It came as a surprise. Members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) showed up unannounced at the AmNews offices. With the many complaints that FEMA has received among Hurricane Sandy victims, it was high time for the government entity to explain some of their actions and potentially counter stories that the AmNews heard on the ground.
FEMA representatives Victor Inge and Michael Skeels and SBA spokesperson Matthew Young sat down with the AmNews to discuss the recovery efforts, the reaction to said efforts and the real role of FEMA after a natural disaster. The AmNews asked all parties involved to address the belief among some members of volunteer organizations and members of the Occupy movement that they were outperforming them in recovery relief.
Inge did most of the talking.
“I think the problem is the lack of understanding of what we do versus what they do,” said Inge. “In any situation, the people who have been impacted, [the] knee-jerk reaction is towards us. We’re the ones they know, but they don’t exactly know what we do until we begin to provide our services.”
Inge proceeded to explain the origins of FEMA, established through the Robert T. Stafford Act of 1988, and how FEMA’s role is to assess damage and direct victims to the best possible government service to address their needs, which is usually the SBA. Young said the SBA “gives out low-
interest loans to renters, homeowners and businesses of all sizes.”
Inge also told the AmNews that FEMA isn’t the first and last people on the ground during the disaster recovery effort.
“At that point, we’re pre-staging supplies, ramping up and getting ready to go in,” said Inge regarding the start of recovery efforts. “The Red Cross initially goes in, and the people you spoke of–the churches, the people who actually live there–that’s the part that they’re seeing. We come in after the president’s signed a national disaster declaration. We’ve actually been here faster because of the knowledge that it was coming.”
But some storm victims have also had a hard time taking the Red Cross seriously. On Tuesday, people who were displaced by Sandy protested in front of its Manhattan headquarters, accusing the organization of neglecting them and leaving it to themselves to find food and medical relief. That organization wasn’t immune to criticism either.
According to FEMA’s latest numbers, over 234,000 New Yorkers affected by Sandy have registered for assistance or contacted them for information. Over $690 million has been approved for Sandy victims as well. (Those who still need to contact FEMA can go to www.disasterassistance.gov or m.fema.gov on their mobile phone.)
According to Inge, over 1,200 FEMA communication specialists are walking around and giving out information, telling people how to get in touch with them. But the AmNews has learned of several hard hit areas, especially in New York City public housing like Coney Island, where people have not gone door-to-door but left flyers filled with information either in the lobby or under benches next to other buildings.
“They may not have been there when our people came through,” said Inge.
With FEMA not exactly on everyone’s Christmas list since post-Katrina, Inge said he understood that people in dire straits would be angry and need someone to blame. “They can blame us. I understand,” he said. As of right now, he and FEMA might have to get used to it.
For those in the Harlem area, there are three different Assistance Recovery Stations at Colon Plaza, 55 E. 115th St.; the Bonificio Cora Texidor, 3-7 E. 116th St.; and Joseph Yancy HFDC, 140 W. 142nd St. All locations are open on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Bonificio Cora Texidor is open on the weekends from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. All locations will close for good on Dec. 7.