Thursday, June 2, 2011

You know you're in trouble when the competent public officials are from FEMA

It is one of those truisms that isn’t necessarily true that disasters bring out the good side of people. The idea is that something in that moment reaches past our differences and touches us as humans. Sometimes it’s an exercise in shared responsibility with a shared benefit: the entire town turning out to sandbag the river, for example. But often it’s an after-the-fact offer of assistance: some clothes to wear, food to eat, a place to stay. Frequently the helping hand comes from an organization dedicated to that purpose: the Red Cross , Doctors without Borders, Partners in Health, or a host of other charities from the local to the international level. Much of the time the aid comes from individual people, near or far, who just want to help.

And sometimes… sometimes the assistance comes from the government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hasn’t had a very good reputation since Hurricane Katrina: their response to that disaster was slow, haphazard, and generally incompetent. Whether they’re as blazingly inept as they were in the Bush years under the hopelessly unqualified Michael D. Brown (a.k.a. “Heckuva Job Brownie”) hasn’t really been determined: there hasn’t been another crisis on the scale of Katrina since then; even the BP oil spill wasn’t, on land, comparable. My read on this latter incident is that the government’s response was slow, inadequate, and compromised by lack of coordination and a readiness to abrogate their responsibilities in order to keep things friendly with a multinational corporation. And their recent decision to attempt to reclaim as much as $600 million given to Katrina victims might be both fiscally and ethically responsible, but it is also a public relations nightmare and a reminder of the poor decision-making that apparently exacerbated an existing problem by over-compensating and awarding all that money to begin with.

Still, we’re better off with them than without them. A glance at their website shows that they’ve rendered assistance in over 2/3 of the states of the union recently (a quick glance suggests that “recently” means in the last 18 months or so). And I think we could rest assured that if there were any significant problems, the good folks at Fox News would be happy to tell us how incompetent the Obama administration is. So, even if there are, shall we say, more effectively run agencies, any small-town mayor is going to be thrilled to see FEMA coming if his municipality has been devastated by back-to-back tornadoes, right? Make that virtually any small-town mayor.

Meet Jack Scott, mayor of Cordova, Alabama, population (as of July 2009) 2,263, located about 35 miles northwest of Birmingham. Cordova is a poor community, with an estimated household income of only $24,774, or about 61% of the average for Alabama, itself not the most affluent of states. Even more strikingly, the “estimated median house or condo value” is less than 37% of the mean for Alabama, let alone for the nation. I can’t say I’ve ever been to Cordova, but I’ve certainly been to or through dozens of places a whole lot like it in the American South. No one, at least no one from the outside, is going to confuse the town with paradise, but I’m willing to bet that there a lot of good, hard-working people there.

In late April, two different tornadoes hit the town on the same day, leaving four people dead and two separate swaths of destruction. There are some folks who have been living in tents for the several weeks since the double-header natural disaster. Not surprisingly, FEMA showed up on the scene, with emergency housing in the form of trailers for those displaced by the effects of a 170 mph twister. And Mayor Scott, sworn (one presumes) to work for the betterment of all Cordovans, chased them away. Apparently Cordova has a three-year-old law on the books prohibiting single-wide trailers, which is what FEMA had to offer. (Note: other sources, for example Val Walton of the Birmingham News, say the law has been around for over a half century, but unenforced.)

True, existing trailers were grandfathered in when the ordinance was passed, and true, the AP reports that “the Cordova Police Department, a pharmacy, a bank and City Hall all have moved into similar trailers since the storm.” Ah, but you see “the city can use small trailers because it's for the common good.” Not only that, but these are short-term measures: “It’s temporary and we know it’s temporary.” That would be unlike the emergency housing offered by FEMA, which is… erm… temporary (although, to be fair, some people have been living in so-called short-term FEMA trailers since Hurricane Katrina nearly six years ago). Tents are so much more aesthetically pleasing than single-wide trailers, don't you think? Now, double-wides... that's a whole different story.

Mayor Scott sees no need to make an exception for residents, just because a sizeable segment of the population has been rendered homeless through literally no fault of their own. After all, the mayor’s house is still fine. And the guys who come by on Wednesdays for poker and beer weren’t affected, so I really wish these whiners would shut up and let us get on with our game. Besides, he’s concerned about keeping those ridiculously low property values from falling off the scale altogether. Or, of course, he could be an arrogant old white guy who, as one resident puts it, “wants to clean all the trash out. He doesn't like lower-class people.”

Whatever the case, it’s clear that Cordova will never emerge from the Dark Ages as long as Scott is in power. As John Archibald of the Birmingham News points out, some Cordova residents were hoping the new Interstate 22 highway would help turn the town into a bedroom community for Birmingham, a move that actually would raise property values, quite likely in a big hurry (admittedly, not without a down-side). But who wants to move to a town with a certifiable douchebag as a mayor?

There is apparently a compromise in the works, although Scott seems to be clinging to his rulebook and screaming maniacally in the face of common sense. For his sake, though, he’d better find a solution in a big ol’ hurry. He’s already being mocked by Taiwanese animators. He’s now about one step away from being a term in the Urban Dictionary. Ask Rick Santorum how that worked out for him.

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