The Forever Elsewhere Management Agency

In Gulfport, Miss., 13 days after Katrina roared through, we couldn't find one resident who had ever seen a FEMA official.

Published September 14, 2005 7:15PM (EDT)

I arrived in Jackson, Miss., from Washington, D.C., last Wednesday, hoping to help the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm, coordinate pro bono attorneys, law professors and legal aid offices, an army of whom are ready to respond to the overwhelming need that hurricane victims have for legal assistance. In the midst of this effort, two other out-of-state volunteers -- Bonnie Allen, also with MCJ, and Trisha Miller, a Skadden Fellow with Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law -- and I left for the Mississippi coast. Armed with 25 copies of "Help After a Disaster," FEMA's applicant guide, and cases of bottled water, we headed south to let people know law schools and lawyers would be providing help with the myriad legal issues they'd be facing.

But when I arrived in Gulfport on Saturday, I was simply not prepared for what I saw. Chaos, devastation and an apparent inability to deliver the most basic help to so many people in so much despair. It was day 13 after Katrina struck, and no one was coordinating the relief effort in one of the poorest communities along the coast.

We never found a resident who had ever seen even one FEMA official. No one had been able to successfully complete "Registration Intake" via the toll-free number. Most people we met still didn't have electricity or phone service. We finally heard of one man who got through to FEMA -- at 2:30 a.m. But when asked for insurance information he didn't have and didn't know how he could get since he'd lost everything and had no place else to turn, he just broke down and cried. The bureaucracy was killing him.

It's no wonder. The Sept. 11 Clarion-Ledger, Jackson's local paper, reported that U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering (R) had said FEMA needs 10,000 operators to properly staff the phones, but Homeland Security regulations require employees to pass security clearance, typically a months-long process. The paper quotes Pickering as concluding, "In other words, the phone line is useless."

Meanwhile, our efforts were complicated because our phones rarely rang -- spotty cell reception. Although I could usually call out, I wasn't able to receive calls.

Again, the Clarion-Leger provided some insight. Pickering's office reported that two days after the hurricane hit, a company offered to launch balloons that would restore cellular phone service in the region -- for free. FEMA told him the company would have to go through a typically months-long competitive bidding process. The bureaucracy simply could not be avoided. FEMA representatives were nowhere to be found, but their rules and regulations are everywhere.

We stopped first at the Good Deeds Community Center, which was serving hot meals and distributing donated goods to hundreds of North Gulfport and Turkey Creek residents. Red Cross volunteers told us the Florida church that had been feeding more than 600 residents two hot meals a day was leaving on Sunday and asked if we could track down another mobile kitchen. Without a second thought, we set out to help. But this was crucial stuff. Why were we doing it? Where was FEMA?

That effort had us going to area churches -- where we found similar stories. Arkansas church members set up at the Grace Memorial Baptist Church had been serving up hundreds of hot meals since Thursday. They were almost out of food, leaving on Monday, but offered us their several hundred peanut butter and jelly sandwich surplus. We gratefully took it.

Another church in Ocean Springs didn't have a kitchen or cleaning supplies but could send new clothes and canned goods in a truck returning to Kentucky. Everywhere we went people asked for bleach -- both to kill the bacteria from raw sewage so they could safely take a bath, and also to stop the spread of black mold that was swallowing the walls of those fortunate enough to still have a home.

The sympathetic workers in the county courthouse had few ideas for us. When asked where FEMA was, one responded, "Your guess is as good as mine."

Looking for another church we'd heard was preparing large numbers of hot meals, we took a wrong turn and found ourselves in a red zone. We passed ominous buildings, some of which had a bright orange spray-painted "X" indicating that the dead bodies still in the building had been identified so rescue workers had moved on. We also passed a van with Indiana license plates, and signs hanging in the windows that read CAN'T FIND MY FATHER -- PLEASE HELP.

Returning to Good Deeds to report on our progress, we saw a county worker pull up with a truckload of ice. Twenty minutes later, with the truck unattended, no one aware of its precious cargo, and the ice quickly melting in the stifling sun, my colleagues and I hopped into the back of the truck. Yelling "free ice" we urged people to take as many bags as they could carry and distribute it to neighbors on their way home.

Meanwhile, the on-site Red Cross volunteers gave out the last of their day's food and toy stash from their U-Haul, distraught because 600 people were going to show up the next day expecting a hot meal and wouldn't get one. No one knew what would happen next. There was simply no delivery or distribution system in place. Without the inspiration of leaders from groups like North Gulfport Community Land Trust and Turkey Creek Community Initiatives, and an army of volunteers, nothing would be getting done.

We next drove down Rippy Road, the center of the northern Gulfport community of Turkey Creek, to see its destruction firsthand. The historic residences in this African-American neighborhood were part of a settlement built by freed slaves in the Reconstruction era. Many of those homes are now uninhabitable.

In another church parking lot, all three of us were on separate cellphone conversations. Tricia whooped with delight when she heard that the Kentucky-bound truck had arrived at Good Deeds. "I'm in the chain gang unloading now," reported the Harrison County Supervisor staffer who had been working 14-hour days for 11 days straight. Unfortunately, I had to report that the Long Beach pastor who was trying to track down a volunteer McDonald's truck could not find it and no one knew where it had gone. We still had hope the Colorado Springs volunteers we met in the county courthouse could make a miracle happen. They'd promised to look for a mobile kitchen and cleaning supplies.

There's no question that eventually the need for legal services will be a top priority and that it will be an ongoing effort -- likely for years. The Mississippi Bar, clinical law professors and students, and pro bono law firm and legal aid attorneys are continuing their Herculean efforts. Lawyers will be critical. Only they can help people get legal guardianship of the children they now care for, help the newly disabled get SSI benefits, help elderly homeowners avoid predatory lenders, advise families filing for bankruptcy, assist the insured in appealing denials of coverage because their damage is deemed caused by flood (not covered), not hurricane (which is), and help with myriad other legal issues.

However, the immediate imperative is to cut through the bureaucracy and get the hurricane's victims the most basic of life's needs -- now. The United States is the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world. That power and those resources now need to be used to get life's essentials to thousands of people who are facing chaos, devastation and death. But what we saw, or didn't see, was as potentially devastating. A system that has broken down is failing those who are in need. Headlines tell us that the relief effort is stepping up, but to the people we met in North Gulfport and Turkey Creek, and hundreds of places like them, those headlines are meaningless.

There are things you can do to help.

  • Please contact your congressional representative and senators and demand the FEMA red tape be cut.
  • Contact your local churches and synagogues to see how you can help their efforts -- be aware that needs change every 36 hours at least, so contact with churches in the affected areas is key.
  • Donate money to community-based organizations and legal aid organizations in the affected states.
  • Brainstorm new ways to get help to the most affected areas immediately.
  • Before returning to Jackson, we left the 25 copies of the FEMA guide with the supervisor's staffer at Good Deeds. She promised to distribute them at Sunday church services.

    By Karen A. Lash

    Karen A. Lash is a former associate dean of University of Southern California Law School, and currently a consultant for law schools, nonprofits and government agencies building community partnerships.

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