Jewish World Review May 18, 2010 / 5 Sivan 5770
A salute to FEMA in Nashville
By Wesley Pruden
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | NASHVILLE, Tenn. | George W. Bush taught Barack Obama one big thing, and the new president learned the lesson well. When a storm strikes it's important to send help, not grudging hindrance.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans five years ago, the Bush administration dispatched FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to help. Sending FEMA, the city quickly learned, was only sending in the clowns. The feds dithered in getting to the scene, and dallied once there. "FEMA" is still the ugliest four-letter word in New Orleans.
In the wake of a punishing storm and flood that devastated large swaths of this city's neighborhoods and parts of several surrounding counties, Nashville is giving FEMA high marks. (The press, not so much. The national media has looked the other way.) FEMA has approved $79 million in grants since the Cumberland River, which meanders through Nashville, escaped its banks two weeks ago. "Having this amount of money on the street and having served this many clients, this certainly wouldn't have happened a few years ago," says James Bassham, director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. "There's a lot of great lessons learned."
The Obama administration is learning similar lessons now in the Gulf of Mexico, where a broken oil rig and a runaway gusher is pumping oil into the Gulf. The estimates, some no doubt exaggerated as estimates in the wake of natural disasters always are, run to thousands of barrels a day. President Obama, decrying "finger-pointing," pointed his own finger at British Petroleum and the federal agencies responsible for monitoring the safety of oil rigs.
The weather disasters that befell Nashville and New Orleans are not remotely alike in the scope; many neighborhoods in New Orleans sat under 13 to 15 feet of a toxic soup of salt water, oil, raw sewage and other unsavory stuff for a month. Residents returned from refuge elsewhere to find their houses damp with voracious mold. Many houses, particularly in black neighborhoods, were no longer fit to live in, and remain abandoned and rotting today. New Orleans seemed briefly threatened with extinction.
Neighborhoods near the Cumberland River in downtown Nashville, and Opryland, an amusement park surrounding the Grand Old Opry, were under water for several days. Basements in many houses on higher ground were flooded when up to 15 inches of rain turned streets into rivers and low-lying lawns into lakes over two bleak and soggy days. The water receded, and the tasks of assessing damage and cleaning up began. Ruined furniture, housewares and carpets wait now at curbside for pickup, and the struggle is on with aggressive mold, muck and stench.
But this time there's many a kind word for the feds, who are often mistrusted on principle by Southerners. It's genetic. Genes passed down from long-forgotten great-grandfathers who survived harsh Reconstruction make wariness of "yankee bureaucrats" instinctive. But FEMA's quick response has dissolved residual resentment of bureaucrats, Yankee or not.
Floodwaters surrounded the home of William Nicks in the Bellevue neighborhood and moved so quickly that Mr. Nicks and his wife had to flee to the roof of their house. When they were rescued Mr. Nicks applied for federal help. "We had heard they kicked most of the applications back to make you re-do them just to cull out some folks," he says. "But in one week I got $30,000 in the bank. That's all right."
FEMA officials say they tried to make Mr. Nicks' experience typical. Putting cash in bank accounts, and eliminating the usual bureaucratic hurdles, became a priority. "I think we've tried to streamline as much as we can," Derek Jensen, a FEMA spokesman, tells the Tennessean, the Nashville newspaper. "There's a lot of money out on the streets already, and we're less than two weeks out [from the flood]." FEMA inspectors, armed with laptop computers, became a familiar sight on blighted streets, entering photographs and information for instant communication to FEMA headquarters. Homeowners were typically not asked to fill out the usual reams of forms for dealing with Washington. Evan Kroft, whose home in East Nashville was flooded, filed for a grant to repair damage to his insulation and ventilation system, and four days later received a grant of $2,500. "Then they came out and did a follow-up call to make sure everything went well. Talk about responsive."
The dry-out, clean-up and fix-up will continue for months; residents still are asked to take only brief showers, limit their laundry and wait a while to wash the muck and mud from their cars. But the response from the feds was a nice surprise. Maybe Barack Obama should thank George W. Bush for the lessons in how not to respond to a natural disaster.
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© 2007 Wesley Pruden