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ISSUE 121 VOL 7 PUBLISHED 11/9/2007

FEMA discriminates in disaster relief efforts

By Lindsey Giaquinto
Staff Writer

Friday, November 9, 2007

The disastrous evacuation preparation, unnecessarily high death toll and utterly ineffective government reaction to Hurricane Katrina seems long passed, but the recent wildfires in California bring natural disaster once again to the forefront of America's mind. In comparison to Katrina, FEMA's current response to the California wildfires seems rather enlightened and refined.

The Washington Post reports that the Qualcomm Stadium provides 7,500 San Diego evacuees with cots, tents, food, activities for children, crisis counseling, meditation, yoga, acupuncture and AA meetings. Even free dog food is being donated to the displaced San Diego pets.

These comparatively luxurious accomadations provide a stark contrast to the horrific images presented by the media of the conditions at the Superdome in New Orleans.

So far, California citizens haven't had to deal with food, water and air conditioning shortages, nor have they been confronted with uncontrolled gunplay and the disgusting stench of decaying bodies.

I don't predict that they will ever have to deal with a dreadful and all-too-crucial dog food shortage.

So FEMA has learned its lesson! They responded to the wildfire crisis quickly and effectively! After all, the government organization is under new leadership - David Paulson has replaced Mike Brown and now spouts nothing but joyous self-praise over his management of the evacuation.

Paulson acts almost as if he had aranged a kind of triumphant soiree. Oh yes, and his evacuation party comes complete with entertainment for the guests. Cocktails, anyone?

I don't mean to belittle the situation in California. It is heartbreaking for anyone to lose their home, and I am sincerely glad that every possible action was taken to prevent the evacuees from suffering in a very tense situation. But I find the discrepancy jarring, given FEMA's response to the wildfires and FEMA's previous efforts to manage the debilitating affects of Hurricane Katrina.

The Washington Post remarked, "Some will be tempted to attribute the quick action exclusively to race. After all, San Diego County, where most of the more than 800,000 wildfire evacuees live, is predominately white (66 percent) and well-to-do (9 percent poverty rate) compared to the mostly African-American (67percent) and poor (28 percent poverty rate) victims of New Orleans. But that would be simplistic."

It would be overly simplistic to entirely attribute FEMA's new-and-improved policies to racial factors when clearly there are socioeconomic factors at play.

FEMA's prompt response to the California wildfires broadcasts that wealthier citizens in crisis will receive better aid than their impoverished counterparts.

That doesn't seem to be a complicated guiding principle. Especially since wealth in our country is so often and undeniably linked to race.

An implicit political component also deserves our attention. Twenty thousand acres have burned in Orange County, a city known for consistently voting Republican. Orange County has been given plenty of financial support. I don't care to speculate to what extent this Republican leaning has influenced the government's generosity - just keep in mind that both the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana are Democrats.

Could their political affiliation have been an obstacle to effective communication with Republican-controlled government agencies? Could this have led to inadequate resources for Katrina survivors?

And interestingly, FEMA, despite some of their obvious improvements in handling emergency situations - improvements that apparently come with strings attached - has suffered obvious guilt in the public arena for hosting a fake press conference.

The agency held a "press briefing" at which there was no actual press attendance. Instead, FEMA staff members posed the questions.

The agency has attempted to defend themselves by expressing their confusion, their exhaustion and the pressure involved in reporting information about the fires to the public.

If the directors of FEMA are so clueless that they become flustered by a simple press conference, then they certainly shouldn't be trusted to respond calmly to emergencies. Besides, fake press conferences would have only been acceptable in the Soviet Union.

To Katrina survivors, it does nothing more than add insult to injury to pretend as though relief efforts in New Orleans were nothing more than a building-block for FEMA's successful management in California.

Hosting a false news event speaks directly to the agency's desire to protect their image, yet it'll take more than good publicity to build my confidence in FEMA's enduring competency - especially since the consequences of Katrina still have yet to be resolved.

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