"They don't wanna announce it on the 6 o'clock news, but part of you is like, 'It doesn't matter. Just say it. Say my house is OK, you know, or say it's not OK.' ... At least it's definitive — it's gone."
If Jo Anne Mayeux talks like someone who's been there, it's because she has. The 57-year-old former paralegal was washed out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Today, she calls Divide home, and though she managed to avoid evacuation in the Waldo Canyon Fire, she's been watching it closely, horrified by its hour-to-hour unpredictability. (She says she tells her Southern friends, "I'll take a hurricane over this.")
Mayeux's overarching message, even for those who have lost everything as she did seven years ago, is one of hope: "Keep your head up high and just realize, you know, this too will pass, you know. You will rebuild, you will get help."
But she also makes it clear: In some ways, rebuilding is going to be harder than most of us might imagine.
At the Houston Press and the Gambit Weekly in New Orleans, altweeklies in the nationwide association to which the Independent belongs, reporters have heard dozens of disaster stories. They've lived them, too. So, inspired by the same morbid curiosity that prompted our reaching out to Mayeux, we took members of both papers up on their generous offers to write up a little something about slogging through the aftermath of a crisis. What follows are their tips, in their words.
Richard Connelly, Houston Press
Wildfires are not much like hurricanes, except for two things: The hassles of evacuating, and dealing with [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] in the aftermath.
In Houston, we've had plenty of experiences with hurricanes — right down to our mayor shouting epithets at FEMA workers he didn't think were moving fast enough — and even some with wildfires.
Neither are fun, obviously. But if you want your post-disaster FEMA dealings to be "easy," in the most elastic sense of that word, we can offer some tips.
• If you are seeking a claim from FEMA, don't expect logic. The system tends to get fine-tuned with each disaster, but if you're somewhere that normally doesn't deal with these things regularly, you'll be dealing with bureaucrats overwhelmed by the number of claims they're suddenly forced to handle.
For instance: FEMA might say you need a copy of a certain document from the city, and when/if you get through to the city, they will tell you that document can't be obtained without some other document from the county. When/if you reach the county, they'll tell you that you need to get that city document first. None of it makes sense. It never does. Eventually, hopefully, things work out.
• Make sure you try to get all that's available. That means getting reimbursed for any rent you paid while you couldn't live in your house. Sounds easy, but ...
• Be patient. Be assured none of this will go smoothly, even if it's just a matter of getting a live person on the phone. Many, if not most, of the bureaucrats you'll be dealing with do want to help, but there is always conflicting information floating around on how to do that correctly.
You don't want to wait too long before starting the process, because funds are generally on a first-come, first-served basis. But eventually FEMA will likely open a central processing center in the area and — since Colorado is not a state the Obama administration wants to piss off near the election — it should have its act together.
It will just take a lot of patience on your part.
Staff, Gambit Weekly
Those of us who went through Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures can empathize with you, but no one disaster is like another.
Will FEMA bring in trailers for the displaced? How will the American Red Cross respond? Will President Barack Obama's administration rise to the occasion? There's no way of knowing any of this — yet.
But there were some lessons Louisiana learned that may come in handy.
• Save every receipt you incur while evacuating or evacuated, whether it seems relevant or not: hotels, meals, gasoline, personal supplies. Some of it may be reimbursable; some of it may be tax-deductible. (The Internal Revenue Service has special tax deductions related to disaster relief.)
• Avoid taking in "opinion" news and blogs as best you can. There will be people saying the fire is your fault because you live in an area that can have fires. There will be people saying that you're not worthy of help for the same reason. There will be people who want to discuss this tragedy only through their own lens: climate change, pro-Democrat, pro-Republican, pro-Obama, anti-Obama, whatever, and they will come from across the political spectrum. (I saw that Focus on the Family was using the fires to argue for ... abstinence education. Really.)
It's all just noise. You have enough stress. If you don't pay attention, you don't have to engage or get enraged.
• Realize that insurance companies can be great — or they can be nightmarish. Remember that insurance adjusters are people in your community. Many of them will have your best interests at heart and want to make you whole again. Those who don't have that experience are in for a long road ahead.
• Prepare to feel guilty because no matter how you fared, you will feel guilty because someone else had it worse. Your neighbors may have lost their home. Their neighbors may have lost their home and their pet. It's survivor's guilt, it's irrational, and it's totally natural.
• Prepare to be frustrated at how quickly your story fades from the national headlines once the fires are out and the media have gone on to something else.
• Prepare to be shocked at both the kindness, and the callousness, of your fellow Americans in the weeks to come.
• Be glad that Michael Brown has his hands full being a jackass on the radio (850 KOA in Denver!) and isn't actually coordinating the federal response to this disaster. It's bad enough without Brownie getting involved. Trust us on that one.
How FEMA figures
The Federal Emergency Management Agency does have boots on the ground, as they say, but how large a role the agency will play in Waldo Canyon Fire recovery is still to be determined. In the meantime, it's doing what it does best, says public information officer John Treanor: funding the first-responders.
"What has been declared," he says in a Tuesday phone conversation with the Indy, "is that we'll provide funds for ... emergency life-saving, or life-sustaining efforts not already covered by the direct federal assistance."
Treanor says that, at this point, affected locals seeking help should do it through the government channels that they would at any other time. As this happens, FEMA assessment teams will be determining if the agency's role needs to increase, something the spokesman thinks is likely.
"I would think so, based on my previous [experience], but I've also been surprised," Treanor says. "And fires are a little different than floods, or hurricanes, or tornadoes, or earthquakes, in that it seems that — and particularly if the area is somewhat well-to-do — that they're fully covered by insurance.
"That's one of the things [the assessment teams] are gonna find out — get an idea of what percentage of the damage and lost homes were covered by insurance."
— Bryce Crawford