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Keep what works, groups urge

A Tuesday morning Senate roundtable discussion offered what has become a rarity these days: kind words for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

BY SUSAN KIM | WASHINGTON, D.C. | March 7, 2006

"This country has got to to a better job of remembering persons with disabilities when we are sheltering and moving people."

—Tom Hazelwood

A Tuesday morning Senate roundtable discussion offered what has become a rarity these days: kind words for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"For all the criticisms out there of FEMA, the FEMA people we work with on the ground - the voluntary agency liaisons - are highly effective. They have spent years building key relationships," said Tom Hazelwood, the United Methodist Committee on Relief's executive secretary for U.S. response.

FEMA's voluntary agency liaisons, or VALs, initiate and maintain a working relationship between FEMA and voluntary agencies.

Ironically, though VALs represent one division of FEMA that's working well, the position isn't even considered a permanent job, said Craig Nemitz, disaster services manager for America's Second Harvest.

"Voluntary agency liaisons need to be permanent employees," he urged, "not to be left every two years having to reapply for their jobs. During the disaster is not the time when we should be exchanging business cards with each other."

Hazelwood, Nemitz and others spoke at a Senate roundtable convened by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. The discussion focused on the role of voluntary agencies in responding during the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

FEMA didn't escape criticism altogether. "Our experience in rural Louisiana with FEMA has been a disaster," said Lorna Bourg, executive director of the Southern Mutual Help Association based in New Iberia, Louisiana. "Nobody has the authority to say or do anything. They frequently contradict each other. There is something seriously wrong with the structure of FEMA, especially in rural areas."

In a response publicly criticized for its lack of information, sometimes voluntary agencies experienced the virtual opposite: too many communication channels with too little focus, said Nemitz.

"At one point, I had a member of my staff coordinate a series of calls from FEMA, and from state and local emergency management calls - for one day," he said. "There were 38 conference calls for that day. Where do you want to look for the most reliable source of information? At the federal level, perhaps there could be some assistance in that. How do we funnel information from government agencies?"

Now - six months after Katrina and Rita - responders say they're most concerned about vulnerable people: persons with disabilities, elderly people, individuals with physical or mental health problems, and isolated rural residents.

"I'm concerned about the medical situation," said Heather Feltman, director of Lutheran Disaster Response. "We've had several congregations acting as free clinics for the disabled, the elderly, the mentally ill, the chronically ill," she said. "We're doing free clinics but I'm really concerned about people who are underinsured and not insured - and how doctors will be able to handle that."

Hazelwood echoed Feltman's concerns, particularly with regard to disabled people. "As people were being sheltered after Katrina and Rita, particularly in Texas, many of our churches opened as shelters. We found we were housing people with disabilities."

Hazelwood reported what he saw was "a woeful unpreparedness to address the needs of persons with disabilities. This country has got to do a better job of remembering persons with disabilities when we are sheltering and moving people."

People in rural areas also have grave needs, living in conditions that look as if only days - not months - have passed since the hurricanes, said Bourg. "In the rural areas, we are used to getting the least and last of everything," she said. "That's still happening. There are 80-year-old women sitting under a carport trying to drag out moldy furniture with nobody there to help."

Yet it seems to be more difficult to reawaken public compassion that peaked about two days after Hurricane Katrina hit, reflected Ande Miller, executive director of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD). "In terms of donations, people made offers in the first 24 to 48 hours that were not needed then. But they are desperately needed now. But now the excitement is over for people, and people are back to work in their regular scheme of things."

A national call center needs to be developed to help guide people who want to volunteer or donate material goods, agreed both Miller and Hazelwood. "And we need to activate it the moment the first newscast has begun," said Miller. "One of our NVOAD members, the Points of Light Foundation, has stepped forward with a plan that addresses exactly that need," said Miller.

Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), chair of the committee, said national leaders "watched in agony" the events that took place in the wake of Katrina and Rita. "We've been following the progress - in some cases lack of it - since that time. We are six months away from that destruction - and just a few months away from the next hurricane season. We have no time to wait. Every minute is precious as it brings us closer and closer to the 2006 hurricane season."

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