What Happens When the Federal Government Can’t Get Emergencies Right? Lessons From the Sourthern Evacuee Assistance Center

Submitted by Kevin Cronin on Wed, 09/14/2005 - 08:49.

What Happens When the Federal Government Can’t Get Emergencies Right? And what does it say about our level of preparedness for disasters, wrought by nature or terrorists, even after the 9/11 disaster and the debate, planning and funding that all follows?

From my perspective at the Cleveland Convention Center, Yahoo did more in 24 hours to assist displaced Americans following the hurricane and flood than the Federal Emergency Management Agency did in weeks. I was one of many local volunteer who worked in a weeks-long activity to create and administer a public computer center to help displaced southern Americans. Evacuees and other individuals used the center to file FEMA applications to document loss, learn the fate and track down loved ones scattered around the country and struggle to revive businesses. During the process, I learned something about unflagging human nature and equally recalcitrant bureaucracies.

Yahoo, that behemoth Internet search engine, identified a problem and fixed it, to the benefit of millions of displaced people and their loved ones around the world. In the aftermath of the storm, information gaps and confusion resulted from the multitude of websites collecting and posting information about hurricane victims, survivors and those looking for information about them. Yahoo created a “spider,” a tool to simultaneously search all survivor and victim databases to fix the problem. Meanwhile, FEMA demonstrated some world-class fumbling. They literally cannot accept paper applications, requiring online and telephone applications, yet their server capacity to handle the online load and human capacity to handle the telephone load was demonstrably inadequate.

Northeast Ohio volunteers, primarily nonprofits Digital Vision, Computers Assisting People and the Black Data Processors Association, and corporate supporters created and staffed a public computer center at the Cleveland Convention Center, to prepare for the arrival of planeloads of southern evacuees. While the planeloads never materialized, the computer center serviced hundreds of individuals who made it to Northeast Ohio on their own. During the days of operation, I was pleased to volunteer, but horrified to hear tale after tale of deficiencies, with crashed online applications that needed to be restarted again and again and phone calls that went nowhere. America can do better, with better resources and options to assist families in need.

One lesson is we are a lot less prepared than we think we are. Despite the debate, warning systems and spending, preparing for disaster is a much more difficult process. The ability to handle an emergency reflects both government and individuals’ level of preparation. By individual preparation, I am not referring to duct tape on windows, but remembering or filing bank accounts, contact information and personal information for relatives, insurance records, email accounts and passwords.

Another lesson is that government agencies, so dedicated to offering help, are much less adept at asking for it. Help can come in all shapes and sizes. At the computer center, we were even able to use the skills of Cleveland elementary school students, where the “experts” from an after school program at the nonprofit University Settlement identified educational and entertaining websites for stranded kids.

Why was a government with professed respect, even awe, for the private sector so isolated from the assistance of the private sector in this emergency? Why wasn’t asking for assistance ingrained in the process, particularly when so much capacity exists outside government? With the frustration in filing FEMA applications, I saw no problem that couldn’t have been expected. Simply put, why is it so hard for the federal government to ask for help? Gulf States residents did.