Local FEMA representative speaks about disaster challenges

Sunday, May 26, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The devastation after disasters such as the EF-5 tornado that ripped through Oklahoma City and its suburbs on Monday spurs an influx of willing volunteers and item donations. But Federal Emergency Management Agency representative Fa'tima Miller said the public's misunderstanding of disaster response disrupts the organization's ability to deliver services. 

Miller, logistics cadre for FEMA in Columbia, sat down with the Missourian to discuss ways the public can responsibly respond in situations like the Oklahoma City tornado, which killed 24 people and damaged about 13,000 homes. While Miller could not speak on the specifics of FEMA's role in Oklahoma City because it is still "a young disaster," she explained how the public's well-meaning intentions can impede rather than help. 

What is your role in FEMA when there is a disaster?

Miller: Washington, D.C., will call me directly and then deploy me to the disaster site, and then I work under the logistics chief. 

When there is a disaster, what kinds of things have you seen go wrong? 

Miller: A lot of it’s the public and their misunderstanding of FEMA’s role. I think a lot of people think FEMA is there to give everything, when in actuality we are a supplemental agency for the state and local community of that disaster site. 

What are some of the logistical challenges you face during disasters?

Miller: What happens is when there is an influx and when there’s overwhelming outside help, it actually impedes what we can do. I’ve seen where the National Guard sweeps and then piles up so much donations they literally have to have a bonfire. It impedes on what they could be doing to help. Instead they’re having to deal with small, difficult problems such as that.

Are there ways to deal with that? 

Miller: You have to let the public know there are logisitical steps to help with their donations. The biggest is to have a point of contact with a charity out of that disaster site. Don’t just start collecting tons and tons of donations and expect that site to ship it for you, or think you can haul all this stuff on your own to that town and donate. Because what happens is, one, the disaster site doesn’t have the money to ship it for you; two, if you self-deploy yourself, and expect to stay the night, you are impeding on those who need those hotel rooms for long-term recovery. When people want to self-deploy, professionally trained volunteers and organizations get precedence over them. That’s a huge thing that the general public doesn’t understand. Don’t compete with those professionally trained teams.

Have you experienced these issues first-hand?

Miller: The whole shipping thing is really tricky, because no one wants to ship a semi-truck full of items. I had an experience where I was called during Hurricane Katrina, and this little organization had collected so many donations. And they realized that it would cost thousands of dollars to ship it down to New Orleans. They called me, but that’s not my responsibility. They pawn it off on me, but I don’t work with donations. That’s not my expertise and I don’t have time for that. 

Did you see this happening during the Joplin tornado?

Miller: A distribution center in Joplin was totally overwhelmed, and it got to the point where people were just donating things on the curbside and in vacant parking lots. You only think of food and perishable things rotting, but clothes were rotting as there was rain and mildew. It looked like a landfill just made up of donations, not debris and deconstruction. The intentions are the public are so good, but they don’t understand that this takes away manpower.

What does FEMA do to provide housing after a tornado?

Miller: There are three things that the North American culture needs. We need sewerage, utilities and water. So what happens is FEMA will go in an contact the local planning organizations and see where we can put FEMA trailers that provide those three things. The local communities need to provide land for us to put FEMA trailers on. The city itself has to know what is available.

Have you been working to fix the public's perception of FEMA's role?

Miller: FEMA has done a better job. Anyone can go on through their public website and get more information than you would expect. The agency is very transparent as far as how they work and what their missions are. I think what can improve is from the local and state level because people don’t realize that it starts locally and then goes nationally. I think educating the public, starting locally, is a big factor. You look at the United Way out of Columbia, and they are definitely on top of educating. The media can also help out by educating.

What would you tell someone that wants to help during a disaster? 

Miller: is a great website, because they have rated charities based on their knowledge and their transparency of different organizations. Each reliable and competent charity, if it's valid, will have filed with the IRS. And a lot of people don’t realize that, which is how scammers come in. Scammers are so savvy these days so the public has to be savvier. 

Supervising editor is Katie Moritz.

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