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« It Couldn't Happen to a More Deserving Guy | Main | The Great Runaway Scrape Redux »



I must say this is the first time I've heard myself described as a "salt-of-the-earth American" and I'm not sure I like it -- Johnny Cash, maybe, or Tom Joad, but me?

Anyway, here's my shorthand, mole's-eye-view after being "imbedded" with the ARC. I want to respond to several issues raised by the editorial.

I remember the Loma Prieta debacle clearly, and thereafter stopped donating from my paycheck to ARC or the United Way (a contributor to the ARC). I volunteered because ARC is the only game in town for volunteers, in any meaningful sense. They could get me there and have me doing something more quickly than anyone else.

It was my understanding, reinforced by what I heard from senior volunteers and supervisors, that quite a shake-up of both policy and leadership followed Loma Prieta and 9/11; now, donations made in response to a specific disaster does stay within that fund. I was told that is specifically true for Katrina. My job involved issuing benefits to Katrina survivors. The process was not easy for would-be scammers. I only had one instance where I felt the ARC might have been ripped off, but fraud exists in every enterprise at a fairly consistent level of 1-2%. Duplicate or fraudulent claims will be prosecuted, and again, this is hearsay, but I was told by supervisors that the mechanism for this is in place. One large regional center where I worked processed about 1,400 claimants a day, and after 2 weeks of operation, had about 80 claims worthy of investigation. This is less than 1%. The benefits, while significant to the claimant, were not enough to steer any wealthy or limo-driving people to my table. We were instructed to tell people that the initial payment was intended to be a kick-start for immediate needs and that, as with 9/11, further benefits might be forthcoming once everyone had a chance to claim the initial benefits and the shelters closed, or at least their cost could be projected. The remainder of the Katrina fund could then be reallocated to the claimants.

Until the recent FEMA meltdown, ARC has always had a cordial relationship, and in some areas their missions overlap. The money ARC will receive from FEMA is to reimburse ARC for hotel/motel vouchers given to evacuees when shelters are full. I doubt that this figure will rise to a significant amount. I have no knowledge of what agreement led to this arrangement, but FEMA does have a responsibility to house people after disasters. After Hurricane Andrew, both FEMA and ARC had tent cities. In smaller disasters (and better-led times for FEMA), FEMA provides trailers. ARC provides immediate mass shelter housing, food, and cash disbursements. During my interviews with about 150 Katrina benefit claimants from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, less than 5 had received hotel vouchers. Many had been promised trailers; none had arrived. During my talks with the county FEMA representative, he said it would take months (if ever) to supply all the trailers needed after Katrina. The vast majority of my claimants were with family or could make do in what was left of their house during repairs. In the various motels where I stayed, (most of which made Motel 6 look like Club Med) only two households were put up courtesy of the ARC. On the other hand, the bulk of the volunteers were working at the shelters scattered over the area, which leads me to believe that the bulk of the people who are homeless as a result of Katrina are or were in shelters. I was told there would be a need for such volunteers well past the first of the year. In sum, I did not observe anything that led me to believe that the ARC was shuffling people into motels willy-nilly to bilk taxpayers or donors, or that money was spent on the undeserving.

Not that I think the ARC is perfect. This was a massive operation, and mostly volunteer-run, and as my duty progressed, it was apparent that the organization learned as it went about the business of mobilizing the biggest relief effort in its history. Any waste I saw was of human resources, and that improved markedly during my stay. Under such circumstances, I think the saying is appropriate: "It is not how well the bear dances -- it is that it dances at all."

Until there's an accounting for the FEMA money, it is important to ask these questions, but I think the editorial is blowing the issues, especially the reimbursement issue, out of proportion.

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