ROBERTSVILLE — As Joshua deBerge pulled his white SUV to the side of a residential road in Robertsville on Thursday, a woman approached his car.
“Can you help me?” she asked, fighting tears. “My entire house was cut in half by a tree.”
After exchanging a few words, deBerge said he would put her in touch with a Franklin County official who could help.
Connie Brasier was in luck. Her home was already on the list of properties the Federal Emergency Management Agency would evaluate that day.
Brasier's home was one of more than a dozen in the path of a powerful tornado that hit Robertsville on New Year's Eve.
Nearly everyone in the small town 25 minutes south of St. Louis was affected. Some houses were completely destroyed, while others were still standing but rendered uninhabitable. Bits of insulation and siding hung from trees and power lines like moss.
At Ft. Leonard Wood, tornadoes destroyed 30 homes and damaged 60 more on Dec. 31. In St. Louis, 33 buildings in a nine-block area were hit, and damage ranged from purely cosmetic to complete collapse.
By Tuesday, four assessment crews made up of government representatives and officials had spread out across the state to the impacted communities to evaluate the damage, property by property.
FEMA employs about 4,000 full-time staff, but the number can swell to 12,000 when reservists are called in to assist with major disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
During 2010, FEMA agents responded to 80 disaster declarations, and those were just the major ones. Agents can spend months away from home.
“A lot of people hear FEMA and they think of Washington, D.C. They think it’s just an agency, but it’s more than that,” deBerge said. “There are people who really care behind that name.”
In the aftermath of catastrophic events when state or local officials are incapable of coping with a disaster themselves, FEMA steps in to help begin assessments and coordinate and manage the situation. In areas where damage isn’t catastrophic, the impact often is not immediately evident — hence the house-to-house inspections.
By documenting how many homes are rendered uninhabitable and what type of infrastructure damage occurred, the state can assess the need for help. It evaluates which areas need the most humanitarian assistance, financial aid and government response to recuperate and then begins to mobilize those efforts.
FEMA gauges the extent of damage to structures based on safety of the inhabitants, expected repair time and whether residents were displaced.
“We classify the buildings based on pretty broad guidelines,” deBerge said.
The team asks residents about their load-bearing walls, for example. They question homeowners on the integrity of roof trusses and if any lifting force acted on the roof.
“We really try to focus on the individuals affected. We look at damage in terms of how the people involved are impacted,” deBerge said.
The information crews gather on the ground in Missouri is relayed to Jefferson City, where Gov. Jay Nixon will ultimately decide whether to request a federal disaster declaration.
“FEMA considers every disaster local, and we see ourselves as guests of the state,” explained deBerge, who has been with the organization for two years.
Local officials typically respond first because they are on the ground and more familiar with the area.
Officials at the city and county levels work closely with FEMA to tailor response and clean-up efforts to the specific types of damage they find.
Clean-up and recycling measures for appliances, sewers and biohazards are also overseen by county officials, in addition to evaluating specific structures for damage.
Evidence of inspections earlier in the week in Robertsville took the form of bright red and orange notices taped to doors: “Habitable; repairs necessary,” “Uninhabitable; severe damage” and “Condemned.”
Many of the heavily damaged houses were empty Thursday afternoon.
Abe Cook, the director of the Franklin County Emergency Management Agency, walked through a debris-strewn Robertsville subdivision with the team from FEMA, contacting homeowners who had stayed.
“Do you need assistance? Is the home habitable? Are you insured?" he asked. The questions are vital for gauging the storm’s impact on the physical stability of the area, but the extent of human anguish is unquantifiable.
As the team moved up the street, LoRaine Fischer stood in her driveway, looking at the tangled mess that was her home. She and two friends narrowly escaped the trailer as a tornado tore through her subdivision.
“I ran out, and the wind picked me up. Things were flying and hitting me, and then it was over,” said Fischer, who had lived in her house since 1995.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do. It’d be nice to be like Samantha on 'Bewitched.' You just want to twitch your nose and make it better,” she said.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing someone’s home destroyed,” deBerge admitted as he drove with a FEMA caravan through a devastated section of Robertsville.
“I think we all realize we have a job to do, and try not to let what we see get in the way of that,” he said.