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FEMA liaisons bring aid and information to tornado zone

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Ganell Bottomlee had just finished moving her mother into an assisted-living facility last week when she heard about the tornadoes. Within hours, she grabbed her “to-go bag” and drove two hours north from Wetumpka, Ala.

She won’t go home again for at least 30 days.

Bottomlee is one of more than 125 Federal Emergency Management Agency community relation liaisons fanning out across Alabama this week, armed with leaflets, cellphones, some patience and charm. Long after most camera crews have disappeared, the liaisons will be here answering logistical questions, ensuring that damage assessments are completed quickly, or providing bear hugs to those in need.

As of Monday afternoon, about 17,900 Alabamans had registered for federal assistance, and FEMA said it had paid more than $3.1 million so far to survivors.

When federal disasters are declared, FEMA can deploy thousands of workers from Washington and regional offices. But the agency also can deploy thousands of reservists, part-time workers who can be called up 24 hours after a disaster declaration.

“It takes a strong person to work out here,” Bottomlee said Monday as she toured flattened neighborhoods across Tuscaloosa. “When you get among this type of thing, you have to be strong.”

Depending on their skill sets, reservists are paid between $11.29 and $42.03 an hour. They work long hours, they say, and there’s no guarantee of a hot meal at the end of the day or a restful night.

“I just drop dead at night” from exhaustion, Bottomlee said.

“Some nights you’re too tired and you have to choose,” said her colleague, Tom Beckham, a retired South Carolina state emergency management official. “It’s either eat, sleep, or get a drink.”

Beckham, 63, and Bottomlee offer common profiles of FEMA’s community liaisons. Many participants are retired nurses, teachers, engineers and former state emergency management officials collecting retirement pensions, or younger people who are able to afford working short-term disaster assignments.

“We often seek out folks who’ve retired or are interested on an on-call basis,” FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate said in an interview. Some are people who’ve finished one career and now work disasters, he added.

Fugate, a former Florida state emergency management boss, said he wants the agency to hire experienced people who know not to overwhelm survivors with the confusing details of the federal application process.

“We need to understand that our process is foreign to a lot of people who’ve not done this,” he said. “We’re here to help the survivors and not be bureaucrats.”

Bottomlee and Beckham keep it simple. They leave fliers at every door and vehicle (moving so quickly that they left a flier on their own car), and remind everyone who applies for assistance to keep their nine-digit FEMA case number handy.

When President Obama visited Tuscaloosa on Friday, he stood next to resident Gene Terry’s toppled pecan tree at 44th Court and Sixth Street NE. Terry was at the bank and power company settling his affairs, so he didn’t meet the president.

But on Monday he met Bottomlee and Beckham, who handed him an orange flier with FEMA’s Web site and phone numbers across the top.

“Insurance is essential in any recovery process,” the flier said. “If you’ve been affected by the disaster, make sure you call your insurance company and file a claim.”

Terry’s son had already done that for him. He and his brother-in-law, David Ryan, had other questions.

“How do we clear the lot?” Ryan asked Beckham.

Terry has lived in the home since 1965 with his wife, who’s hospitalized and recovering from injuries. Most of their possessions are gone, except for a piano.

“At some point in time you will be given instructions by the county,” Beckham said, urging them to separate the debris into piles, “one for the trees, one for the wood.”

“Don’t be paying some tree company $10,000 to get rid of that tree,” Beckham said, pointing at the pecan.

Terry’s mail is being forwarded to his son’s house. Good, Beckham said, because more forms are coming.

“I tell everybody, if you get forms, fill them out, because if you do not fill it out, you may get passed up for assistance,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you will get a loan, and you’re not obligated to take the loan, it’s just helping FEMA get more information.”

Beckham jokes with Terry, noting the irony of a South Carolina Gamecock fan helping strangers deep in the heart of Roll Tide country.

But then Terry turns serious. “I have all kinds of depression,” he said. “I’m OK, and then after that I cry.”

“We’ll get better. We have to,” he said.

As Bottomlee and Beckham drive away, her cellphone rings with news from other colleagues. The actor Charlie Sheen flew in from Denver to thank FEMA staffers and he promised to organize a fundraiser. Another colleague is teaming up with a Catholic priest to let illegal immigrants know that FEMA reservists won’t report them to authorities. Bottomlee said only people with a valid Social Security number are eligible for aid.

Regardless of who they are, Bottomlee said, many survivors don’t want to go through the trouble of applying for assistance. But she insists that they’re going to need it.

“Sometimes,” she said, “you just have to put them in the car and take them” to fill out the forms.

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