Friday, August 20, 2004

Matrullo from Florida: Trouble In Paradise

Riders on the Storm

by Tom Matrullo

High intensity events arrive with the force of dreams. You drive up a road to higher ground, hoping your home will be there when you return. After the hurricane, you drive back down the same road, but it is not the same. It is a vector of indices of power. The broken power and light poles, the crushed hardware store, the truck flung into the liquor store tell of something that has come this way and this way will never be the same.


The most annoying element of this has been the headlines. Every day, newspapers tell us, in bold letters, there has been a RAMPAGE. we are BATTERED. We are COMING OUT OF OUR HOLE. We are starting THE PUSH FORWARD. BETTER DAYS ARE AHEAD. WE. WE. WE. The headline is an outmoded, fascist imposition of Order erected upon a lie about a fiction of disorder.

The first moment after a disaster, we do not need news anchors unchained to any news, no shred of useful information, but plenty of unctuous sympathy. We do not need roads filled with NBC-2 vehicles containing anchorites powdering their noses in rear view mirrors. These we have, in droves.


Disasters happen. Some learn from prior experience. MCI, with its Big Blue mobile phone/broadband satellite trailer, with AC, water, snacks, has learned. They have been to Oklahoma City. To New York City. They have acquired some knowledge, and it shows. MCI’s unit posted itself near the worst hit area, but also near a Publix, (another company with some memory of what can be done), which reopened within a couple of days of the storm with generator power, and porta-potties. To these essential ingredients came people from Siesta Key offering burgers and hot dogs, cold water, etc. State Farm set up its mobile office. In very little time, a self-organized multiple-use node has replaced a distressed stripmall parking lot.

Others, who should have learned from experience, have not. It was edifying to hear a radio news interview with the head of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who, asked what might happen if one or more additional disasters happened at the same time, encouragingly said his agency was equipped to easily handle several Hurricane Charleys and 911s and more. Thank God for the Media, so we know that Mr. Bush’s administration is simply bursting with resources, know-how, and ingenuity.

This came as something of a revelation to those who, like me, came to a FEMA center in Port Charlotte early one morning, a few days after the hurricane had left town. Finding the office was not a simple matter. Once there, I found several FEMA people milling about, avoiding eye contact with us, and 15 or so phones, some of which worked. The FEMA agents did not try to take questions or offer information. They simply told us to dial an 800 number. It was 7:30 a.m., and the room was already filling with people who had somehow found out where the FEMA center was located. Apparently in George W. Bush’s Washington, disasters may only occur after 8 a.m. and prior to 6 p.m. We waited for the emergency experts to arrive at their desks, then we got busy signals for more than an hour, as they handled the first calls, one plodding 25-minute interview at a time. It also seems to be federal policy that victims of disasters come equipped with everything necessary to bureaucracy. There was no water, no porta potties, no pens or paper, although the FEMA interview requires that you be able to take down important information like your case number, etc. After an hour I got through to a FEMA agent, a nice-sounding but somberly legalistic woman who tried to make clear the federal intricacies and limitations of FEMA obligation while taking my info. As I connected, I waved frantically to a FEMA badge to request a pen. It took minutes for him to return – “it belongs to the black lady over there,” he said, indicating a victim who was talking on another phone.


We don’t see the precariousness of our world. Moments like this – the world turned upside down by a storm, by a war, by a famine or flood – peel back several layers of insulation, but there are always more. Still, disruptions are to be welcomed because they offer glimpses of how our lives, which we often think of in rich, multi-colored hues, are actually stick-figured sketches, capable of alteration and annihilation whenever the artist grows bored, restive, or frustrated.


Driving through Punta Gorda looking for early morning coffee, I see a gas station occupied by two large Convoy of Hope trailers. Boxes of water bottles and milk, baby food, diapers and other things are strewn about. It’s still dark, the only people there are a media crew, its cameras and lights aimed at a female reporter with a mike, getting ready to TELL US ALL ABOUT IT. I asked the only not busy person if there was anything hopeful about this convoy other than the Media. She said I could help myself to anything that was lying around. She said she was with ABC news.

Instead of the massively supported media gear, trucks, satellites, etc. that beam out to us and to the world a heap of, on the one hand, terrifically optimistic and bogus information spewed from the lips of officials, and on the other, fatuous human interest stories about people in whom the cosmetically perfect reporters have no human interest, I recommend:

FEMA, or a replacement, saner agency, create compact mobile disaster rescue and aid units that consist of:

1. Triage nurse or medic.

2. Mini-bulldozers to clear streets.

3. Self-contained, satellite-based communications units – phone and internet – like that provided by MCI, equipped with AC and water.

4. Porta potties for neighborhoods – staffed or organized to be maintained by volunteers who keep it supplied with toilet paper and frequently cleaned and disinfected.

5. Portable units with generators that can provide ice making, potable water, foods, and propane stoves for people to cook on.

6. Agents who actually talk to victims.

7. An information desk that keeps updating the latest key info – where to find gas and other essential items, which hospitals are open, etc.

8. A unit that deals with missing persons. People in neighborhoods know who lives there, and can report missing persons. This area has many, many elderly couples and single people, some of whom are disoriented in the best of times. People need to be looking out for them.

9. Create a couple, or even just one, larger centralized space organized to address the most pressing needs. E.g.: you need temporary shelter? Get on this line. Need medical assistance? Over here. Insurance claims? Line C. Find a licensed contractor? Here. This sort of thing requires a lot of sensible coordination between fed, state local and private people who have common sense. Therefore it has not happened.

When Aeneas saw Troy, through the ruse of Odysseus, breached and burning, he ran toward the disaster, to fight the invaders. His mother, a goddess, peeled back the veil of his limited vision, and Aeneas saw gods, giant in form, fierce in aspect, hacking his city to ruins. There would be no saving the old Troy; the path was opened to founding a new city, a new Troy, built on violence and blood, Amor's inverse, Roma.