When you think of a first responder, a government accountant probably doesn’t come to mind.
Yet for many Americans confronting a natural disaster, the face of the federal government belongs to someone like Robert Autrey. He is president of the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) employees. But when he worked as an agency accountant, he was deployed to provide emergency services to disaster victims, just as many FEMA employees are doing now in the wake of superstorm Sandy.
FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate told reporters that his agency had more than 1,500 people in the field this week, and there are many more from other agencies. “The number is going up rapidly as we are able to get to these areas,” he said.
Many of those workers got to the affected areas before the storm did.
“Because of some of the work that had been done ahead of time, we’ve been able to get over a thousand FEMA officials in place, pre-positioned,” President Obama said at American Red Cross headquarters on Tuesday. “We’ve been able to get supplies, food, medicine, water, emergency generators to ensure that hospitals and law enforcement offices are able to stay up and running as they are out there responding.”
Although Autrey now works full-time on union business and talks to reporters only in his role as Local 4060 president, he is well-equipped to discuss the work of those who leave their homes and families, often on short notice, to spend weeks working in disaster areas across the country.
Autrey did that during Hurricane Katrina, which ripped through the Gulf Coast in 2005. FEMA’s reputation took a beating because of the government’s unacceptable response to that storm. Obama forcefully made it clear he doesn’t want Katrina’s performance repeated:
“I want you to cut through red tape,” he told federal agencies during his Red Cross visit. “I want you to cut through bureaucracy. There’s no excuse for inaction at this point. I want every agency to lean forward and to make sure that we are getting the resources where they need — where they’re needed as quickly as possible.
“So I want to repeat — my message to the federal government: No bureaucracy, no red tape. Get resources where they’re needed as fast as possible, as hard as possible, and for the duration.”
Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, sees a much-improved FEMA. “The lessons learned from Katrina have strengthened the response to and recovery from each storm that has followed,” she said, citing legislation that she and committee Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) wrote to improve FEMA.
“The agency also has far stronger leadership than it had during Katrina, and it is encouraging to witness the greatly improved communications among emergency personnel at all levels of government,” she added. “Local and state agencies as well as first responders are the first line of defense, but FEMA plays an important role in coordinating the federal response to catastrophic storms.”
Lieberman added: “Despite the enormous challenge posed by this unprecedented storm, FEMA and its state and local partners rose to the challenge, saved lives, and worked to minimize damage.”
Certainly mindful of Katrina, the agency issued a statement on Monday outlining the government’s proactive response to Sandy, a response dependent on federal staffers.
In addition to the 1,500 FEMA personnel along the East Coast, “28 teams comprised of 294 FEMA Corps members are pre-staged to support Sandy,” the statement said.
“Three federal urban search and rescue task forces are positioned in the Mid-Atlantic and ready to deploy as needed and requested. An additional four federal search and rescue task forces in the Mid-west have been placed on alert and are ready for deployment, as requested and needed. 14 Incident Management Assistance Teams and 12 liaison officers are positioned in potentially affected states along the East Coast to support preparedness activities and ensure there are no unmet needs. Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS) personnel and teams have been deployed to support the states with secure and non-secure voice, video, and information services, operations, and logistics support to state response operations as well as with any potential requests for assistance. FEMA disability integration advisors are also deployed to advise emergency management on alert and warning, evacuation, and sheltering needs.”
Autrey went to Mississippi for 90 days following Katrina, leaving his daughter in the care of relatives. He worked as a community relations specialist rather than a number-cruncher in a 9-to-5 bureaucracy.
It was not easy.
“During that time it was hard to get a haircut,” he recalled. “We were working around the clock” with 12-, 14- and 16-hour days. Based in Jackson, Miss., Autrey often drove two hours each way to provide services in Hattiesburg, Miss. When he was working in Laurel, Miss., “I got to be known as the FEMA man,” he said.
Community relations specialists go into affected communities, “talking to the disaster survivors, house by house in that neighborhood, that’s how we do,” Autrey explained, “and finding out what type of needs in terms of federal assistance they are seeking.”
That’s the kind of work FEMA employees are doing today.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.