Attempt to help evacuees
plagued by failure to communicate
By BRAD WARTHEN
EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
THE MAN WAS walking around with a $2,000 FEMA check in his hand, and he didn’t have any idea what to do with it.
That caused Nola Armstrong, a volunteer at the old Naval Reserve center that houses S.C. Cares’ many services for Katrina evacuees, to realize some folks needed more help than others. The Legal Services volunteers (who work out of the office pictured at right) came up with a way to provide it.
What happened next illustrates a quandary inherent in trying to help the helpless: When someone is dependent upon you for the necessities of life, how responsible are you for what happens to them? Where is the line between compassion and condescension, between brotherly love and paternalism?
From what I’ve seen at the S.C. Cares center, the volunteer “shepherds” know where to draw the line. But when they tried to make sure no one with mental problems got conned out of the $2,000 FEMA was sending to the head of each evacuee household, they ran into trouble with the feds.
S.C. Cares chief Samuel Tenenbaum said that from the beginning of Columbia’s hastily organized effort, the main operating principle has been the Golden Rule: “How would I want to be treated?”
It was decided these were not “refugees” or “evacuees,” but guests, and would be treated as such. They would not be herded into a communal shelter, but housed in motel rooms. Shuttles would take them back and forth between their motels and the center where they get medical care, eat a free meal, get reconnected with scattered relatives, make bank transactions without fees, and on and on.
“What we set up was a community,” said Mr. Tenenbaum, and one that ran better than most.
When it became obvious that some members of the community might be particularly vulnerable walking around town with $2,000, the organizers approached Probate Judge Amy McCulloch for help. They worried that while the center had a setup for helping the mentally ill, the checks were going to the motels. Judge McCulloch issued an order to change that arrangement. When FEMA heard about it, U.S. Attorney Johnny Gasser got involved.
FEMA doesn’t dictate to local relief workers how to do the job, Mr. Gasser told me. “They leave it up to the locals to determine” pretty much everything, he said, including “what is the best way to distribute these checks.”
He said FEMA had signed off on a local plan to have checks sent to the hotels. But when I sought a copy, Mr. Tenenbaum said “there was no written plan,” merely a hasty discussion on Labor Day in the mayor’s office, with planeloads of evacuees about to descend upon Columbia.
Did Mayor Bob Coble know of any formal agreement with FEMA? “Absolutely not,” he said.
Mr. Gasser said FEMA had two main problems with Judge McCulloch’s order: First, it departed from “the plan.” He said “FEMA’s in the crosshairs,” and feared a backlash if people who had been promised checks at their hotels had to get them somewhere else. Second, “the civil rights implications.” FEMA thought the language in the order created “a presumption that people had to prove their lucidness prior to receiving their money.”
But “it was never about screening everyone,” said Judge McCulloch. The idea proposed by S.C. Cares was that if the checks came to the center, where mental health services are available, conservators could be appointed for those who might need help handling money.
“The issue was, how do we help these people to make sure nobody takes advantage of their dollars?” said Mr. Tenenbaum.
Mr. Gasser sympathizes. “Everybody was well-intentioned,” he said. S.C. Cares’ concerns are “absolutely legitimate.” He said he told Judge McCulloch that local folks should “just get a new plan approved.”
“It doesn’t take much time to type up an e-mail to FEMA,” he said. That doesn’t match the experience of those who tried.
“There were many contacts, not only by me, but by people down there (at S.C. Cares), to contact FEMA” and work out the matter, Judge McCulloch said. “I personally made three phone calls to try to climb the chain” in Washington, she said. “The third person said, ‘We don’t have the authority to do this, and I personally don’t know who would.’”
He recommended that she call the agency’s 800 number. At that point she issued the order that S.C. Cares had requested.
“As soon as I issued the order, FEMA called me,” she said. It was the agency’s general counsel, saying “What are you doing?” She explained, and asked for help in getting the checks distributed in a more secure location, rather than leaving the job to “hotel clerks.”
“Discussions were had,” she said. “People were asked.”
“The next thing I knew,” she said, “I heard that the U.S. attorney’s office was going to sue me.”
(When I called FEMA’s general counsel I got a
public affairs guy instead. “I’m not familiar with any plan,” he said. But, “Our policy is to mail the check to the individual where they are staying.”)
Mr. Tenenbaum is indignant that anyone would think folks in Columbia were trying to deny anyone their “rights.”
“Our whole philosophy was the opposite of that,” he said. The irony is, if S.C. Cares had treated its “guests” like “refugees” and kept them in a common shelter, the problem wouldn’t have arisen.
“FEMA is incapable of getting outside the bureaucratic response and into the people response,” Mayor Coble said, adding that his advice to the agency would be: “Quit having meetings. Help the person in front of you.”
For Judge McCulloch, “My biggest regret is that we have not solved the problem.”
Attempt to help evacuees