Local sees Katrina through FEMA’s eyes | AspenTimes.com
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Local sees Katrina through FEMA’s eyes

Scott Crow, left, of Redstone helps make sure travel trailers in Slidell, La., are properly prepared for people who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina. Crow has worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Louisiana since the storm struck six months ago. (Courtesy Scott Crow)
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Strange sights like a 40-foot yacht stuck spear-style in a garage and a 120-foot fishing trawler stranded high and dry miles inland will stick in Redstone resident Scott Crow’s mind for eternity.But the most searing memory of Hurricane Katrina will be the faces – hundreds and hundreds of faces of despair. Crow has worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency on an as-needed basis for 4 1/2 years. Since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, the agency has needed him nonstop.Crow spent the first three months after the storm inspecting houses in Louisiana to assess damage. He was assigned to Tammany Parish, which includes the city of Slidell and other towns north of New Orleans, across Lake Pontchartrain. Tammany Parish wasn’t swamped for a long time like parts of New Orleans. Instead, a 10- to 15-foot tidal surge charged as far as 15 miles inland and then receded.Crow inspected 587 residences in three months. Sometimes foundations were all that remained. Water swept away the plywood, shingles, siding and all the belongings stuffed inside.Sometimes just empty shells of apartment buildings remained. The interiors were so severely damaged that they had to be gutted. And sometimes entire neighborhoods were pulverized. A carpet of debris that represented everything many families had worked for covered the ground.

Crow estimated 60 percent of the places he inspected are salvageable; 40 percent are destroyed or badly damaged.”These places are going to take decades to recover, if they recover at all,” Crow said.He and scores of other inspectors were the front line of FEMA. Until individuals and families were in the agency’s system, they weren’t eligible for various FEMA programs, from rent assistance to receiving a travel trailer. And getting into the system depended on housing inspectors verifying storm damage.While the inspectors provided a vital step in the system, people often expected or hoped for more from them. Crow said it was heartbreaking to inspect the damage to homes of families that had lost everything – and to explain they would have to wait a while longer for aid.Often, he was assigned to check out several homes in the same neighborhood, but not all of them. Residents were sometimes hanging out next door to a property he was inspecting, sometimes even living there in a tent, waiting for someone to assess their property and begin providing aid. They couldn’t understand why Crow couldn’t help them.”I had people chase me down in my vehicle,” which displayed the FEMA insignia, he said. He would patiently explain that another inspector assigned to their case would be by shortly.

Right after the storm, when the full extent of the damage was just becoming apparent, Crow said it was difficult to “keep it together” while driving from one devastated home to another. The sheer workload prevented the experience from taking an emotional toll.”The trick was we were so busy,” Crow said. “If there was no respite, it wouldn’t get you. I was able to sleep at night because I was so exhausted.”But usually the people he assisted understood his small role in the process and were thankful for FEMA’s role, Crow said. “Ninety percent of the time it’s been great,” he said.Crow, a custom woodworker who has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for 28 years, gave a mixed assessment of the agency’s performance. At his level, he believes the agency has run efficiently. But the sheer magnitude of the devastation combined with inefficiency that seems inherent with government agencies has created problems, he acknowledged.”Half [of the criticism] is legitimate in some percentage,” Crow said. “Some of it is right on target.”Some people who really need aid haven’t received it. Others received aid when they didn’t actually need it.

But as an example of efficiency, he points to his district’s success in providing travel trailers or mobile homes to people who lost their residences. FEMA’s goal in his district – Tammany, Washington and Tangipahoa parishes – was to provide 3,500 trailers by Christmas. It met that goal and exceeded it by providing 8,500 by March 1.Crow said that’s 8,500 trailers, with more coming, out of 15,000 applicants. In some cases, families found alternative housing and no longer needed a FEMA trailer. In other cases, families are still living in tents and are in dire need of the assistance, he said.During the last three months, Crow’s job shifted from inspecting houses to conducting quality assurance inspections on FEMA travel trailers so people could move in. He gauged if utilities were working property and other health and safety issues were addressed.He took a break and returned to the Roaring Fork Valley for about two weeks this month. Then it is back to New Orleans for an indefinite amount of time. Despite the controversy about FEMA’s performance and the agency’s mandate not to move trailers into areas most prone to flooding, Crow welcomes another chance to help.”It’s fulfilling. You feel like you’re doing some good,” he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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