FEMA Didn’t Help Hurricane Harvey Survivors Enough: I Know. I Was There
February 26, 2018
What it was like serving on a major national disaster with FEMA
Answering the Call
On September 3rd, I arrived in Port Aransas, TX to assist FEMA with their disaster recovery mission after Hurricane Harvey.
I don’t think any of us were prepared for what we found down there. To this day, it’s hard for me to find the words to describe exactly what we saw, and it’s even harder trying to explain what it was like working on an active disaster. But I believe it’s really important to try to share my experiences and attempt to paint the reality of disasters such as Harvey. You don’t get the full scope of the destruction and devastation from watching CNN or Fox NEWS. You get it from walking around on the streets and talking to the survivors. (Hear about their stories here.) You get the visual, but not the emotion. So maybe these words will help widen the picture.
Boots on the Ground in Port Aransas, TX
One of our first days on the ground, a teammate and I walked around a neighborhood that used to be a trailer park. Plots of rectangular concrete were the only thing left from the community it used to be. The trailers were gone. The electric hookups and wiring were gone. It was all rubble and standing water that smelled like rust. The houses around us saw a similar fate.
Pieces of old decking, metal from roofs or siding lay in piles at our feet and for all we knew, the leftover water on the ground could have been tears. We walked into the community as strangers. Single islands of blue amidst the broken pieces of people’s lives.
We parked our van in an empty lot a few blocks down from our report point and took our time walking down the streets. We passed three supply distribution points run by locals in the first three blocks we walked through the town. Empty parking lots sectioned into different donation points for clothing, or food, or water, or cleaning supplies. There was an encampment handing out food and cases of water to people that just stopped by. The local VFW was also giving out supplies, but what really got me was a sign on the side of the road. It was all black with orange spray paint that simply said, “Down but not out.” In a town comprised mostly of rubble and debris, hope was still striving. In fact, I truly believe it was even stronger here than I’ve ever seen anywhere before, and they have the least reasons to have it. Out in the field, my teammate and I heard the quote, “The worst in mother nature brings out the best in human nature.” I’ve never forgotten the stunned silence I fell into after that.
The Disconnect between Training and Reality
In our weeks of training leading up to this, FEMA employees had made us believe that we represented hope to these people, and sometimes just being a sympathetic ear made all the difference. But it was hard not to feel immeasurably, impossibly small in the face of all that tragedy. No lifetime experience had prepared me for walking through devastated communities and speaking to survivors who could have been ghosts. No amount of training, no amount of mental fortitude could have prepared me for what I saw in their eyes. There are no words to describe the vast emotion that was tangled and tumbling and sinking down below the iris.
The community still had its bones, but barely so. There was this underlying silence there. It took me a few days to realize why. The birds were gone. There was no hollow chirping, no overhead flap of wings. They had evacuated just like the residents and they had not returned yet.
The Feeling of Inadequacy
There were so many times during that silence that I questioned why I was even there. Not because I was unhappy about it, but because I didn’t feel adequate enough to help these people. And I’ll be honest with you, 5 months later, I still don’t. We took five very long days worth of training for Disaster Survivor Assistance (DSA) only a week before in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and it wasn’t even close to being enough. My team and I were hurled, violently, straight into the fray without even a cautionary word. Here we were, a bunch of bright-eyed spring chickens, fresh out of training, awkwardly trying to navigate ourselves through a process we had only done hypothetically in a classroom. We all choked on that reality real fast.
The Shock of National Disaster
You know when you jump in a cold lake, or maybe step into the shower before it had a chance to warm up, and your whole body seizes up at the shock? That’s what it was like that first day attempting to help the hurricane Survivors in the community center. It was hard to breathe, and it only made me realize how little I could really do. I had joined FEMA Corps, in part, to prove that one person really could make a difference. I was sick of hearing, and thinking, that in the grand scheme of things, one person would barely be able to even make a ripple in the terrible, dark sea of life. Because the thing is, we really don’t ever see the big picture. We all rotate around our own internal suns, and for us, all we have is that personal level. I wouldn’t consider it a fault. It’s all we know and it’s all we ever can do. There’s not a switch that turns off our self-awareness. There’s not a switch that turns off our own stained lense in which we individually see the world. So I came here to clean up my lense a little. Or even swap out my current, trendy, dark indigo shades for something brighter. Because no matter how cliche it may be, I want to believe that one person can make a difference. I don’t want to be this cynical, skeptic who preaches about how nothing we ever do won’t matter when we’re gone and live my life in a box of my own self-pity. Simply, I want to prove myself wrong. Being in Texas that first month really challenged my ideals.
I don’t think it was until Puerto Rico that I began seeing a different side of the coin. I was actively seeing a change in the land and people around me, and it was everything I needed to feel as if I was really giving back to the world. I still struggled with internal questions, but it wasn’t so prominent in every waking moment. Months later, I still haven’t answered them. But when I figure it out, Y’all will be the first to know.
If you’re interested in reading stories of the Survivors of Port Aransas, click here.