Black Water

FEMA Needs to Tell People What It Intends for Their Homes

6039providencepsmlI had a fairly thorough look through the FEMA website, and no where could I find any mention of any plans to tell people FEMA's intentions for their homes. There are instructions for registering a claim with FEMA, but it is not clear to me what FEMA does for you once your claim is registered. Is this simply a mechanism for receiving aid money? Or does their attention to your claim involve keeping you updated on whether they plan to tear down your neighborhood? Anyone know?

Over the weekend, a reader made what seemed to me a really good suggestion, though I didn't yet understand at the time how good a suggestion it was:

Please consider contacting the USGS to have updated satellite photos made available for New Orleans citizens, their families and friends - so that the conditions of their neighborhood can be evaluated from their distant locations while awaiting permission to return home. This may take weeks. It would put many minds at ease (or make the worst known, not better, but less harsh than the wait to see it firsthand).

Make it so, Kathryn. Use what contacts and influence you have to make this idea understood as an important technical tool and its use as a social service.

This will also help FEMA recovery efforts.

There aren't enough satellite and aerial images publicly available to accomplish what he suggests. But the general idea, that the US government needs to provide people information about their homes, is a good one.

Clearly, some of the houses are a total loss and need to be torn down. On some portions of satellite images houses formerly aligned in neat rows now look like they were casually dropped and haven't been lined up yet. Those homes are gone. There is no question that they need to be replaced. But many others, some in quite deep water, may well be reparable. The question is this: How much of New Orleans does FEMA plan to restore, and how much does it plan to simply replace. And if the houses are replaced with something else, are they to be replaced for their original owners? Or will the land be taken by eminent domain and redistributed?

One thing I did find on the FEMA site was a news release detailing the FEMA time-line for federal funding of "debris removal":

State and local governments will be reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency for 100 percent of Hurricane Katrina eligible debris removal costs incurred during the sixty days following President Bush’s federal disaster declaration, from August 29 through October 30th, 2005.

Examples of eligible clean-up include removal of debris from public rights-of-way to ensure safe passage and debris removal from public property to eliminate health and safety hazards.

Removing the massive debris left by Hurricane Katrina is a cooperative effort between local communities, state governments, federal governments, and state and federal agencies.

It's not clear to me whether this time-line applies (or even could be applied) to the cleanup of New Orleans. But now that Michael Brown is out of the way, presumably some plan for the future of New Orleans is coming together.

Whole neighborhoods will need to be torn down entirely. We know this. It's obvious from up there in orbit where Digital Globes satellites live. But how many neighborhoods? And who will decide? Will FEMA tell you in advance if your house is to be razed, or only after the fact? FEMA needs to make its plans public as soon as possible.

The data tying specific New Orleans addresses to GPS coordinates and aerial and satellite images exists. I've been using it all week. FEMA needs to provide us with their overlay for the map of New Orleans before they start the bulldozers. My personal recommendation to whomever is now in charge of the restoration of New Orleans is that as soon as they have a map showing what areas of the city the plan to tear down, that they release it to the public and to the media so that it can be integrated into the same tools the public has been using to check on the storm damage to their homes. Specifically, I would like to see a publicly published map that could then be integrated into the Google Maps and Google Earth interfaces. Also, FEMA should license this same technology, for use on its own website, to create an Internet site where people can type in their addresses and receive a detailed report on what FEMA plans for the area.

If FEMA goes in with the bulldozers and starts razing areas without either informing the property owners and residents, nor allowing them back in to get their possessions, there will be mass panic. I hope that whoever takes over for Michael Brown has the sense to do better than that.


UPDATE: For those certain that what I'm describing just isn't FEMA's job, Josh Marshall explains how, now that FEMA has screwed up, they've had their mandate expanded to include administering reconstruction:

Fully $50 billion of those recovery and reconstruction funds passed by Congress today are going to FEMAFEMA is going to administer those funds.  That is just friggin' crazy.

Even if FEMA were still a model government agency, as it was by most accounts in the 1990s, this would still be a really, really bad decision. As the title says, FEMA is an emergency management agency, not a reconstruction agency. It doesn't have the organizational structure or competence to run the economy of a significant chunk of the United States for the foreseeable future, which is what this amounts to. . . .

And all that of course would all apply if FEMA were a well-run agency. But obviously, it's not. It's currently run by a crew of political hacks. The agency itself -- if its recent performance is any example -- is in deep disarray. It's become thoroughly politicized. And there are already very credible claims that it has used its disaster relief funds to advance narrowly political agendas. And then add on top of that what we've seen this administration do with the contracting mess in Iraq. Contracting cronyism defines this administration. And we're giving $50 billion to one of its most cronyfied outposts.

This is a fiscal disaster waiting to happen, a truly terrible idea.

(Thanks, Nell!)