With FEMA in Florida


by Evelyn Swanson

My husband Scott and I will never regret our decision to volunteer as FEMA workers. It was quite an experience on several levels. From organized chaos in Atlanta to being hugged in appreciation by residents in Florida.

It all started several years ago when we became a part of Neighborhood Watch. Then last winter we were in the first class to become Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) members. After that we trained to be Red Cross Disaster Services volunteers. After Hurricane Charlie devastated parts of Florida, we watched as Frances approached and further damaged the same areas. Scott and I replied to the email we received from the local Red Cross asking for volunteers to work in Florida. Before we got their call, Kip Canfield, our CERT trainer, received a call from FEMA asking for CERT members to work for them. We were not told what our jobs would be but we agreed to three weeks and began the process of deployment.

That was on Sunday, September 5th. We would leave on Tuesday morning, two days later. And Monday was a holiday. Not much time to pay all of our household bills ahead, clean the house, make arrangements for a pet sitter, buy necessary items for our duties (whatever they may be) and pack. I am the bookkeeper for Karmark Tire & Auto and Public Discount Auto Parts. That meant I had to pay all their bills and do payroll for four weeks in advance, too. Scott’s employer, Autozone, also gave their blessings so we were able to take some time off.

We made the call to make the arrangements for our flight and hotel room in Atlanta, Georgia, where we were to receive our training and assignments. We had not flown since before 9/11 so were caught off guard when we got the "special search" at the airport. We had last minute tickets and they were one-way. Both were red flags. What makes it embarrassing is that you are in a glass cage in the middle of the airport, where everyone can see you.

Our hotel in Atlanta was the Downtown Hilton which was an hour away from the Gateway Sheraton, where we needed to do all of our preparations for our job. Our training dealt with sexual harassment, discrimination, FEMA’s birthday — 4/1/79 and how to handle all the irate people and dogs we would be meeting. As CERT members we were part of Citizen’s Corp (this also included firemen, search and rescue teams, forest service workers,...) and our job as Community Relations Officers (CROs) was 1-800-621- FEMA. Period. We would be passing out flyers door-to-door, at schools, churches, etc. If anyone asked a question, all we could say was call 1-800-621-FEMA. This sheet had instructions about what you needed before you called to apply for assistance if you had damage from the hurricane. We could also pass on numbers of local sheriff’s offices or wherever there was a DFO (Disaster Field Office). We learned a lot of acronyms in a very short time.

With Hurricane Charlie, the training was only two hours long but that wasn’t enough, so after Frances the training was expanded to eight hours. With all of the commotion of hundreds of new employees every day and new directives coming in every 10 minutes, we received only five hours of instruction. In addition to our training we also had to do about 30 pages of paperwork, get ID badges and take the same oath as the President of the United States does to become a Federal employee. We were given two navy-blue FEMA shirts and a goofy hat (which we never wore). And these were to be worn all day, every day for three weeks? By Wednesday night, over 1000 people had been trained and were being sent all over the state. There were 116 shelters and 39 percent of the state was without power.

One hundred of us, from all over the country, were assigned to five counties in central Florida. Instead of the five-hour bus ride from Atlanta to Jacksonville, Florida, we hopped on a charter flight arranged at the last minute. We were two of the 18 who were assigned to Marion County, which included Ocala. The group was divided into pairs. Since Scott and I are married, we were kept together as a team. Each pair had a rental car and a cell phone. We were to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Because of the threat from Hurricane Ivan, we were to keep our hotel rooms in Jacksonville and drive to Marion County, a two hour drive each way. This went on for nine days. We were finally then able to move down to stay in Ocala.

Central Florida has a nasty problem called the Love Bug. These hideous creatures appear in May and September and are constantly mating. They even fly around attached to each other. They were a University of Florida mistake. Instead of a new species designed to eat mosquitoes, they escaped and are now just a nuisance. These little black pests were especially thick around Marion County. Lucky us.

Our days started as early as 6:30 am with a briefing meeting, then the two hour drive to Ocala. Then meeting the people and another drive back to J’ville for an evening (debriefing) meeting at 6:30 pm. Reports included how many people we had spoken to, how many churches, businesses and CBOs (Community Based Organizations) we had visited. We were then free to do our laundry, shop for things we had run out of, eat dinner, etc. We never got more than five hours of sleep a night the whole time we were there.

Scott and I were assigned a section of the county which did not have much damage. Other groups were reporting trees destroying houses and cars all over their areas. We were, however, running into many convenience stores and even restaurants that had empty shelves. A McDonalds with no napkins? A c-store with no gas? One of our stops was at the Ocala Chamber of Commerce. One of the ladies there, when asked if they were getting questions about FEMA, told us they get all kinds of questions, from having them look up long distance numbers to where to get bull semen. Oh yes, Ocala is "The Horse Capital of the World."

After working every day for two and a half weeks, we were told we had to take a mandatory day off. Apparently the hours and days were too long. So far there had been four car accidents, four heart attacks and three people had been killed. Then came Jeanne. For a couple of days, the orders changed back and forth from going back to Jacksonville to going back to Atlanta to "hunkering down" in our hotel in Ocala. It finally got too late to go back to anywhere so we sat out the storm on the top (third) floor of the Courtyard by Marriott hotel. The eye of the storm passed right over us but the winds only reached 70 to 80 miles an hour. We were without power part of the day, then had it for a while and then it went out again for most of the night.

The next day was another mandatory day off because we were not allowed to leave the hotel because of downed power lines and most businesses were without power. When we were able to start doing our job again we did find more damage but would be returning home in a couple of days. The checking out process is much simpler but required another trip to Jacksonville. On the way home we were treated to the special search again even though we were wearing our FEMA issued shirts. Our ID badges had to be turned back in before we left.

The people in Florida were not "irate" and in fact were, all but two, very friendly and appreciative that we were there to support the state and give them hope. I did go up to a house with a hand scrawled sign reading "Pit Bull Dog." I knocked anyway and was greeted by a fat old cat that just made it onto the porch and sat next to my feet. Also what was pretty cool was seeing convoys of 26 power trucks from all over the country there to restore much needed electricity.

Would we do it again? With the chaos, long hours and little sleep. Absolutely!