The past two days my friend Patricia and I spent volunteering at the Nortel Center, where the evacuees are staying. We were helping the state division of emergency management services. Specifically, helping people fill out registration forms.
I'd never encountered mass bureaucracy on this level before. The process was kind of insane, mainly due to the myriad agencies the evacuees have to deal with.
Everyone was in this one room (not that big) with rows of tables. Us, HUD, the IRS, Social Security, Housing Authority, FEMA, and some private real estate developers. The DMV was supposed to be there too but they never showed up.
When people first came in, they came to me or Patricia to get their state form filled out. The form wasn't too long, but it was clunky and hard to use. They told us that the database program had been written in 2 weeks for immediate use during a previous emergency. And it shows. For instance, "date of birth" and "age" had to be entered separately, when age could have been calculated from the DOB. One field (street, lane, drive, etc., and why is that even a separate field from the street name?) was a drop-down which did not include common responses such as "avenue." If there was more than one person in the household, then the primary applicant's name, SS# and age had to be entered again, far down on the form where you couldn't see the previous fields. So you either had to ask them to repeat themselves, or scroll back and forth to copy and paste each field.
Enough griping about the form. The point is that the state form was kind of a pain to fill out. Once we finished that, then we asked them if they needed housing. If they did, they had to go to HUD. The HUD guy was sitting at a table right next to us. He was a nice guy, I could hear him talking to people and he tried hard to help them. But everyone needed to talk to him, and each person took a long time, and he was a little overwhelmed. So he had us filling out a form in advance for him, and putting people on a HUD waiting list. The waiting list never worked as intended because there were so many people milling around every which way. And I always felt bad about the housing form, because almost everything on it was a duplication of information they had just given me for the state form. What I would do is fill out the housing form for them while they visited the other agencies in the room. I could just copy everything from the state form, they didn't need to be there.
Okay, so once these forms were filled out we'd print out the state form and give it to them with a checklist they had to take around to the other agencies. FEMA was a big one, everyone had to go there and get a FEMA number. I don't know what forms they had to fill out there, they were on the other end of the room. Social Security was for people who had lost their SS card in the flood and/or didn't know their number. The IRS was giving tax advice to people who had lost major property like a home or car. Housing Authority and the private developers were for people to find public or private housing, respectively. I heard that developments like Briar Creek were providing whole blocks of new apartments, and HUD is paying their deposit and first month's rent.
Once they were done talking to everyone, they had to bring back the printout of their state form, with every agency checked off on the checklist. Then another person in emergency management services did an "exit interview." I don't know what that involved, I never did that.
There were some other agencies in other rooms: employment security commission for either job hunting, or unemployment benefits; human services for food stamps, medicaid or child support; aging and adult services for aging issues, etc. But most of it seemed to be happening in our room. So there were tons of people milling around, it was crazy noisy at times, you found yourself yelling at people just to be heard, trying to explain to them which agencies they had to go to.
I must say, what really blew me away was how good-tempered everyone was. I wouldn't have faulted them for being pissed off at us for putting them through all that rigamarole. But people were overall pretty nice about it. I only talked one person who had worked up a head of steam, came in complaining that no one would give her a straight answer. And I was able to make her happy, which felt great.
The women in charge of me and Patricia was amazing. I don't know how she managed to keep her head through all that chaos, and stay on top of everything that was going on. She told us a bit about her background on Sunday (which was slower than today). Apparently she's a "reservist" for emergency management, she gets called up whenever there's a disaster in the state. In her real life she runs a women's center in eastern NC, where she helps women figure out career goals and develop job skills so they don't have to be on welfare. She said that she got this job with emergency management because of the skills she had developed navigating through bureaucratic crap. When I grow up I want to be like her.
Today was non-stop all day; whenever Patricia and I weren't helping someone, we'd fill the time by entering handwritten forms from previous days into the database. Which was tedious, and also annoying because the database had a nasty habit of giving us both the same record ID, and then whichever one of us clicked save first, that record would be overwritten by the other. We thought maybe this was happening because we both logged in on the same user ID. Or maybe just because it was a quick and dirty DB that no one had ever gone back and cleaned up. (Hey, they should hire me to fix that database.)
We had been instructed to act cheerful and encouraging, make people feel welcome and give out lots of hugs. Which comes naturally to Patricia -- her boundless energy never ceases to amaze me -- but I did my best too. I was a little worried beforehand that I might get emotional about the situation, but it only happened once. I was entering a handwritten form and saw that it was for a married couple in their 70s. I started thinking about what if it had been my parents who lost everything in a flood and were sent on a bus to a city a thousand miles away, and had to sleep on cots in a shelter, and I nearly lost it. Luckily no one was around and I got control over myself pretty quickly.
We barely had time to go to the bathroom today, but yesterday we had time for a tour of the building. The people living there don't have much privacy. Not any, really. I didn't get but a quick glance at the sleeping areas, but it looked like about 20 cots to a room. And the rooms all had uncovered windows next to the door, so even if you managed to be alone in the room anyone walking by could look in at you. I didn't see where people could change clothes. I guess maybe the bathrooms.
They have a room full of donated clothes that people could take whatever they wanted, another room with new clothes from Wal-mart that people could take one outfit, a room full of school supplies, a TV room, a decent computer room with net access. Also I think people can have pets there: I heard announcements on the intercom about the ASPCA arriving to walk people's pets. Or maybe the ASPCA is keeping the pets, and brings them to the center for visiting hours? I'm not sure.
On the downside, I also heard on the intercom that residents (or "guests" as they were called) could only have a shower or do laundry at certain times of day. And the cafeteria food was pretty blechy today, although it might be better on other days. And security around the building was fairly strict: you had to be on a list to even get in, and everyone had to wear name badges at all times, and the guards (who were everywhere) would stop you if you weren't wearing one. In short, it seemed better than living on the street, but anyone who would say "this is working out well for them" has their head in their butt.
I'm sure I have more to say, but I've been writing for a long time and I'm really, really tired. I wish I could go back tomorrow but I have to work. The people I was working with might leave soon anyway. They said emergency management might send them to eastern NC depending on how Ophelia goes.
My contribution was pretty trivial and I'm not sure if I actually helped in any real sense, but for my own peace of mind it was monumental. I couldn't stand sitting and watching disaster news on TV and feeling helpless anymore. When I left today, the woman in charge said I had been a big help (another reason she's amazing -- she could make me feel like I made the day possible, when all I did was fill out forms all day). In all sincerity I told her that she was the one who helped me, just by letting me be there.