids was destroyed; he figures he’ll end up in bankruptcy soon. For the past week he hasn’t even been able to do his work cleaning gutters because he’s been spending all day in lines to fill out forms. Now he and his wife figure their only option may be moving in with her family in Tennessee.

“But my friends are here, my kids are here, my church is here,” said Ken, who spent Father’s Day waiting in the hot sun to retrieve belongings from his house, only to be told he couldn’t enter.

Thus begins the long slow recovery process, which will consume people’s lives for months or even years to come, long after all the TV cameras and national politicians have stopped visiting.

Frank, Ken, and many others with similar stories describe themselves as fortunate for surviving; they say there are people with far worse stories. But their fates, though caused by the floods, are emblematic of the general crisis facing Americans with little or no safety net when they are struck by an unforeseeable event, be it a flood, fire, illness, accident, or even divorce.

Kanezius, a 51-year-old immigrant from Burundi, found himself without such a safety net when he suffered a work-related injury at his janitorial job in Tennessee. So he and his wife came to Cedar Rapids to live with daughter Anastasia, 26. The house they were in flooded, and since Kanezius was not an official occupant, they could get no aid.

“The government is trying as hard as they can, but we don’t even have enough food to eat,” said Anastasia.

At emergency aid stations in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and across the Midwest, shell-shocked flood victims spoke vaguely of hoping to get enough aid from FEMA to rebuild their lives. Some said they were hoping for FEMA trailers, probably unaware that the trailers were found to have dangerously high levels of formaldehyde in them.

Meanwhile, even if FEMA fulfills its mandate with flying colors, which is a big “if” in most people’s minds after Hurricane Katrina, that mandate is not to rebuild lives. Just as its name implies, FEMA is only meant to deal with emergencies, and the maximum amount of assistance they can provide, in accordance with the Stafford Act, is $28,800 per household, at best just enough to cover a few months of displacement.

Along with existing and ideally improved disaster relief programs and agencies, what the coming months are likely to highlight across the Midwest is the dire need for a real safety net for impoverished and distressed people, whether because of a flood or any variety of other circumstances.

After initial disaster-related needs are met, a general safety net including health insurance, job training, public aid and the like is much more humane and crucial than disaster-specific ongoing programs for victims of Katrina, the Midwest floods and the like. As a FEMA officer told me, “Every disaster is the worst ever if it’s your house that’s destroyed.”

Kari Lydersen is a staff writer out of The Washington Post midwest bureau and also freelances for publications including The Chicago Reporter and The Progressive. She is the author of three books, including “Revolt on Goose Island” (Melville House Press) released in June 2009. She also teaches Community News at Columbia College and teaches youth journalism in a non-profit program.


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