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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Twelve Things I Learned In the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Even though people are still suffering mightily, the story of Hurricane Sandy has been removed from the national daily conscience by the manufactured crisis of the "fiscal cliff." Now that I have that bit of editorializing out of the way, here's a few things I learned over the past month:
Union Beach, NJ, 11-27-12

  1. Government can function as government should function. Police and firefighters (paid firefighters in some areas, substantially volunteer in most affected areas in New Jersey) are truly the hardworking, dedicated heroes we would all like them to be. The compassion and concern in the face of their own lives having been turned upside-down was in every instance of my experience beyond what could be expected. (Well, maybe the one cop at one gas station the morning after the big snowstorm who didn't get my joke about the guy that just yelled at him could've used an adjustment to his sense of humor, but what the heck, he was tired) I was privy to the private pictures of one State Trooper who was on the barrier islands of New Jersey before the tide had receded. My psyche was bent like a pretzel looking at the pictures on his iPhone. He worked 9 straight 15 hour days, took a day off and went back to duty. National Guard troops are living in huts made from debris on the beach in Bay Head. 
  2. Not in my backyard, dammit, unless of course they're pumping gas when I need it. Speaking of gas stations, the forward-thinking residents of my wonderful town strenuously opposed Quik-Chek's plans to build a gas station/convenience store in a semi-rural area down the road from me. Lucky for them, they lost their fight to squash any and all development in town (except of course for their McMansions they grandfathered in to their abject hatred of progress). I didn't hear a single complaint from anyone about the new Quik-Chek when it turned out to be the only working gas station within a 10 mile radius for five days. You go Jackson, NJ! Just keep on complaining about those high property taxes and keep those business ratables somewhere else!
  3. I did see one FEMA office trailer on Wednesday, November 7, but it was closed because of the bad weather. In my 30 days of relief/recovery work I encounter exactly zero Red Cross or FEMA personnel. I'm not saying they weren't there, I'm saying I didn't see them, which kind of surprises me because I was pretty much all over the state. And yes, FEMA closed its offices a week after the hurricane because of the nor'easter we got hit with. Luckily, the regular people doing the real work kept right on working during the storm.
  4. "Go outside and wait in your car while I do your paperwork, I can't do this if you're going to keep talking to me." That statement was relayed to me by a person who was treated with utter disdain while she tried to explain the damage and her needs after her house was filled with three feet of water. Sometimes, people just want to talk about what they have gone through, and well, we all know bureaucrats aren't good at going off script. FEMA has gotten a pretty bad reputation around these parts because of their complete and total arrogance when dealing with people whose homes have been destroyed. Apparently most Federal FEMA employees don't like American citizens much. FEMA is so caught up in the red tape President Obama promised Governor Christie he would cut that to say they've been nearly impotent during the storm recovery phase would be an understatement. Just because the media isn't whining about FEMA's poor performance doesn't mean it wasn't poor. 
  5. "We're FEMA and you have to do what we tell you to do." A manager of a big box retailer who gave me a hefty discount on $200 worth of school supplies my wife and I purchased (with donated money) for displaced school kids on the barrier islands relayed his experience with FEMA: "They came in with their crisp clean uniforms and demanded I give them employees to gather items and load them into their cars." According to the store manager (who incidentally manages a store rich liberal people hate and make fun of and poor people rely on to fulfill their needs) after he was told he had to obey the FEMA workers and do what they wanted, he decided no more discounts to the government. He gave us an awesome discount. Go Store That Liberals Hate And Make Fun Of!
  6. Excuse me, I'll just live in this tent while you two figure out what the hell happened to me. Several people have told me that they are not receiving insurance money to start the rebuilding of their homes because the private insurance companies are fighting with the Federal flood insurance people over whether their homes were destroyed by "storm damage" or "flood damage." 
  7. Scroungy looking hippies serve one hell of a good tortellini from the back of a U-Haul truck. In Union Beach, many people lost their cars to the storm surge, making them rely largely on food and supplies brought in to them. The Red Cross was not working in the area, yet a rented U-Haul decorated with neon vinyl tape and operated by three or four young guys most of us regular people would cross the street to avoid, were making thrice daily trips throughout the borough to deliver hot meals. The food was for the most part donated by restaurants and relief kitchens in the area, but we shouldn't ignore the fact that it was people helping people while the government did the talking and not much else, (yes, I consider the Red Cross a quasi-governmental agency because of their complete dominance of relief efforts in this country). 
  8. "You stay on that side of the wall. People who belong here are only allowed on this side of the wall." That's what the lovely lady who had decided to be in charge said to my daughter and I as we returned empty cardboard boxes to the staging area at a local ad-hoc food relief center. We had just returned from delivering 30 meals to people in a nearly completely destroyed section of town. I worked with this relief center three times and all three times I was lucky enough to be told what to do in the most arrogant of ways by the same middle-aged woman whose severe power trip had completely taken over any good work she was trying to accomplish. As this relief coalition housed in a local sports league building grew, so did the unwieldy nature of the organization, thus the tyrannical actions of this one frustrated middle-manager. The only point to this (at the end of the day the group did in fact do good work), is to further bolster my firm belief that its not large organizations that do the best work, its individuals. As individual efforts get subsumed into group efforts the purity and efficiency of the effort gets diluted, sometimes to the point of wanting to tell otherwise kindly-hearted volunteers to go #$%^& themselves. Too strong? I think not.
  9. There are an amazing amount of really good people in the world. Through Facebook and Twitter, my family was able to secure almost $5,000 in donations from across the country, ranging from clothing to food to toiletries to home improvement gift cards. I had no plan when I started the efforts, but with tons of help from around the country we were able to get a lot of supplies to a lot of people. To date, we have received donations from New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, California, Illinois, Washington, Virginia and Maryland.
  10. That's not to say there aren't a lot of people who want to help but can't without help from someone. These are the kind of people that give people like the lady in #8 a reason to live. I've gotten dozens of requests from people to give them ways to get involved or go volunteer. These requests kind of make me vacillate between being really mad and kind of sad. People have become so used to waiting to be told what to do before they just go do that they've become paralyzed by the illusion of personal helplessness. I like to act first and apologize to over-zealous middle-aged women who think they're in charge second.
  11. If you need to buy a tee-shirt or have Bruce Springsteen sing you a song before you donate money to people whose homes have been destroyed and who have lost everything they owned, you might want to re-think your priorities. Telethons are just ways to make people feel good who otherwise have no interest in the disaster at hand. I'm not talking about the people who donate, I'm talking about the cultural elite who call in a minimum effort on a television show and call it a day. I'm cynical, with reason. Show me where the money went and who it helped and I'll retract my antipathy toward you. And you people sitting across the country: You weren't going to donate to help until you heard Jersey Girl? That's nice. Through the Katrina telethon we learned George Bush didn't like black people, through the Sandy hurricane did we get an opinion on Obama's feelings toward white people?
  12. Some people delude themselves into thinking the government will take care of everything.  I was amazed to hear from more than one person that charity work is a waste of time because the government will help these people. This is not the kind of country I'm interested in living in, and since everywhere else is worse, you Big Government types are going to have to deal with me until you figure reality out. On the Saturday after the hurricane, I shuttled clothing from a storm relief center in Brick to a state run psychiatric hospital in Monmouth County. Let me repeat that for you in case you weren't paying attention: After the hurricane, a state run facility 15 miles from the coast needed clothing and other supplies for its patients. I should also note that the woman I dealt with there specifically asked if we had men's sneakers in size 10 for one teenage patient. So yeah, tell me again how great the government takes care of people it's put in charge of.
Union Beach, NJ, 11-27-12

Hurricane Sandy has reminded all of us that society does not flow from the government to the people, it flows from person-to-person. Government is just the thing we invented to keep the people who try to disrupt that flow in line.

Union Beach, NJ, 11-27-12

Go help someone in your area who may need it. Live your politics.

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