Thanks, But No Thanks

Plus: The Dallas Crown Affair

"You're adding insult to injury when you have people in New Orleans dealing with that torture and you have FEMA not getting to Dallas until September 6," he says.

On August 5, the county took part in a bio-terrorism drill where it practiced how quickly authorities could dispense medications. It was the largest exercise of its kind in the nation, encompassing 1,500 volunteers acting as victims. Thompson says that in those sorts of scenarios, the county practices handling the emergency on its own for as long as two or three days before counting on the federal government to respond. Now when the county plans for the worst, it has to lower its expectations.

"Based on this last scenario, we need to realize that we have to hold the line for a lot longer," he says.

FEMA's from the government and here to help. Mayor 
Laura Miller isn't buying that.
Mark Graham
FEMA's from the government and here to help. Mayor Laura Miller isn't buying that.

When FEMA finally arrived in Dallas, it confused evacuees and local officials on what services it would provide. Thompson said that initially evacuees were under the impression that FEMA would provide temporary housing, which he also believed, since the agency had done so in the aftermath of other hurricanes. But FEMA officials said initially that they were not going to offer housing. The agency also provided $2,000 debit cards to some evacuees, then scrapped that in favor of a complicated application process a few days later.

Hoping to set the record straight on its role, FEMA held a meeting with African-American church leaders on September 15 at Concord Baptist Church off Camp Wisdom Road. But the agency did little to help matters.

"We don't want a whole lot of questions," was how a FEMA official began the meeting. He then unwittingly provided a glimpse into the bureaucratic intricacies that characterize the agency's response to a massive disaster. Evacuees were to be given a nine-digit PIN number in order to be eligible for aid, and it was important, he told the church leaders, that they don't lose it. Evacuees also could be denied benefits if they completed their application form incorrectly.

If anything, the FEMA meeting highlighted how much the federal government relies on the Red Cross for disaster relief. The Red Cross runs the shelters and reimburses evacuees for hotel and motel costs.

Although not as disillusioned with FEMA as Thompson, Parkland Hospital's president and chief executive officer, Ron Anderson, also encountered problems with the agency, particularly on the extent it will reimburse the hospital for the staff time, medical services and supplies it used to treat the evacuees.

"There are lots of questions on what FEMA will cover and what it won't," he says. "I suspect we won't be covered for anywhere near our expenses."

For the hospital, Anderson says, the evacuee population is like "adding another neighborhood, another poor neighborhood." In fact, a Washington Post survey showed that as many as 7 out of 10 evacuees do not have savings or checking accounts, while 6 out of 10 have a family income of less than $20,000 annually. In the days after the evacuees were relocated to the Convention Center and Reunion Arena, Parkland staff were seeing up to 700 enrollees a day. They encountered patients who were awaiting bone marrow transplants. Immediately, the hospital began working with doctors from the New Orleans public health department to understand the health needs of the evacuees. In the weeks and months ahead, Anderson predicts his hospital will see a second and third wave of evacuees consisting of those who received their initial care at church shelters along with those who need additional care. He also predicts that much like in New York City after 9/11, mental health providers will be faced with a rash of patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In general, Anderson says that the displaced residents most likely to stay are those who "didn't have any money to evacuate in the first place." As a result, he says that his hospital will have to expand capacity and open at least one new clinic.

Right now, though, it's anybody's guess how many evacuees will return to New Orleans. Thompson says that his best guess is that slightly more than half of the evacuees will return to New Orleans eventually. For now, many of them are going to need some help, even those who were never on public assistance before.

"What people are asking for is the same thing you and I would be asking for," Thompson says. "If everything has been destroyed and we have no money in savings, can we get something to get us back on our feet?"

That's what James Lemann, a displaced New Orleans resident, desperately needs. A former airplane mechanic now staying in Dallas, Lemann says that many of the evacuees aren't asking for a permanent handout, but a little help as they confront what they lost and contemplate an uncertain future.

"In my neighborhood, most of the people owned their own homes. They might have been rickety houses, but they owned them," he said outside Reunion Arena last week. "They were scraping to get by, but they were used to it. Look around you. Nobody is hollering; they're just trying to figure out what's next." --Matt Pulle

The Dallas Crown Affair
Earlier this month, as the U.S. Senate was preparing to vote on an amendment that would effectively ban commercial horse slaughter for human consumption, Kaufman Mayor Paula Bacon went to Washington to lobby Senators to support the measure, which the U.S House had passed earlier this summer. Since her election in 2003, Bacon has battled furiously to shut down one of the country's three horse processing plants, Dallas Crown, which is located on the edge of her city, adjacent to a tiny African-American neighborhood.

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