They call themselves "disaster gypsies." They are the Federal Emergency Management Agency's front-line troops, the itinerant bureaucrats who travel the country's tornado alleys and flooded plains armed with a sympathetic ear, a knack for paperwork and, sometimes, an open checkbook.
They arrived in Annapolis this week to succor the victims of Hurricane Floyd. A team of FEMA employees from Missouri opened the state's newest Disaster Recovery Center in the canteen of an Anne Arundel County office building. They are just part of a contingent of more than 100 employees brought in from the Midwest to bolster FEMA's local efforts.
After President Clinton's Sept. 24 declaration that 11 Maryland counties qualified as federal disaster areas, residents became eligible for up to 17 assistance programs from state and federal agencies.
"There's a lot more help available than people may know," said Diana Reagan, an upbeat "hazard mitigation" specialist from Jefferson City, Mo.
The center, which is open until 3 p.m. today, offers "one-stop shopping" for people looking for a helping hand from government. While Reagan listened attentively to tales of soggy basements at one table, Mike Staicer, from the Internal Revenue Service, cheerfully explained how to write off hurricane damage on a tax return--and why folks may not get as much as they think.
At another table, Michelle Valle, of the Small Business Administration, explained to visitors that anyone who has suffered damage may be eligible for an SBA loan with a generous 4 percent interest rate.
The disaster business isn't for homebodies. In midsummer, Reagan went to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to help flooded farmers, then moved on to Nebraska, where she worked with victims of a tornado. When Floyd struck, she grabbed her prepacked suitcase and flew to Baltimore. Telephone and mail are the way she keeps in touch with her three grown children back in Missouri.
With front-row season tickets to the nation's catastrophes, the FEMA team members tend to get passionate about planning ahead.
"There is going to be another hurricane here," said Crystal Payton, a free-lance writer and antique dealer from Springfield, Mo., who moonlights as a FEMA spokesman. "You can count on it. The time to prepare is now when you're fixing the damage from the last one."
Flood insurance is a favorite recommendation of the FEMA troops. They remind all comers that flooding and backed-up sewers are not usually covered by standard homeowner policies. But Jack Calhoun, a retired Severna Park homeowner who came in looking for assistance with a flooded basement and a rusted furnace, said he's not interested in insurance.
"So how are you going to prepare for the next one?" Payton asked.
"I'm going to buy a generator," Calhoun said.
Payton just smiled wisely.
Reagan, who makes her living listening to sad stories of flooded basements, is passionate on the subject of avoiding expensive repairs.
"Do you know that as little as seven inches of water can take out your dryer and your hot water heater?" she asked. "It can. I tell people, put your washer and dryer on a platform."
Nothing warms her heart, she says, more than a furnace hanging from a basement ceiling.
"I want to see suspended furnaces in every home in America," she said. "You get a foot of water down there and it's a pain, but your furnace is working fine."
As of Wednesday, FEMA had received 1,350 applications for assistance from Maryland residents, including 299 from Anne Arundel County, the most of any county. FEMA says it has approved $133,000 in grants for damaged homes and apartments but does not have figures for the other kinds of assistance. Nationwide, FEMA grants available to low- and fixed-income households for disaster damages average $2,500, Payton said.
"It's a strangely human bureaucracy," she said. "But personally, we do what I think government should do: Come in and help people in need, help them prepare for the next time and then go home," Payton said.
Or go on to the next disaster area. Reagan says she is headed for North Carolina.
"They've got 17 disaster recovery centers down there, and I know they need help," she said.
CAPTION: Michelle Valle, of the Small Business Administration, reviews requests for assistance at the FEMA office in Anne Arundel County.