05/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Giving FEMA the Green Light

It's October 2001, and I'm sitting across from a woman with white hair, creases tracing her face like rivers on a map. And I'm about to fill them with tears.

Actually, I'm about to sit by uselessly and watch someone else fill them. Six weeks after September 11th, my first day as a disaster-aid caseworker, and I've learned only one thing: The Guidelines -- who's eligible for help, and who's not. But that's enough to know this poor woman will be leaving the disaster-aid center with nothing. Neither the apartment that filled up with thick, gray dust nor the sweatshop that laid her off are close enough to Ground Zero. She doesn't qualify.

She's already been rejected by the Red Cross and another private agency. Our table, for the Salvation Army, is her last stop, her last chance.

I'm not a heartless bureaucrat. I am not cut out for this, I think, bracing myself for the rejection I'm sure will come. Delivering the news will fall to Bob, the man next to me. He's got that telltale, impossibly perfect posture of someone who's been in the military, and he wears a navy blue polo with "FEMA" emblazoned above the heart. (In the early days of the disaster, workers from FEMA sometimes pitched in at charities such as the Salvation Army and Red Cross.) Unlike the FDNY baseball caps mushrooming all over the country, Bob's FEMA shirt isn't disaster swag. He's one of those people who travels the country, hopping from wreckage caused by tornadoes to wreckage caused by hurricanes to wreckage caused by floods. He's the one here who knows what he's doing. We look at him and wait.

He starts to explain The Guidelines to a translator seated at the table with us. Our client speaks only Mandarin, but when he says "Canal Street," the tears form. You have to live or work south of Canal to qualify for disaster aid, and this woman's home and former factory are both on the wrong side of the Canal. But Bob doesn't lower the hammer. He smiles at the old woman, scoops up all of her documents and says we have to check a few things.

In a far corner of the room, Bob scours every scrap of paper the woman brought with her -- and she brought everything, and I do mean everything: old phone bills, last year's W-2, her grown children's birth certificates. Bob studies each one, while I wonder silently what good it will do. Staring at the paperwork won't move her apartment five blocks south.

Bob snaps his head up and looks at me. "You don't enforce the rules just for the sake of enforcing the rules," he says. "You use them to keep out the people who really don't qualify and the frauds. And sometimes, you bend."

He holds up the woman's old W-2, his eyes lighting up. "This is it," he says, softly. His green light.

The old woman's sweatshop might have been on the wrong side of Canal, but the company that fired her was on the right one. Bob took that tissue-thin piece of paper and used it to wedge open an impossibly heavy door, the one entitling her to disaster aid. He authorized paying her rent for a couple of months, her electric bill, her phone bill. He sent her on her way with a gift certificate for $100 in groceries. And after she left, he gave me another meaningful look. "Sometimes," he said, "you just have to find a way."

Seven and a half years later, I've been thinking about Bob a lot lately. Is he in Valley City, North Dakota, where the overflowing Sheyenne River knocked out the city's sewer system, filling streets and buildings with raw sewage?

Is he in Mississippi or Louisiana, finding homes for the still-suffering victims of Hurricane Katrina who, later this week, will be kicked out of their FEMA trailers , with nowhere to go?

Maybe he's in the Florida panhandle, battling mosquitoes and using a boat to travel where roads used to be, assessing flood damage while heavy rains continued to fall.

Where I'm pretty sure he's not, is guarding a secret concentration camp run by FEMA.

Recently, the editor of Popular Mechanics appeared on The Glenn Beck Program on Fox News to debunk Internet videos purporting to show concentration camps on U.S. soil being run by FEMA. The videos show footage of barbed-wire fences and ominous-looking towers, and claim American citizens are being imprisoned there in secret. "Outside this building is fencing and a cattle run section of fence," the narrator intones while panning over a desolate, concrete yard littered with train cars and propane tanks, " all topped by barbed wire pointing inward, not to keep people out but to keep people in." Later, she zooms in on more fencing and says, "Inside the facility we found large fenced in areas next to the railroad tracks marked green zone and blue zone, suitable for holding a lot of people."

Editor-in-Chief James Meigs and the staff of Popular Mechanics did a little digging and discovered the footage is actually of an Indiana repair yard for Amtrak. Another image being circulated, one taken from a satellite and branded with the seal of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, turns out to be a photo of an actual concentration camp -- in North Korea.

The initial coverage of this story focused mostly on Beck, who seemed like one of the less likely TV personalities to give air time to Meigs and the good reporting by Popular Mechanics. (Indeed, listen to Beck's introduction of the story. He seems inclined to believe the myths.)

But those stories miss the larger issue. What's unsettling about this urban legend isn't that it exists, but that people, including possibly Beck, want to believe it.

Urban legends germinate and thrive because they tap into people's most cherished beliefs -- and our most nagging suspicions. Take that resilient chain letter claiming Bill Gates will pay you every time you forward a bogus e-mail. I cannot tell you how many otherwise intelligent people have sent me that one, saying, "Hey it sounds too good to be true, but just in case...". We click the forward button, often in spite of our better judgment, partly because of a perception that Bill Gates' wealth is nearly infinite. But we also do so out of a deeper sense that Microsoft just might be advanced enough, powerful enough, and ubiquitous enough to track the e-mail activities of 87 million people.

The myth of the FEMA concentration camps exploits a belief more disturbing -- that FEMA is not just incompetent, it's malevolent.

And it seems to have hit a nerve for an awful lot of people -- the most popular FEMA camp video on YouTube has racked up nearly 1.1 million views. That's just one of several videos, on one website alone.

FEMA's been unpopular before, and often rightly so. For decades, it was a bureaucratic morass. It devoted most of its resources to planning for a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union, and it responded to floods and hurricanes and massive earthquakes with the speed of the U.S. Patent Office and the compassion of the Internal Revenue Service.

FEMA's reputation was so bad that in 1992, after Hurricane Andrew shredded southern Florida and left 250,000 people homeless, Gov. Lawton Chiles actually turned down federal assistance. Think about that: A quarter of a million people homeless, and the governor balks at money. (Chiles changed his mind after the Administration of then-President George H.W. Bush assured him aid would be delivered not by FEMA, but by the military.)

It was worse in 1989. That year, FEMA responded to both Hurricane Hugo and the Loma Prieta earthquake -- the one that struck at the start of Game 3 of the World Series -- like a sloth on Quaaludes.

Halfway through President Bill Clinton's first year in office, FEMA turned itself around so dramatically, it was downright shocking. Under the leadership of James Lee Witt, the agency began planning its response to natural disasters before they struck. It made a speedy response to calamity its highest priority.

During the Midwestern floods of 1993, FEMA actually arranged for clean water to be delivered to the people of Des Moines before the city's water plant failed. It picked up and moved entire towns, permanently, getting people off flood-prone riverbanks and relocating them to higher, safer, ground. After the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles, it paid for temporary housing for more than 115,000 people for two years, ensuring that people did not get rushed back into unstable buildings.

And in New York City in 2001, a FEMA worker who was as compassionate as he was efficient showed me how to take a list of rules and wield them against misery.

Even after the ineffectual response to the Loma Preita Earthquake, and Hurricane Hugo, after being supplanted by the military after Hurricane Andrew, even then, nobody accused FEMA of locking thousands of American citizens behind barbed wire and gassing them. So why is the FEMA camp urban legend catching on now?

During the Clinton Administration, Americans finally began to trust FEMA. Since Hurricane Katrina, they feel that trust has been betrayed: Toxic trailers. Diverting $1.5 billion away from affordable housing to programs that benefit casinos. More than 20,000 New Orleanians stranded in a Houston slum. And a succession of leaders who, in the memorable words of Maureen Dowd, couldn't tell "the difference between a tropical depression and a panic attack."

People see the suffering FEMA's mistakes and negligence have caused, and they suspect some deeper corrosion must be at the heart of it. But in perpetuating the FEMA's-running-concentration-camps myth, they're looking for the culprits in the wrong place.

The failures of FEMA in the last eight years were directly related to the flawed policies of the previous Administration. President George W. Bush replaced experienced FEMA workers with political cronies, and Michael Brown was just one example. His predecessor Joseph Allbaugh - who made some spectacular fumbles in handling the response to September 11th - had previously been President Bush's campaign director, and before that, his chief of staff when he was Texas' governor. And the cronyism penetrated far below the first layer. In 2005, FEMA's No. 3 official came to that job from a career as a publicist. Many other midlevel and regional FEMA directors had political credentials, not disaster-response ones.

But cronyism was just the start. Equally catastrophic was an early Bush Administration decision to shift FEMA's focus away from planning how to respond to disasters and to turn that job over to state and local officials. It was supposedly a way to put emergency planning in the hands of people who understand the terrain. But in reality it meant siphoning money away from disaster response and using it to give grants to politically friendly companies and regions.

For example, after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA spent $3 billion on trailers that turned out to be contaminated, buying them from four GOP-friendly companies, Bechtel, CH2MHill, Fluor and the Shaw Group. And Zanesville, Ohio, population 25,000, landed generous federal grants to buy thermal imaging sensors to locate people through thick smoke, and to buy kits that test for nerve gas. (Meanwhile, New York City repeatedly asked for money to replace the police and fire radio system that failed on September 11th. It got snubbed.)

Those grants came with a hidden cost -- slashing the FEMA budget for putting experienced disaster workers in a room and asking them, "What should we do if a Category 5 hurricane hits New Orleans and the levees break?" or "Hey, what happens if the Sheyenne takes out the Valley City sewage plant?" And then taking actual steps to prepare for those threats.

President Barack Obama promised to restore competence to FEMA, and judging by Craig Fugate, his nominee to be the next Administrator, it looks like he's keeping his word. Fugate is a former paramedic and firefighter, who's been leading Florida's emergency management office since 2001.

But it is not enough to either sit by and hope that each president makes disaster-recovery a priority, or to spread urban legends designed to make FEMA as popular as Guantanamo Bay.

We must expect more, but we must also do more. We can begin by changing the tone of our national conversation about disaster response. At his first confirmation hearing last Wednesday, Fugate got us off to a good start.

"Judging FEMA's future success on the basis of whether it is 'better than Katrina' is not viable," Fugate said. Better than Katrina "...does not, in my opinion, meet our sworn commitment to the American people. Therefore, if confirmed, I commit to meeting the demonstrated recovery needs of the Gulf Coast, and at the same time, I will hold FEMA's future response and recovery missions to a much higher standard of success."

When Bob took the time to search for his green light, he did more than keep one seventy-something seamstress from going hungry. He kept rent flowing to her landlord, which kept mortgage payments flowing to the bank. The bank made loans to small businesses fighting to survive in lower Manhattan. And as scores of caseworkers looked for thousands of little green lights, New York clung to life.

It might seem nearly useless to e-mail a member of Congress and ask him or her to make disaster housing a higher priority. Or to spend an evening coming up with a disaster plan for a single family, (yours). Or, when you get that e-mail claiming to expose the evil conspiracy behind FEMA, to just not forward it, no matter how deeply it resonates.

But living through this recession -- one ignited and fueled by millions of small, individual acts of fraud, ignorance and greed -- I don't think we need a lot of reminding about the reservoir of potential we hold as a nation of 306 million people, about our history of accomplishment when we put our persistent optimism to work, about how we realize results only when each individual decides to act. Fugate stepped up into the lead-off position last Wednesday. Let that be your green light.

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