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.
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.