Bureaucratic Factors to Consider in Emergency Preparedness Planning and Other Observations

by Frederic B. Cyran

Although I am an engineer for the U.S. Treasury Department, I was temporarily assigned to help the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during the Hurricane Katrina/Rita disaster. I spent three weeks in October 2005 as a FEMA worker at the Disaster Management Center in Port Arthur, Texas. There I was assigned as an Application Services Representative in the Individual Assistance Program to help people in the disaster area obtain money for evacuation expenses, temporary housing, and home repairs. An article about my experience with FEMA was published in a newsletter of my engineering group. To view this article click here.

While working with FEMA, I discovered some very important and valuable insights on how to deal with the FEMA bureaucracy. It never previously occurred to me that this knowledge could be so valuable in the aftermath of a disaster. I felt that others could benefit from what I learned. So I wrote a few "advisories" to help others prepare for and deal with the bureaucracy they will encounter when they apply for disaster assistance. This may sound trivial to those who never had this experience, but just knowing what to expect from government relief agencies will help relieve some of the stress that follows a disaster. The clueless are in for additional frustration, anger, and confusion when they realize that they are not dealing with the more familiar kind of bureaucracy they expected (like admission to a hospital emergency room, serving on a jury, getting a drivers license, or resolving a tax problem).

As a disclaimer, I have written these advisories as my own personal opinions. They are not an official position or advice from any government agency. Nothing mentioned herein should be regarded as legal advice. Since several years have passed since this experience, some items may be obsolete or wrong. Also, these advisories would only apply to disasters within the United States.

Advisory 1: Critical Documents and Data for a 72-hour Kit

Advisory 2: Should You Register with FEMA after an Evacuation?

Advisory 3: Tips on Contacting and Registering with FEMA

In addition to the advisories above that deal with the FEMA bureaucracy, here are a few points of non-bureaucratic advice based on my observations in the disaster area and discussions with evacuees. These points are presented as "Things to Consider." They were assembled from the knowledge I obtained while working as a FEMA volunteer, and also while associating in my off-hours with local members of LDS Church units within the disaster area after they returned from their evacuation.

Things to Consider 1: Just before You Evacuate

Things to Consider 2: When You Set Out on Your Evacuation

Things to Consider 3: At Your Shelter or Place of Refuge

Advisory 1: Critical Documents and Data for a 72-hour Kit
Things to put in a small plastic zip-lock bag in your 72 hour kit (these things will be invaluable if you need to evacuate your home for more than 72 hours):

  1. Identification: At least one adult in your family must prove their identity to receive financial assistance from the government. This is because immediately after a disaster, the government will try to assisting as many people as possible and will not focus too much on whether or not you are indeed eligible for assistance. This helps minimize confrontations in an environment of chaos, and if it turns out later (perhaps years later) that you were not eligible, the government will attempt to recover any assistance you obtained in error or due to misrepresentation. So as long as the government knows who you are, they can quickly give you assistance and audit your eligibility later.

    An expired government-issued identification card with a photograph on it is probably more valuable than multiple unexpired cards without a photograph. A previously expired driver's license with your current address and photograph would be ideal. If this is not available, consider any old (expired) single (or multiple combinations of) federal or state government cards that shows:

    • your photograph
    • your birth date
    • your current address

    Also, if you don't already have your social security number memorized (plus those for any other adults in your family), have these written down somewhere.
  2. Bank Account: You need to make sure financial assistance gets to you, and that you can access it. Financial assistance is not distributed in cash. Although you may have a choice between a paper check or an electronic funds transfer, avoid requesting a paper check unless you have no alternative. There is much less probability of problems with electronic funds transfers. To do an electronic funds transfer you will need the following data from your bank account:

    • your bank account routing number
    • your bank account number
    • whether your account is a checking or savings account
    • (optional) the name of your bank.

    It is absolute critical that you know and understand what these numbers are. Giving out the wrong numbers will delay your funds for months! Ideally, these numbers can be found on a check from your checking account, or they could be the same numbers you used successfully on your previously e-filed IRS tax return. Also something to consider: during a disaster, there may be an advantage to using an account at a bank that is far away from the disaster. Also, a nationally syndicated bank (like Chase Manhattan, Citibank, etc.) is better than a local bank within the disaster zone. Just make sure that if you evacuate to a distant location that you can access your account.
  3. Mailing Address: You need to fully understand the concept of having three different "addresses," (permanent, mailing, and temporary) and to state the proper address for the circumstances. During a disaster, there is a high probability that you may move around from place to place. Your three different addresses are:

    • your "permanent" address: this is where you lived before the evacuation, or the place bounded within the "disaster area." This address is used to determine whether or not you qualify for evacuation/disaster assistance.
    • your "mailing" address: this is a correct mailing address of the physical location of someone (not necessarily you) who is outside the disaster area. Do not confuse this "mailing" address during the evacuation with your normal mailing address (like a P.O. Box). Your "mailing" address is where all your official mail, statements, and instructions will be sent to you (in-care of) until you can return to your normal residence. Never use the address of an emergency shelter, a motel, or a temporary acquaintance as your mailing address. Never use your "permanent" address as the same as your "mailing" address, unless it is obvious that the mail is unaffected there and you will be returning there soon (if so, none of this advice applies to this situation). If you use your "permanent" address, your mail may be seriously delayed. Use the address of a relative, friend, or lawyer (outside the disaster area) that you can trust to read your mail for you and act on it. Avoid choosing someone who is never home, on an extended vacation, at a nursing home, or who is not functional enough to handle their own mail. As a minimum, you should be able to depend on this person to contact you immediately to read your mail to you, and if you cannot be contacted, then they should be able to respond immediately on your behalf without instructions from you. Make sure this mailing address is a physical address, rather than a post office box, so that packages (FEDEX, UPS) can be received there. A name and phone number associated with the mailing address is also needed, so that your mail can be addressed to you "in care of" or "c/o" (i.e. Mr. John Smith, c/o Mrs. Mary Jones, 123 Mail Street, Anytown, AK 98999; telephone 987.654.3210).
    • your "temporary" address: an emergency shelter, a motel, or transient location. As a rule, you should never give out this location for any official purposes, but use it for such things like pick-up/drop-off instructions (but never for mail), pizza deliveries, or to report a 911 emergency.
  4. Current Telephone Numbers: you need contact information for local neighbors (whether or not you like them), and local and distant relatives and friends.
  5. Insurance Information: Most adults that have health insurance normally carry some form of health insurance identification with them at all times, so the recommendation of having such identification with them during an evacuation should not be a new idea. Health insurance may or may not be an issue in the evacuation. However, if you have homeowner or renter property insurance, it is critical that know your insurance policy number and two sets of contact data for the insurance company: the address and phone number of both your local insurance agent and the corporate home office. One of the questions you will be asked during the application process for disaster assistance is "do you have homeowner insurance"? If you answer yes, you will be told to contact your insurance company first before further processing of your application can take place. If you previously contacted your insurance company and have your claim number, you can give this information to the operator. But if you have not yet done this or you don't have this information available, your application will be greatly delayed.
  6. Computer Thumb Drive: for those who are computer literate, it is wise to have copies of your "vital" documents scanned into PDF files and stored in an emergency folder of an old back-up thumb drive. For virtually all disasters, when you are far enough away from the disaster area there will electrical power and computers in use. Copies of the following documents will be invaluable should you need them: home, health, life, and auto insurance policies (along with contact information); wills and living wills; powers of attorney; birth and marriage certificates; social security documents; deeds and property tax statements; financial account statements; professional licenses and photographs of family members. This list is just a minimum. Perhaps you might want to add other data such as church and genealogical records; Christmas card address lists; passport data; appraisals; and health, school, and tax records, etc.

Advisory 2: Should You Register with FEMA after an Evacuation?
If your evacuation is large-scale and will probably be declared a federal disaster - yes. If the evacuation is small and localized, and not expected to be a federal disaster - probably not. However, your state or local government may have similar organizations and you should consider registering with them. You generally have nothing to lose by registering. Every little bit helps under such stressful conditions, even though registering with FEMA or your state organization may be stressful in itself. Bear in mind that they really do want to help you, but there is only so much the government can do. So if you follow a few simple yet important guidelines you probably will not have any problems. The following points address only FEMA registration:

  1. What kind of financial assistance can FEMA give?

    Basically there are three kinds of assistance that are meaningful to evacuees in a disaster: a) evacuation assistance, b) property damage assistance, and c) other disaster-related assistance (like reimbursement for a chain saw). Each is a separate kind of assistance, independent from each other, and handled by different decision making processes:

    • Evacuation assistance is grant money to help you with the cost of the actual evacuation process. It is available to anyone that needs to evacuate the disaster area, and is intended for expenses like gasoline or transportation.
    • Property damage assistance is grant money to help you rebuild your home if you do not have homeowner insurance coverage, or if your coverage is insufficient to rebuild. It is only available to homeowners. So if you rent, the owner of the rental property may qualify for assistance, but not you. This assistance does not cover any losses to personal property items, such as furniture or clothes. You will need to contact your insurance company (if applicable) and have proof that a claim has been filed with them before you can be considered eligible for property damage assistance.
    • Other disaster-related assistance is grant money for the reimbursement of reasonable costs you incur for such things as buying a chain saw (or other emergency items as appropriate for the disaster). You may be eligible for this if you are eligible for property damage assistance. These reimbursements are made by submitting receipts via mail or fax to FEMA headquarters. Assistance may also be available for things like funeral expense, resolution of discrimination issues, and mental health services that are related to the disaster. Additionally there may be other assistance you can apply for in the form of various types of low-interest loans (business and personal) or tax relief.
  2. Who makes the decision on whether or not you receive assistance?

    The decision to give you evacuation assistance is made by a computer program, based on the inputs you submit. No living person is involved whatsoever in this decision. Display of emotion or a recitation of incredible details to any FEMA person will not affect this decision. How you answer the questions will. You need to apply for this assistance immediately - preferably within hours of the evacuation.

    Property damage decisions are not made until after an inspector visits your property and submits his report to FEMA. The inspector is not a decision maker and is not a FEMA employee. Usually the inspector is a local contractor hired by FEMA to fill out paperwork that will used in the decision making process. The ultimate decision on how much to grant you will be made by some obscure bureaucrat at FEMA headquarters based on the inspector's report. However, it is still in your best interest to befriend the inspector to help prevent a mistake on his report. And if you are eligible for property damage assistance, other grant money may also be made available to you for reimbursement for such things as a chain saw (or other emergency items as appropriate for the disaster), as long as the costs are reasonable.

Advisory 3: Tips on Contacting and Registering with FEMA
Important! Read all these guidelines before you attempt to call FEMA, and re-read them while you or someone in your group is re-dialing the FEMA registration phone number. If you are registering in-person or via computer, some of these guidelines may not apply, but the general principles are the same.

  1. If your evacuation is due to a major disaster, the phone links to the FEMA call-in centers will be overloaded. During the Hurricane Rita disaster, it typically took about four to six hours of continuous redialing to reach a FEMA operator. Keep trying again and again. If necessary, have your kids take turns redialing until you reach a live person. Don't give up. The sooner you register, the more likely you will receive more and quicker assistance.

    • Before you call, make sure you have your bureaucratic data available: name, social security numbers, phone numbers, addresses, and bank account data (see Advisory 1 above for an explanation of the different kinds of addresses you will need, and about bank account data). If you don't have all your data, your application will not be processed until you call back with the rest of it (which may involve a repeat of several hours of re-dial). Also make sure you have paper and pencil, or an equivalent media for recording the data they give you.
    • Once you reach a live FEMA operator, make sure you have an acceptable voice connection and that you can understand the accent of the operator. If the operator's accents is too strong for you to understand (either a regional or foreign accent), or if the connection is bad and you have to yell or repeat yourself constantly, you will be better off if you hang up and try again, even if it requires more hours of re-dial (for reasons explained below).
    • Once you reach a live person that you feel you can properly communicate with, the first thing you need to assume is that the operator is overwhelmed, overworked, and under a lot of stress. These operators may be inexperienced volunteers from another government agency and don't normally do this kind of work. They may have only received a few minutes of training a few hours earlier. No matter how frustrated and angry you may feel with your situation as an evacuee, it is in your best interest, not theirs to be kind, understanding, and thoughtful to the operator. Even if they seem rude or incompetent - take it in humility. Remember that you will suffer the consequences of any mistakes they make. Lodging a complaint against a problem operator will be an absolute waste of your time, because nothing will come of it. Consider starting a conversation with the operator with something like this (for example): "I'm sure you're having a hectic time with all these calls today. Would you like to take a quick break while I wait on the line so you can get a drink or snack or something"? The objective here is to make sure that the operator enters all your data correctly and gives you some advice if you need help answering a question. If the operator makes a mistake at this critical stage of data entry, you will incur significant bureaucratic delays and experience extensive grief to fix it.
    • It may be difficult for you, but try not to unload "your story" to the operator. Do not rant about your long hours trying to reach them. The operator's job is to input your data, not to help you cope with your situation. The more the operator has to listen to your story, the more likely the operator will make a mistake with your data. Don't even think about reprimanding or criticizing the operator. This is as useless as yelling at the postman for a delay in a letter you mailed. They are far away, perhaps in a distant state. They may have been trained to let you "vent" and wind-down so they can then go on about their job of data input. They probably have compassion for you, but they are not in a position to make decisions or expedite your case. Nor can the operator's supervisor. (Asking to speak with the supervisor may result in your being disconnected, or the operator may just hand you off to another operator if they are kind.)

  2. Make absolutely sure you understand and answer the questions involving data input correctly. Calm down and think about your answers, and have the data read back to you to make sure it is correct. Think of this process like you are having a concrete driveway poured at your home. If the concrete is poured incorrectly, the whole job will show this after the concrete sets, and you will be stuck with what you get. Remember that the old adage "do it right the first time." The way the FEMA computer system is set up makes it very difficult to change something one it gets inputted.

    • You must also understand that the questions FEMA asks you were created by bureaucratic government lawyers, not by compassionate relief workers. Think of each question like those on a tax return or an insurance application. In this realm of reasoning, if the question is asked "how much water is in the glass," the true statement "the glass is half full" will give different results than the equally true statement "the glass is half empty," and if you say "I don't know," that also means something else. Rather than get into a philosophical discussion on truth and error, perhaps my best advice is this: a) make a definite decision one way or the other and never say "unknown," and b) use the same principle on making a truthful statement as you would on a tax return when you state that something is "true to the best of your knowledge and belief" (i.e. you are not making an intentionally false statement). Here is a classic example of a decision you may have to make, which, once made, will determine if certain FEMA assistance will be given to you. Consider this situation: A hurricane is a few hours away in the future forecast and you are told to evacuate your home. As you are leaving your home, it is a beautiful bright calm sunny day and your house is in excellent shape. Twelve hours after you evacuate, you are in a distant shelter and it is obvious that soon after you left your home the hurricane hit your neighborhood. You see footage in the news about tremendous devastation in your home town. Now, when you call from the shelter to register for FEMA assistance, the operator asks you: "is there any damage to your home"? During the evacuations of Hurricane Katrina and Rita, those that said "yes" received immediate evacuation assistance. Those that said "no" got nothing. Those that said "unknown" had their applications put on hold and received no evacuation assistance. When they returned home after three weeks to find they did have home damage, evacuation assistance was no longer being distributed. Furthermore, they were told they were no longer eligible for evacuation assistance because they were now back home, and that there was no option to obtain after-the-fact reimbursement. Now, which of these people gave true statements at the time of their application? Under these situations, none of them did. Those that said "yes" simply stated their belief that their home was damaged, based on the best information available to them at the time, and with no intention of making a false statement. Those that said "no" were trying to be nice and thought they were telling the truth, but they were not because they did not have absolute proof that their home was undamaged. But they also did not receive the evacuation assistance that FEMA intended them to receive. And those that said "unknown" only put their application on hold, because the government could not make a decision to give them money without a definite "yes" or "no" answer. What would happen if you filed your tax return with the truthful answer "unknown" on your adjusted gross income line? Will they punish you for what you consider to be an honest answer? Maybe or maybe not, but it will automatically delay your tax refund. To avoid such problems, be guided by the principle of truth "to the best of your knowledge and belief without the intent to defraud."
    • Also consider your answers about your addresses. (See Advisory 1 above for a discussion about these addresses.) Don't be confused by the terms "mailing address," "residence address," and "damaged address." They may not be the same. Your mailing address is where FEMA will send you your mail. Make sure it is an address that is still considered a deliverable place by the Post Office. Never use your "temporary" address (such as a motel or shelter), or any other place where you do not intend to remain for at least 30 days, or the place of a casual acquaintance that you cannot depend on. Usually there is a time lag of about two or three weeks in correspondence mailing, so you don't want to be gone when these arrive and assume your mail will be forwarded. You will probably never receive it, or if you do, it may be months after everything is over. Your residence address is your "real" address where you were officially living before the disaster. FEMA also calls this the "damaged" address.

Things to Consider 1: Just before You Evacuate  

  1. If you anticipate an evacuation lasting more than 72 hours in warm weather and you expect your home to be without power, everything in your refrigerator and freezer will spoil and smell like death when you return (plus, it will leak out onto your floors, along with the odor). If you have two minutes to spare, quickly throw the contents of your refrigerator and freezer out into your yard if you can't take it with you. ($100 of wasted food is far cheaper than replacement of an uncleanable refrigerator, not to mention the effort to get the rotten stench out of your floor).
  2. In addition to your refrigerator and freezer, here are some other items to consider if you anticipate being gone for more than 72 hours:
    • Turn off the gas at the meter.
    • Turn off the electricity at the main breaker.
    • Turn off the water at the meter.
    • Should you free any pets that you can't take with you?
    • Should you leave some windows open? (Locked or unlocked doors make no difference in the absence of law and order).
    • Is there a container you can bring with you that can be used to transfer gasoline for your car, and can you make an improvised siphon?

  3. The ability to communicate is extremely important. Cell phones, walkie-talkies, and phone cards are very valuable during an evacuation. Take them with you if you can, and don't forget their chargers.
  4. Leave a note inside your house and taped to the front door in a conspicuous place, saying who you are, where you are heading, your cell phone or voicemail number, and the time of your departure. Forget about your privacy or conventional wisdom to discourage thieves from breaking in (like leaving the television on to pretend you are at home) - this is meaningless under these circumstances.
  5. Grab all the cash and coins you can - even jars of pennies. You may need every cent you can scrape up while in transit. Did you properly prepare for the emergency by stashing away a few hundred dollars for emergency flight money?
  6. There is a tremendous advantage to travel in a group in "caravan style" with other people or families you can trust and depend on. If you can't do this, at least try to travel with people (such as neighbors or co-workers) you know, even if some of them can't be trusted - at least you know who they are and can keep your eye on problem people. If you travel with complete strangers, you will not know if they are honorable or criminal. If you can arrange to form a travel group on short notice, do it. It provides an added measure of stability, security, insurance, knowledge, aid, and understanding in such very stressful circumstances. Then as a group ask yourselves "what would be the best course of action to take if one of the vehicles in our caravan breaks down or runs out of gas during the evacuation" (there is no correct answer - it all depends on the circumstances).
  7. To avoid traffic congestion, you may want to consider being either among the very first to evacuate, or among the very last. If you leave when everybody else is leaving you will most likely be stuck in gridlock, or crawling bumper-to-bumper if you are luckier. If you have knowledge of an impending evacuation that has not yet been ordered, or if you suspect there will be an evacuation, it would be wise to leave before traffic congestion begins. On the other hand, I talked with some evacuees who were the very last to leave - just ahead of the impending disaster - and they said they had no traffic problems because most people were already gone and major congestion has subsided. But being among the last to leave has inherently more risk and danger than being the first to leave. Again, there is no right or wrong answer - it depends on your circumstances.

Things to Consider 2: When You Set Out on Your Evacuation
While you are driving or otherwise in transit, read and think about the following points (or, if you are driving, have another adult or child read this out loud for the purpose of family discussion):

  1. Expect less law and order in the immediate area of the evacuation zone because local police will be so overwhelmed with traffic and crowd management that it may be useless to contact 911 or any other enforcement agency to report anything less than a felony. Expect that simple assaults, hit-and-run car accidents, shoplifting, drunk driving, purse snatching, and similar non-felony crimes will not be responded to by police. They will be too busy with more serious things involving life and death, or like moving prisoners out of the local jails. If you have a minor traffic accident, consider sharing your license plate numbers and verbally exchange names with each other so you can resolve the problem sometime after the evacuation is over. Otherwise you may sit around for hours waiting for police that will never show up, and thus put you and your family in danger by not fleeing the disaster in a timely manner. Everything depends on the circumstances, common sense, and the need to use good judgment. You may also want to consider your feelings about invoking your Second Amendment rights and whether it is applicable to your situation.
  2. Have a family discussion that under the circumstances of an evacuation everyone should prepare to see "good people get better" as well as "bad people get worse." During a crisis, there is a very high probability you will observe instances of selfishness, anger, and racism in "bad people," but also instances of love, kindness, and compassion in "good people."
  3. Traffic is a major concern. Do whatever you can to avoid or minimize bumper-to-bumper traffic. If main highways are heavily congested, get off the main road and take back roads as best you can. If you are stuck on a main highway, consider driving over the grass or through a field, if possible, to get off the roadway and onto a secondary or dirt road (but above all, use common sense if this is not feasible, or beyond your driving skills or the capabilities of your vehicle. If the ground is muddy, wet, or has deep ruts, getting stuck will be a bigger problem than the traffic). If you are stuck in traffic, do everything you can to conserve gas - turn off the engine if you anticipate idling for more than a few minutes; turn off the air conditioner and roll down the windows (this is no time to choose comfort - if you run out of gas you will really have comfort problems); coast and roll if you know how to do this without power steering or power brakes).
  4. Communicate while driving, if possible by cell phone. As soon as possible after you leave your home, call up a national or familiar hotel chain and make a reservation at a distant destination that you intend to go to. This is quite possible at the onset of the evacuation, as the national reservation centers probably are not yet aware that you are evacuating, and many other people will not think about this until a few hours later into the evacuation. You have little to lose by trying, and this will give you something to keep your mind focused on during the evacuation. If you are driving in a caravan, communicate regularly with others in your group and report where you are and your planned destination (this may change as you evacuate). Contact people at your destination site, if possible, and ask if they can make local reservations for you or others in your caravan.
  5. Also consider making periodic attempts to contact local or distant LDS Church leaders for suggested places of refuge and alter you destination if possible under the circumstances. In the absence of a well defined plan of evacuation to a specific destination, there may be a significant advantage in evacuating to a distant LDS Church unit. Consider your preference: would you rather sleep in your car in an LDS Church parking lot with other evacuated LDS Church members, or sleep in a shopping center parking lot? Also consider your sleeping arrangements - would you rather do this in an LDS Church gym or in a public shelter like a community center?
  6. Conserve your other resources, particularly in the beginning of the evacuation. Money evaporates at a very fast rate under such circumstances. Try not to stop to buy food or other necessities unless absolutely necessary in the beginning. This is less critical the farther away you are. But insure you get some rest to continue your evacuation travel safely.
  7. Consider evacuating farther away than you think you need to, and where the number of other evacuates are less. Large numbers of evacuees overwhelm a local area's resources, and may make staying there more difficult. Ask yourself "Can I drive another hour or two farther away, where there will be less evacuees"?

Things to Consider 3: At Your Shelter or Place of Refuge  

  1. Have a family discussion on how you can stick together at your destination and to be of service to those taking you in.
  2. Wherever you wind up as a destination, you will probably overwhelm the resources at the destination to some extent. Critical aspects of survival depend on being among (or trying to be among) "good people," and establishing symbiotic relationships with strangers (establishing a win-win situation, where "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.") Have a family discussion on how you can immediately become an asset to the people at your destination, instead of being a burden. For example, even if your destination is a motel where you are paying high prices to stay, the place will probably be overwhelmed with all sorts of non-standard problems - ask the motel owners if you can help them for free under their stressful conditions with things that you can do immediately, like security (watching parking lots), be a hostess to help calm down other evacuees, cleaning up the place, etc. The owners will appreciate and remember such kindness and may reciprocate their gratitude with such things as special privileges, warnings, or personal connections (i.e. maybe the owner knows someone who can get you a better reservation at another motel).

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Updated 03 August 2022