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For three months I have worked 60 hours a week for FEMA, witnessing first-hand the inner-workings and organizational mentality from a wide range of inside perspectives. My initial placement was on a mobile, language-needs strike team that was based out of the Joint Field Office (JFO) in Forest Hills, Queens. I was later reassigned to a base in the field, visiting damaged homes and assisting with recovery efforts on the Rockaway Peninsula. Throughout it all I was shocked at what seemed to be an intentional inefficiency that aggressively discouraged questioning aimed at improving the speed and effectiveness of the relief effort.

FEMA has three categories of workers: a small permanent staff; several thousand ‘reservists’ who are deployed only during disasters; and ‘local hires,’ which are sourced from disaster areas and stay on after many of the reservists have gone home. I never interacted with any permanent staff, and as far as I could tell, the recovery from Superstorm Sandy was run and managed by reservists.

While generally weary of government, I naïvely assumed that FEMA would attract a staff motivated by a desire to help others. My first interactions with local hires showed more pragmatic motivations, often just unemployed workers happy to have found a job, but it was also nearly universally mixed with empathy and altruism. The quality of the local hires varied, many seemed well suited for a professional workforce while others seemed incompetent. It’s hard to believe that there were not better applicants willing to assist with disaster relief, so the first problem is poor hiring but that is relatively minor, the real issue is the work environment. Despite my initial misgivings about this group, I later realized that almost all the quality workers were in fact local hires.

My first day on the job I went out with a reservist who was also my direct supervisor and visited faith-based organizations. Our task was to collect data, assess needs and ultimately help the larger recovery effort. About half the numbers we turned in for the day were completely made up. We drove by churches and guessed the size of the congregation, its language needs and overall damage. Even with the gross exaggeration of the work that we did, even if those numbers were all real, it would still be less accomplished than I would have expected during our ten-hour shift. Almost all the reservists I encountered had mastered the art of wasting time. When I was at the JFO we sat around for an hour or two before we left on any assignment. In the Rockaways, we did not linger quite as long at the command post but like clockwork, every day we ate a leisurely breakfast at two separate places. We got coffee at one restaurant then breakfast sandwiches in another, it was all just a way to waste time.

A significant part of any day was spent sitting in a car. When I worked out of the JFO, my team would sometimes have assignments that required a lot of driving, necessitating visiting both Nassau and Manhattan in the same day for example. In hindsight, I believe that upper management (also reservists) did this intentionally, as part of the overall strategy to waste time and extend their own deployment. When we did arrive at our destination we often sat in the car for half an hour or more before exiting. Sometimes the supervisor would be on a personal phone call, sometimes sorting papers, sometimes not doing anything at all but wasting time.

The reservists had a good salary and impressive perks, such as a $70 a day food stipend that is added to their pay, and tried very hard to not work themselves out a job. There was an acute awareness that the more efficient we were—in this case the faster we helped affected communities recover—the shorter our job would be. So we worked slowly, and we intentionally worked inefficiently.  This was not isolated to the level just above me but widespread throughout the organization. It went beyond wasting time though. Many of the decisions and direction given from above were illogical. We spent a week visiting businesses to ask if we could leave fliers there, though we did not have any actual fliers to leave, nor did we ever return with any. Another day was spent writing consent forms out by hand that we would never use.
Many of the local hires were surprised and frustrated. There were also some that were happy with a lazy system and everyone at least embraced parts of it. For example, I gladly went home early nearly every day—as did everyone else.

There were some small attempts at improvement, but they never lead anywhere. When my team did street canvasing I stepped out of the vehicle immediately and stood outside, thinking it would encourage others. One reservist on my team would often step outside with me, but our supervisor never followed and no one else from the two or three car loads of workers ever stepped outside until she did.  It changed nothing but made my accomplice and me frustrated and cold—this was in early February—so we soon stopped trying and waited in the car with everyone else. The reservist who tried to encourage a better work ethic choose to leave the FEMA mission early, she was the first person to leave my team in Rockaway. When we were handwriting consent forms another team member questioned the logic of it and was shouted down with comments such as “Where can you get a job that pays you for doing so little and then lets you go home early? Don’t ruin this for the rest of us.” That team member was let go the following week. He was the second person to leave our Rockaway team.  

The worst aspect of FEMA is not the general incompetence of the decision makers, nor the intentional waste, it is the workplace culture. Any suggestion for efficiency, any questioning of the modus operandi is greeted with hostility. I’ve never encountered a job that guarded its own misgivings so fiercely. As the job progressed, almost all local hires, myself included, acquiesced to the situation and eventually grew close with it. The ones who embraced the inefficiency most, the ones who were the happiest to collect a pay check for sitting idle, were rewarded. Most reservists begin as local hires and the local hires that embraced the waste and sloth are the most likely to apply and eventually advance within the organization. In essence, negative behavior is rewarded.

Workers will always take as much as they can, the difference with FEMA is that encouraging inefficiency is not hurting the bottom-line of a still profiting faceless millionaire, its hurting working families who were devastated by a natural disaster. Volunteers (occupy sandy, etc) worked much harder than FEMA and other paid workers I interacted with. The paid workers seemed to be working for a paycheck while the volunteers had no other motivation but to help people and tried to maximize their efforts and effectiveness.

Yes, there were exceptions and good workers but that’s all they were, exceptions. My critique is limited to my own narrow experiences with the organization, beginning in December and ending in late March but it seems clear that everything I witnessed was part of an organizational pattern. At the end of the day, FEMA has a very worthy mission and actually does significantly contribute to disaster recovery, but it can be so much better.

Assuming that government should provide a safety net and help overwhelmed communities recover from natural disasters, FEMA needs to exist. The way that it has evolved—the willful inefficiency and extreme hostility toward constructive criticism—is appalling and needs to be torn down and replaced. I worked as a Field Operations Supervisor during the 2010 census and was happily surprised with the quality of the other managers and the general work environment, and there are volunteer relief organizations that work well so it is possible. There are successful templates that exist. Disaster survivors deserve so much more from us.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I had a completely different (positive) experience (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BlackSheep1, Be Skeptical

    I worked in the FEMA field office for the 2011 Alabama tornadoes. I was in the Long-Term Community Recovery division, which is more like a planning office rather than immediate disaster response. However, we interacted constantly with field workers who were out in the communities. Also, my daughter worked in the Housing office so I'm familiar with what they did.

    There were only a few FEMA staff, but I understood that was by intention (you don't want to pay a lot of federal employees to sit around and wait for a hurricane to strike). The reservists (called DAEs for Disaster Assistance Employees) were highly experienced and probably better qualified than a FEMA staffer might have been. There were also a number of contractors, mostly engineers and planners with years of experience.

    I was a local hire, and like many of us, I was glad to have a job, having lost mine earlier in the year. I never got any feedback to take less time or slow things down. In fact, we were reminded continually that FEMA was a temporary project, and that we were to be as efficient as possible.

    The people who worked in the field, who we relied heavily, worked hard and did their jobs. Maybe because they were already members of the community, they were more motivated to do so.

    We also had very strong support from our state government, including Gov. Bentley, who despite his anti-federal-government inclinations in other areas was extraordinarily supportive and understood the need for a partnership.

    It is too bad that the relief efforts did not seem to go as well in the Hurricane Sandy disaster. But I think it is a mistake to tar all of FEMA with that brush.

    "Maybe life's meaning is not so much found, as it is made." Opus, by Berke Breathed

    by Lisa in Bama on Tue Apr 09, 2013 at 09:10:07 AM PDT

  •  It's very much like the Census, I think (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    marina, Be Skeptical

    I've worked Decennial Ops three times (not the latest one: I had a son in Kentucky working and one of us on that payroll is enough).

    Much depends on the field office manager's mindset. If you have a good manager, you'll be working with people outside the office every day, you'll have an 8-hour day, your travel will be covered. If you have a bad manager you'll be trying to pay people you haven't hired yet (paperwork!) and you'll be accused of everything from kerbstoning to lying about your mileage.

    Working for the Texas department of health I got involved with FEMA-related training, and I'm a CERT-team trained potential volunteer with our local council of governments. The training is good -- but the field work is very dependent on the supervisory personnel's agenda, in ways nobody realizes.

    LBJ, Lady Bird, Van Cliburn, Ike, Ann Richards, Barbara Jordan, Molly Ivins, Sully Sullenburger, Drew Brees: Texas is NO Bush League!

    by BlackSheep1 on Tue Apr 09, 2013 at 09:21:04 AM PDT

  •  Makes me angry (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    stuff like this is what gives government employees a bad name.  It saps our limited resources and cheats the people who were supposed to be helped.

    I'm glad you wrote about it here.  The Left should be intolerant of such behavior.  It is important not to suppress reports like yours, but instead to fix the problems.  The alternative is to have the Right continually bludgeon us with how libtards have created and nourished such horrors.

    Have you sent this information on to higher levels in the Obama administration (not just within FEMA)?  It could be valuable.

  •  This critique is only regarding New York/ Sandy (0+ / 0-)

    I am not sure how FEMA operated at any other time and place, my experiences were with disaster #4085 which is specific to Sandy relief in NY state (each state has a different operation, even for the same disaster). I worked under six different supervisors and discussed these issues with many others who worked in various other departments and there was a solid consensus that overall, inefficiency was encouraged. It's possible that it was different in other times and places, but not in NY, not now.

    I wrote this because it bothered me and I thought others should be aware. I'm not sure what I can to try to change it, perhaps I will also write a letter to the director with these concerns.

    •  You definitely should send letters (0+ / 0-)

      To the NY state director, to FEMA director Craig Fugate and to Janet Napolitano and, why not, to Barack Obama.  In my long experience with government, target as many levels as you can to maximize the chance of a response.

      I would leave any politicians out of it though, as they would, well, politicize it.

    •  Its not just Hurricane Sandy... (0+ / 0-)

      I recommend you contact your State Senators and Congress Representatives.  Email them directly with your account and save ALL email transactions sent/recieved.  The only way FEMA ever listens is through congressional inquiries and lawsuits.  Do not back down, you've got it right on the head, and your experience is NOT exclusive to NY & NJ.  Great reporting, super job!

  •  FEMA expereince (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    paradise50, navajo

    Thanks for your honesty. As another FEMA local hire, I strongly agree with your comments about carpetbaggers and time wasters and widespread redundancy and lack of coordination. It's not everyone and there are some great people there among the reservists as well as among locals of course. The management system brings in many weak managers in who should not be in that role. Some teams never have weekly meetings and folks working in the office, with less lattitude to shirk than field workers, are too often browbeaten and treated with disrespect.

    I admit that over time one feels sympathy with some of these same folks who minimize hours and fake their work, not for their dishonesty and cynicism but for their desperate need of a job. That said, it's tax payers money, it's our money, and ironical that many of these workers blame government for inefficiencies when they help create them!

    I am not sure the answer is to reduce Reservist pay or increase the requirements to make them on call for 10 months out of the year. That may be counter productive. But reservist perks are too easily dispensed and too many of them found reasons to stay in pricey hotels and keep tax funded cars-- in a city like NYC with mass transit. FEMA seemed unwilling to make sufficient adapatation to NYC conditions, despite directions from the top to do so.

    FEMA seemed proud that it had as many local hires as it has had in NYC but local hires were marginalized and far, far too many reservists were and are kept on for months during the recovery process and after the emergency needs were less pressing. Local Hires are so much cheaper --no perks at all-- though frankly the basic pay for some is a little too low for NYC at $15.

    Finally, and to me most serious, there seems to me to be groups of old time FEMA people (some of them military) who function like a "Deep FEMA" making sure they take care of each other and resisting attempts at innovation. I have seen it many times and am deeply troubled. Though FEMA does important work, much more transparency is needed.

  •  FEMA management is reading this (0+ / 0-)

    I received this anonymous message from a current FEMA employee last night: "Hey, man. I just wanted to let you know that your essay/diary/blog post is making waves- it was in the disaster-wide press clips, so everyone [could have] read it, and a lot of people higher up the food chain have been talking.
    I've been thinking about writing something similar since my first day, from the office/admin side, so I was really glad to read it. You did a great job. More importantly, it made an impact. You might be on some watch lists now, but you also might actually get some changes made."

    * I also posted this on my personal blog ( so I'm not sure which they are reading but in either case the text is the same.

  •  Sad But True (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Be Skeptical

    Thank you for writing this John.

    Knowing the amount of people at the JFO with little to do and lots of time on their hands you can be sure they'll be "strategizing" about this little article.

    Although there are many talented and qualified reservists working this disaster, my experience as a local hire was that they spent more time thinking up ways to extend their deployment than actually accomplishing anything within the community. The job seemed all about setting up meetings with local groups and local officials so they would have something to put in the daily report. It was not about whether the meeting was necessary, productive or whether any actual results were achieved. And follow up ... not if it meant committing any real time, energy or resources.

    The locals are sick to death of talking to FEMA personnel who can do no more than hand-hold and not address their problems or needs in any useful manner. The creation of the NTFIs was not the brightest idea. You don't correct  the inefficiencies of sending narrowly trained CR people out into the field by creating another layer of beaucracy one step above them. Especially one with no clear, defined function or established goal... well, other than being extra ears and eyes of the Branch Directors. There is no way to measure their success. Their failure can be measured by the frustration of local officials.  

    As to the day-to-day, direction was often non-existent, it was very hard for the local hires to get the other functions/cadres to respond to questions or provide information and when assignments were actually given they often seemed like busy work and would be changed at least on a daily basis.  

    When anyone of the Local Hires or even the Reservists took some initiative they were usually slapped down for either "straying out of your lane" or "committing too much under the new national disaster recovery framework." Afterall, it seemed we really aren't suppose to do anything on the Recovery side, just be "supportative."

    I counted up the number of highly paid people that drafted, reviewed and edited one of the briefing memos sent to Washington about twice a week. I figured you could run a small non-profit for about a year on the cost of that one memo. I'm not joking.

  •  Take with Shaker of Salt (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    a gilas girl

    This writer's real problem appears to be hurt feelings because of FEMA's

    extreme hostility toward [his] constructive criticism.
    Most of us know this character, the immature, inexperienced and also smart person who arrives on the job and quickly discerns how the operation would be greatly improved if only his/her suggestions were followed. His rancor daily grows as he fails to receive the attention he knows he deserves.

    I've worked for more than five years as a FEMA disaster assistance employee. For the most part, FEMA's reservists are first rate professionals who when called upon work very demanding 70-80 hour work weeks to deliver help to those in need. Our focus is always on helping the survivors, helping communities recover, helping individuals and communities to become more resistant to losses when the next disaster comes. It's too bad this young man didn't get to see more of the total organization and the continuing work we are doing all over the nation to help individuals and communities recover from disasters so that he could form a more informed and objective view. It's too bad he didn't talk to some of the many survivors who are movingly thankful for the help they have gotten from FEMA.

    Yes, there are a few incompetent workers, as there are in any large organization. When there is a huge incident like Sandy, FEMA must quickly supplement its work force with local hires. Perhaps more of them turn out to be incompetent because it is not always easy to determine before hiring in a hurried situation that someone may be ill-suited for the job. No organization can avoid hiring mistakes. A fact of life, because that's how humans are. Mistakes are made. In time, they are corrected. I've worked with many local hires over the years and most of them are first rate individuals who bring a strong work ethic and skills to their jobs.

    His criticisms remind me of the fable of the blind men and the elephant, each blind man ready to generalize about the whole elephant based upon a small area he has touched. In this case it's more like the rant of an ant who has briefly crawled over an inch of the elephant --an ant with hurt feelings and an ax to grind. Articulate and well written, ill-informed and motivated by personal pique. You'd be smart to take it with a shaker of salt.

    •  Thank you for this perspective. (0+ / 0-)

      In particular, I appreciated this part of what you wrote:

      No organization can avoid hiring mistakes. A fact of life, because that's how humans are. Mistakes are made. In time, they are corrected. I've worked with many local hires over the years and most of them are first rate individuals who bring a strong work ethic and skills to their jobs
      In the end, it comes down to a spirit of generosity or one of resentment in how one assess these operations.  As many of them as I have seen in my lifetime and as many as I have heard about from the people who work them on the ground, I'm inclined toward the "benefit of the doubt" interpretations when confronted with situations that are less than ideal.

      But of course, here at DK we have all types.  That's part of the excitement, I guess.  

      Welcome from the DK Partners & Mentors Team. If you have any questions about how to participate here, you can learn more at the Knowledge Base or from the New Diarists Resources Diaries. (Click on orange text to go to linked content.) Diaries labeled "Open Thread" are also great places to ask. We look forward to your contributions.

      Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

      by a gilas girl on Tue Apr 16, 2013 at 10:36:55 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  True, most of us know that person (0+ / 0-)
      the immature, inexperienced and also smart person who arrives on the job and quickly discerns how the operation would be greatly improved if only his/her suggestions were followed.
      I only wish sometimes someone would have listened to them instead of dismissing their uppity attitude.  Public employees would be well served by keeping a few more people like him.
    •  Typical (0+ / 0-)

      Most of us know your type of character too, Dstingo.

      The kind that doesn't address the points made or attempt to explain how taking two breakfasts a day and hanging out at the JFO or in a car for hours at a time before actually doing some work is "productive."

      Instead your type attacks the whistleblower's character  before reciting the company-approved message again and again until you actually start believing it yourself.

      Typical PR ad hominem attack tactics. Let me guess, External Affairs? Reservist? Deployment almost up?  

      Sorry, dude, but there are a lot of unhappy local hires working this disaster who came on to help and found out the job was just a big time-waster.

      He's reporting that they made up numbers and spent a day asking businesses if they could drop off fliers that were never going to be made. And this, from my experience and just about everyone else's in my group, is a typical day in FEMA. It's not a question of incompetence, but rather systemic problems with the structure and functions of FEMA. All the spin isn't going to make that go away.

      Acknowledging the problems with the Recovery side is the only way to fix them. Same as any 12-step program. And, boy, does FEMA need a 12-step program.  Obviously, that can't happen when you are in denial.

      What a more "mature" and "experienced" individual does is acknowledge them, look for their root causes and work toward solutions. The causes run deep and I won't go into details other than to say that FEMA at its core has a split personality - one side offering below market rate flood insurance (which in essense subsizes development in hazardous areas) and the other leading disaster recovery planning efforts (emphasizing resilience and mitigation). Then you have a new national disaster recovery framework that FEMA is only rolling out for the second time. Now throw in a disaster of unprecedented magnitude hitting the most densely populated area of the country, consisting of two states, several cities and countless small municipalities and what do you got? One big mess. It's understandable that there is confusion. It's understandable that officials feel that throwing a ton of personnel at the problem might help. It's understandable that strong direction and some real ability to motivate communities to change isn't there. What is not understandable is a corporate culture unwilling to acknowledge or change as evidenced by your remarks.    

      It's a shame Dstingo that you feel so threatened by this guy's critique that you need to "kill the messager" by "immature" tactics such as name calling.

    •  In Denial? (0+ / 0-)

      After serving for many years in FEMA, I'm not sure what box of denial you've been living in, but the local hires' account was 100% correct.  The only thing left out was favoritism by cronies, blatant harassment, and being sent home so that their buddies can snag your job.  This local wasn't ill informed or had an axe to grind.
      However, you clearly prefer denial to full disclosure, and obviously haven't seen enough corruption and abuse in the agency for some odd reason.  FEMA operates on fear, intimidation, retaliation, and gross unprofessionalism mixed with frequently inserting completely unexperienced individuals into key leadership positions, most have little to no EM career backgrounds, and the majority get away 'scot free' because there is no real punititve actions taken.
      Either you're a well paid 'yes man' in the corporation, or you've got one cushy little job where you don't have to engage with other divisions in the field.  

  •  Local Hire Blogger got it RIGHT (0+ / 0-)

    After reviewing the main story and the following comments, and after serving in FEMA for a very long time, I agree with the local hire's findings, and so does a LOT of FEMA personnel, both permanent and reservist.  It's not a matter of hurt feelings, its the gross lack of leadership, accountability, and corruption within FEMA.
    As the old saying goes, 'the devil is in the details.'  And the local hire did a great job detailing the corruption, laziness, and complete absence of leadership within FEMA.  Certainly, there are several accounts of FEMA personnel doing their job, behaving in a responsible/professional manner, and care deeply about disaster affected areas.

    However, what this local hire witnessed has been witnessed by all FEMA personnel.  And FEMA has done nothing about it.  FEMA's union/4060 in D.C. had done a lengthy document on identifying the gross negligence towards reservists, which jeopardized their safety.  It was titled 'Shattering the illusion of FEMA's Progress,' dated 2/3/2009.  It is a public document, so you should be able to find it online.  In it, are several reservist accounts of fraud, waste and abuse.  In some cases, reservists were nearly killed due to stupid leadership orders.  Of course, those leaders have been promoted since 2008.  This attempt to include and represent reservists was the last time ever attempted.  This expose' was sent to HQ, to the media, and to other sources.  Obviously none of it was ever taken to heart.

    For reservists, there's virtually no oversight, particularly in CR and EA.  There is the CLASSIC 'fuck up and move up' crowd which continues to continually get promoted after being reported for abuse, fraud and waste.  Everyone knows this, everyone has complained through Equal Rights, ADR and other mechanisms.  No results.

    The pervasive passive aggressive fear mongering which has destroyed the reservist ranks stacks up in the numbers.  Since the facist forced 'takeover' by FEMA HQ to bully and control reservists nation-wide, there's been over 3,500 who have quit, and many who continue to leave in droves.  Why?  It's a well known fact that HQ created the COE to punish, restrict and drive off seasoned reservists.  There's no personal attention being paid any longer to you after being corraled from Regional supervision.

    Getting rid of seasoned reservists means targeting higher paid DAEs.  Americorps recently got slotted 800 FEMA jobs nationwide, and to the cheap cost of roughly $5 per day. Being the fiscal hawk he has always been, it's always been a dismal awareness to reservists that Fugate never liked DAEs (i.e. his famous 'Walk On' statement) and considers them to be a very expensive waste of time.  Hence the aggressive use, expedited training and exceptional attention paid to unexperienced, unreliable, and transient Americorps numbers.

    On Hurricane Sandy, several hundred 'surge' personnel went unused.  The unprofessional mistreatment of the surge personnel resulted in approx. 200 surge individuals who basically boarded a plane and got the heck out of there.  They didn't even check out of the JFO.

    The small attempt to beef up numbers of reservists via USAJOBS was a total bust.  The entry level pay hovers from $12-$15 per hour.  An insulting hourly amount for recieving no benefits and having to adhere to HQ's brutally restrictive 'conditions of hire.'

    Over a year ago, the FEMA Regions fought extremely hard to not let HQ 'steal' their reservists, and unfortunately lost.  The impersonal database, FQS and the IMWO (Oh, btw, major nepotism and favoritism for the IMWO's top dog/Coleman...completely illegal by federal hiring standards) have proved to be nothing but a failed and unvetted process in which you cannot even challenge without being blacklisted by HQ.  So, what else can reservists do?  Resign.  I'm glad I did, and it continues to be a drag down fight that some of the reservists are trying to do via Congressional complaints, petitions, etc.

    To make a comparison to the old workforce days before unions, if workers have no legal protection or process to protect themselves against corporate facists, then you will always find corruption.  The reservist workforce has no legal protection, no union, and no one in HQ who has ever cared about retaining, supporting, communicating, promoting, or representing the reservists.

    Everyone can see that the brutal fight between HQ and the Regions was for 100% control over the reservists, and it was ultimately to exterminate them over time by driving them off.  Congratulations HQ, you've accomplished your ulterior plans.

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