Foreword: Purpose - - Intro: Notes from the Author - - Chap.1: Your Recovery
The New Disaster Relief Handbook
Disaster: Aid: America: Moneybook:) sm) tm
Introduction: Notes From the Author
0.1: Who I AmJohn Theodore Porter, that's who. And how did I come to write this great, best-selling, first-outside-official-channels-guide to the federal disaster relief program? Well sometimes I wonder that myself. I am a carpenter (Local 713, last) by trade, and a general contractor by design, with good educational experience (two years of engineering and architecture at Ohio State) following a summer of National Science Foundation computer and math training during high school. Ohio State had a good program, but I lost interest in my studies and left after two years. I temped for Compuserve in Columbus, Ohio as an assistant financial analyst for one summer, and then got a job as an engineering assistant and computer programmer for Wm. Lewis and Associates (excellent electrical engineers) in Portsmouth, Ohio. The work was fun, but the hours were long and most of all I just couldn't handle being cooped up inside all the time. Thank God for my father. He offered me a job helping him build custom homes in southern Ohio, and I took him up on it. There I got to learn the building trades from a master everything, i.e. my dad, and I guess I got pretty good at bulding and repair work myself. In the early eighties I was referred to a contracting FEMA inspection company, Suncoast and Associates (now defunct), through a realtor friend in Cincinnati whose brother-in-law worked for FEMA. I called them and applied for work, and a couple years later, in October 1985, I got a call to report to Puerto Rico for training. A huge tropical storm had struck there a few days earlier, and the little island was devastated.
Working disaster relief you learn to hit the ground running. The very first day of training, I accompanied a senior inspector, John Flint, to a neighborhood near Poncé where a giant mudslide had engulfed the homes of more than two hundred people in the middle of the night. We pulled up to a corner colmado (small grocery store) directly across from now abandoned rescue scene. A crowd quickly gathered about the little shop. The proprietor introduced us to a small neatly dressed man about 30 years old or so, one of the few people to have actively survived the tragedy. I'll never forget that fellow. He was already half-drunk at ten o'clock in the morning, but I quickly learned why. If ever a man had a good excuse for being that way, he did. On the night of the storm he had been shooting pool in a open-air bar a couple streets over from his own home (which the slide in fact missed), and was standing looking out into the rain when he heard the mountain let go. He yelled a warning to his friends and took off running. He excitedly told us the tale of his panicked flight - fleeing down the street a step ahead of the flow, hearing the sleepy surprised screams of soon-to-be-dead neighbors and friends in the collapsing homes around him, but powerless to do anything but run and scream himself. He expressed guilt and anguish over being one of the few people to make it out alive (exhibiting classic "survivor trauma" I've since learned). Because his own home wasn't affected, he didn't need / wasn't eligible for FEMA housing assistance. He wasn't wanting money, Mr. Flint told me, he hadn't applied for aid - he only wanted someone to listen to his nightmare. Wow, OK, Good luck, friend, I hope everything works out. And for me? Well, it was one heck of first case, a haunting introduction to the field of disaster relief, I can tell you that.
Since then I have written over three thousand damage inspection reports and reviewed maybe ten thousand more. Although I've enjoyed being an FEMA inspector, and I have especially enjoyed the camaraderie with my fellow inspectors, the stress of the job is sometimes a great challenge, and the traveling is hard on normal family life. This book reflects my desire to continue to be of service to my country and to my fellow citizens, to pay my bills, and just maybe to hone a latent writing talent.
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0.2: How This Book HappenedThe genesis for this book came when Mary Elizabeth Smith, one of the owners of Suncoast and Associates, asked me to teach a new inspector training class after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. It might have been their first formal inspector training class ever - before Hugo there hadn't been that many sizable disasters for a number of years (and the Stafford Act of 1988 increased the scope of the program), and the few new people that had been hired (like me) were individually field trained. Anyway, there were no teaching materials available from any source, and I had no time to prepare much of anything for the class. Well, as you might expect, it was pretty much a "disaster." Par for the course perhaps, but professionally I was not pleased. After I returned home I started tinkering around with trying to write a training manual. That project didn't go far as I got busy with my own remodeling business. When I did go work a disaster, I noticed something else - that many of the applicants were so ill-prepared to handle the inspection process that, not only did it make the inspector's (my) job that much harder, but it had to have affected their claims adversely in a number of cases - regardless of inspector awareness and efforts otherwise. So the training manual that I originally started writing evolved into a manual for disaster victims. In my experience, in order for disaster victims to manage a successful recovery, in order for them to start taking charge of their own lifes again, they need good sound information. I know that they appreciate having someone take the time to help them understand the complicated array of programs and hard choices in front of them, and to show them how to best implement the decisions they do make. "Just give me a hand," is what they seem to be saying, "let me catch my breath a minute and I'll be all right." Hopefully this book can help do just that.
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0.3: SynopsisWhen you call FEMA to apply for disaster assistance, make sure that your name, address, phone number, and the directions to your house are correctly entered on your application. If the inspector makes a reasonable effort to find you, but can't, your claim goes on the back burner (Editor's note: and can sometimes end up as toast!). And don't waste the inspector's time when the ball's in your court - one big thing FEMA prides itself on (and judges us inspectors on) is their "turnaround" time. The purpose of the program is to speed your community's recovery from the disaster, and, to that end, they want to get a check in your hands as soon as possible too. Get your required proofs together before the inspector comes (and keep in mind that the he could show up the very next day after you apply). Keep your documentation readily available and see to it that your spouse knows where it's kept, too. Take photos, if you can, before you clean up or repair anything. Know your own damages and make sure they're pointed out to the inspector - especially if they're not obvious. Be friendly and polite, but don't shrink from asserting a legitimate claim. You aren't usually required to show receipts (at the inspection) for repairs and expenses; but they can clarify the scope and extent of your damages and help verify your claim, and you may be called on later to produce them. Keep them organized and available.
In my experience, the great bulk of Disaster Housing Assistance grants go to low and middle income homeowners - folks who, by and large, are members of the working class, handicapped, veterans, or retirees. Disaster relief is one of the few programs where the average American might realize some small direct return on his and his family's lifetime investment in his country, and at a time when he or she needs it most. As an inspector it makes me most uncomfortable to "happen upon" a $500 or $1000 item of concealed or otherwise unapparent damage - something the applicant either wasn't aware of, or was aware of but hadn't thought to mention in the course of our interview. "Uncomfortable" because: a) professionally I don't want to miss anything, and: b) I know that we inspectors only discover a small percentage of that kind of damage (things like burnt-out water pumps, cracked septic tanks, broken sewer lines, and so on) and that these people need to get those things fixed - and most of the time they can't afford to without some kind of outside assistance. Disaster victims are our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, our sons and daughters - sometimes literally and always figuratively - and they merit compassion regardless of their income level, the color of their skin, where they live, or whatever. In my personal contact with thousands of disaster victims, I've seen that people everywhere still strive for and admire the virtue of self-reliance. It's a little harder to pull off lately, though, now that the great technological advances of our age have shredded the historical safety nets of rural community and small town "neighbor-help-neighbor" and the (Oh so dearly missed!) extended family way of life. Disaster victims are no more responsible for the degradation of these precious social intangibles, or for our planet's worsening weather patterns, than you or I - and I would not leave them to bear the brunt of it unaided. Now I am certainly no champion of big government, it's power and intrusiveness scare the heck out of me, too, so if there's a better way to handle emergency disaster assistance for the common man, as Harry Truman might have said, well, show us, and let's have a go at it that way.
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0.4: Now, Who Are You ?That's my side of things, what's yours? It's great to hear from my readers, and we could possibly do a newsletter, or chat room, or something like that, if there's interest. I'm a fan of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, as I hope you can tell as you read, (but figure you can't), and I appreciate correspondence in that vein. I also believe that "angels fly because they take themselves lightly," so, even though this is a serious subject, I try to let that attitude bear on my writing as it will. Thanks for buying this book, I hope you enjoy it, and further hope you never need to use it.
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John Porter aka John Lionheart
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