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In the Kingdom of FEMA

Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

— Yeats

Last Friday in Chico, as the Camp Fire still raged over by Cherokee and the corpses began to cool in Paradise, FEMA came to town. Many cringe when FEMA comes to town since tales of its ability to launch a Full-Court Federal Fornication Festival are legion. At the same time, FEMA is the gateway drug agency to what all of us who have been burned out of Paradise need most, a check. A big check. A really big check. A check as big as all outdoors since the vast majority of us are flat busted broke and anything that might have seemed in October an asset is now ashes. So if you tell us where we can find FEMA we’re there. All of us. With a handful of gimme and a mouth full of much obliged.

That’s what it seemed like last Friday down at the dead Sears store in the Chico Mall. The Mall   is an easy walk from the vast tent city just behind the blue Wall of the Porta Potty. It seemed like les tout Paradise” was in Sears and dialing for dollars as fast as they could.

To meet with all of Paradise at this point is to be shocked and spun into sadness all over again. As mentioned here before a lot of people in Paradise are there because of housing costs and the ability to live off the grid in an old house trailer that’s been up on blocks for decades. This means a large number of Paradise folk are not just poor but also old, lame, halt, and blind. I was left with nothing but I have family near as well as generous friends around the world. A glance at many that show up for FEMA reveals just how much miserable mean nothing these people have.

The first afternoon inside the FEMA center in ye olde Sears store was an unmitigated disaster. Crowds swirling about in half the ground floor. The other half walled off. More evacuees are coming in by the minute and, after over a week in the shelters and camps, they are not looking too crisp and not feeling too patient. Where to go and what to do is not at all clear and gets murkier by the minute. Some chagrined volunteers are weaving about handing out hastily xeroxed forms asking for “Contact Information.” More people on the outside are admitted to the inside where they merely swell the clotted islands of humanity. In the midst of this a volunteer is given an official FEMA bullhorn but no information.

(Note to FEMA: Do NOT give a volunteer a bullhorn and no information. He WILL use the bull horn to supply the crowd with the no information you gave him.)

The Bull Horner promptly advised people to move over to the bank of 100 chairs —“BEHIND ME PEOPLE! BEHIND ME!” — which were already filled with 100 people and their friends and family. At this point I left. I could see that there would not be a crisp momentfor the rest of the day . I left but vowed to return the next morning a half hour before FEMA opened so that I could move quickly through whatever process awaited.

And I did and was pleased to be around the 100th evacuee to be in line before the doors opened. Five minutes later the security guard at the doors opened one of them a crack and out popped The Volunteer with THE BULLHORN!

“Everybody WITH a FEMA NUMBER join the line to my left. If you DON’T HAVE A FEMA NUMBER join the line to my RIGHT!” He says this while revolving as he moves up and down the line and it results in some folks failing to join the line on his left/right/left.

Then somebody decides to give the line of evacuees a sense of false hope by emerging from behind security with the hastilyt xeroxed forms to fill out seen the day before. They have LOTS of these forms but seem to have only two clipboards on which to fill out said form and then pass them back to the people in line behind them. Yes, two clipboards for over 500 people in the line. I suggest to one of the women doing this that they might want to get more clipboards. She agrees and ducks back in the building emerging with two more clipboards. Sigh. “A Federal Auto-Fornication Festival” I mutter… I mutter quietly since I don’t want to lose my place in line.

But once inside the dead Sears store I see that the strangeness is not the fault of FEMA at all but of those who have been appointed as line managers. They mean well but these volunteers with BULLHORNS simply haven’t done a lot of “impoverished and burned out and fried and beat down and very pissed off” line management.

Once you pass through the partition wall into the hall of FEMA everything improves as you talk with a well-trained, compassionate person who is doing all they can to make you as whole as you can be made. The FEMA process, unlike the line, is as crisp as a reasonable person can hope for. The representatives of FEMA are quick and clear and helpful and competent. For a person trained to expect disaster every time you hear “I’m from the government. I’m here to help,” FEMA in the Sears store in Chico on Saturday is a revelation. In what is almost no time I am interviewed and verified and told clearly what to do and what to expect in the way of relief. Then I am given my FEMA number, which is the key to all benefits, and sent on my way.

Downstream from the FEMA corridor are all the agencies and organizations that are officially affiliated with FEMA; among them one from the Billy Graham Ministries that will, with your permission and with you present, come to the site of where your house once stood, where your once life was, and sift the ashes of your home.

Sift. The. Ashes. Of. Your. Home.

Somewhere near the west wall of what was my bedroom is a small metal box. Inside that box is the wedding ring I wore with both my wives. It was my father’s wedding ring.

Someday soon I hope to be back at what was my home with the kind souls from the Billy Graham Ministries to watch as they sift those ashes.

And then I’ll be gone.


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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Gordon Scott November 19, 2018, 7:55 AM

    Ash sifting. Man, that’s a useful thing, and something only volunteers could manage, really. Just like those damn Christians to come up with something like this.

    One reads of the Amish men showing up after a tornado. The go to a house, saw the debris and wrecked trees into manageable pieces, and then neatly stack them by the road. Then they go on to the next house.

  • Casey Klahn November 19, 2018, 7:58 AM

    My comment went into review. I’ll try to send something to Franklin Graham Ministries, if they are providing for the Camp Fire disaster.

    A few army veterans at FEMA would understand that you push logistics forward to the end user. Sheesh.

  • Phil in Englewood November 19, 2018, 8:01 AM

    “Paradise waits On the crest of a wave her angels in flame…”
    Of course, the song is Help on the Way…

  • Gordon Scott November 19, 2018, 8:08 AM

    Oh, and to take charge and wrangle the volunteers: They need to recruit some church basement women. There must be some in Chico; they would be feeding folks in the church basements of the Catholic and larger Protestant churches. They have organized and fed folks at thousands of funerals and pot luck dinners, and they know how to make stuff work, lovingly, caringly, but firmly and without nonsense also.

    When Grand Forks, ND flooded and burned in 1997, I watched as a bunch of these folks–aided by their retired husbands–took over a former Builder’s Square building. The night before, I was in there and all you saw were some folding tables. By 2 pm the next day, they were completely organized, with triage folks out front helping to sort the folks who were coming in, hundreds of tables filled with clothes, diapers, toiletries and volunteers routing people to shelter. In the back was a fully operating kitchen serving at least 100 people per hour, and they had so much food that they had begun freezing some for use on later days.

  • Dan Patterson November 19, 2018, 8:44 AM

    Casey (and anyone else)
    Samaritan’s Purse will be able to take directed donations in a few-to-several days for that relief work. The website is :
    https://www.samaritanspurse.org/

    The company I work for has assisted with some maintenance on their DC-8, and we have gotten to know a few of the staff; the organization is one well worth anyone’s support.

  • Rob De Witt November 19, 2018, 9:02 AM

    What you realize when SHTF is that the vaunted Social Safety Net is only there for you when you’ve already reached the bottom. What you realize when you’ve reached the bottom is that most of the people you encounter there have lived there all their lives, and accept chaos as their due because it’s never occurred to them to take control. At that point your life is in the hands of people whose response to a crisis is to give those FUCKING BULLHORNS to people clueless to the realities of the situation. At least you’re in a county where the first response is not to call for volunteers eager to practice their kitchen Spanish on Designated Victims, and primarily oblivious to anybody with the poor taste to have been born male and white.

    I can hear you trying to minimize chaos even when it means getting up at 4 am to get a good place in line, keeping your wait to four hours instead of ten like the hapless helpless who can’t get anywhere before noon and then complain about the inefficiency of the Government. It’s a shock, but you’ll figure it out. There’s a system, however lame, and people like you will intuitively figure out how to maximize its benefits and minimize its annoyance.

    Which is why you’ve managed to avoid this crap all your life in the first place.

    God bless, brother. We’ve been in correspondence for ten years or so and I’m only now realizing that we’re almost exactly the same age and have had the same (non-monetized) approach to our art and our lives. Chinese astrology says the Rooster will never win the lottery, but that’s cool because the Chicken has strong claws and can scratch an existence from the dirt around him.

    And that’s us.

  • Rick November 19, 2018, 9:06 AM

    My son and grandson sifted ashes on friends house that burned in the Colorado Springs fire a few years back. They were looking for the heirloom diamond ring the wife wore at their wedding. They found it too.

  • JiminAlaska November 19, 2018, 10:00 AM

    I very dimly remember dealing with FEMA after our flood here in Fairbanks in ’67, the main memory being standing in line. None the less, thanks to their help, I was able to start building a new house the next spring and finish it 3-4 years later, paycheck to paycheck, without taking on a mortgage.

    My best memory of a group providing friendly and efficient help and support after the flood was the Salvation Army. I’ve nothing good to say about the red Cross. Hence now, just about any time I read of a disaster, I send a little something to the Sally.

  • Bill in Tennessee November 19, 2018, 3:26 PM

    I know another “hang in there” won’t cut it right now, so I will just say I hope you can endure the days that are to come. Endure. Persevere. As we say in a 12-step fellowship I belong to, it came to pass…it didn’t come to stay. Praying for you, Gerard.

  • John Condon November 19, 2018, 5:19 PM

    “Now that my ladder’s gone
    I must lie down where all the ladders start
    In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
    — Yeats”

    —————–

    Lives of great men all remind us
    We can make our lives sublime,
    And, departing, leave behind us
    Footprints on the sands of time;

    Footprints, that perhaps another,
    Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
    A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
    Seeing, shall take heart again.
    ~Longfellow
    —————————-
    In the end, Yeats, too, doubted himself, Gerard.
    ——————————-
    “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts. ” ~Bertrand Russell

  • John Condon November 19, 2018, 5:22 PM

    It appears you reside in good company.

  • Bill November 19, 2018, 5:44 PM

    The predicament that are in and the magnitude of what has happened to you has been made clear by this latest post Gerard. This too shall pass. I will redouble my prayers for you and your dear Mother. Oh and your editor as well.

  • Casey Klahn November 19, 2018, 11:01 PM

    Message to Gerard: we’re looking for an artist who lost her home in Paradise, named Dianne L. Mitchell. If you happen to know her, or hear her name around, please let me know. Don’t go to too much trouble, but the art community wants to contact her.

    Thanks.

  • Steven P Schalock November 19, 2018, 11:37 PM

    I have a pick-up and am half a days drive away. Can I effectively help, or just sent $$$ to share? (serious question!)

  • Vanderleun November 20, 2018, 12:41 AM

    That’s a fine fine offer Steven, but the only thing my brother in Grass Valley loves more than his pick-up is driving his pick-up to the rescue. He has promised to supply all my pick-up needs. But that is still a fine and touching offer and I thank you.

  • Dave smith November 20, 2018, 4:33 AM

    Your video shows the average homeless Street person in most major cities or the average person wandering the halls of a Veteran’s Hospital all the same they’re seeking services from the government. Good luck with that

  • crcs publications November 20, 2018, 6:17 AM

    Gerard– Could you please list for us a few of the orgs that are on the ground now in a significant & helpful way?
    Thanks,
    CRCS