A natural disaster happens in your town and FEMA immediately rolls in to help and provides all the food and water the community will need, right? Well, not exactly, not by a long shot. A FEMA camp, not the rights-infringing keep you behind barbed wire pointing inwards type that we discussed in the first article in the series, but the makeshift camps which appear after hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and power outages, should not be counted upon to be the salvation of a town in dire need.
Four years ago during the week of July 4, a massive power outage struck the Midwest. My entire southern Ohio region was without power for at least seven days. Temperatures were nearly record-breaking that week, with 104 degrees and extreme humidity becoming the norm. The “it’s 95 degrees in the shade” phrase quickly went from being a slogan coined to note really hot weather to an adept and powerfully accurate description of the reality we all began facing starting around 9 a.m. each day.
My rescued desert tortoises and the Amish families in our area were the only ones who went about their daily business undeterred. Sure, preppers were situated far better than their non-prepper neighbors, but there is nothing like going a week without power to prompt an immediate re-evaluation of your preps, skills, and overall self-reliance plan.
Assuming your town, county, state, or FEMA has a rapid action plan that will immediately be put into practice and include all the water, food, and medication you need when disaster strikes, could end up costing you your life. If such a bold statement sound like whack prepper melodrama, you have never lived through a short-term disaster.
Our county, like many in rural areas across the county, is entirely served by volunteer firefighters. The massive power outage was caused by a violent summer storm, which kept the local heroes busy constantly for the first 24 hours after the first loud crack of lightening was heard in the sky. The radios the departments use would have run down after the first day of the disaster if my husband did not have a sizeable generator and permission to use the only functioning gas pump in the county to keep it full to charge the devices. It would have been impossible for the firefighters to respond to any of the entrapment traffic accidents, transformers fires threatening homes and barns, and structural collapse due to fallen trees, if their radios had not worked. Life threatening example number 1 – what do you do when you can’t call the fire department?
The county sheriff office, which shares a building with the regional Emergency Management Agency was using all of their generator power to keep the police officer’s deputy’s and EMS staffer’s radios charged, the 911 system operational, and to used to power equipment necessary to refill oxygen tanks for the ill and the elderly. All 911 responses had to be prioritized to conserve gas, thankfully we have an incredibly low crime rate in our county, so the lack of a police presence did not spark marauding. Had the disaster lasted longer than a week or the neighbor-helping-neighbor concept not been a way of life here, civil unrest surely could have erupted. Life threatening example number 2 – what do you do when you can’t call the police, EMS or refill grandma’s oxygen tank?
So many Americans no longer have landlines and simply use cell phones, many residents could not even call first responders for help. The storm was so severe in this instance, phones lines were pulled down due to high winds and debris as well. The time to get to know your neighbors is now, and not the day after a disaster when you are hungry, thirsty, or in the midst of a heat stroke or hypothermia. Approaching a door of a neighbor you barely know is a far safer prospect during good times than it is during an emergency.
Our community banded together, with church and civic groups going door-to-door to check on residents. A free community cookout was organized quickly – food was spoiling at an alarming rate. Folks brought all the perishables they had to the high school and shared the food with everyone there and plates were delivered to those who did not have the gas to come into town.
Both the FD and the SO generator were pulling gas from the same single functioning county pump, needless to note, the fuel level became a concern in a short manner of time. For either civilians or government entities to get more gas, a drive of at least a half an hour was required. The few functioning gas stations only allowed $15 worth of fuel to be pumped once per day and no gas cans were allowed. This was at a time was a gallon of gas was about $4 per gallon. The drive to the gas station in a fire engine, or one of the SUVs or pickup trucks most people in rural area drive, took the entire $15 you were allowed to pump, just to get back to the county.
A Walmart in one of the functioning gas station towns had ice and bottled water left on shelves, so many made the gas run drive just to seek the water and ice. The trip for ice and water was often a fool’s errand. The wait in line for either item was several hours long and you were more than likely to be turned away long before it was your turn. The sounds of anger and fear quickly spread through the long lines when the folks at the front of the line began dispersing empty handed. Refrigerated food was gone from the shelves in just a few hours and not in three days like FEMA warns can happen during a disaster.
The only grocery store in my county sold off all of their perishables to the Amish the morning after the power outage occurred and their generators ran dry. The Amish families all have ice houses and were eager to buy all the meat, cheese, milk, and ice cream they could fit in their buggies for a deep discount. The loss of revenue from the outage and equipment damage due to the storm were among the reasons the owner noted for the store closure less than a year later. The store owners did allow residents to come in the store and buy anything they needed by simply writing down their name and the amount.
Sure, the owner took cash, but none of the ATM machines worked and who carries cash these days? Do not expect such neighborly behavior in an urban or even suburban area, it is likely not to occur. The pharmacy was closed during the entire outage and extra security added to protect the medications – the ones that did not spoil after their generator ran out of gas. Without electricity, the pharmacy staffers could not verify prescriptions and insurance coverage on store computers. Life threatening example number 3 – how long will it take before your family runs out of food and medicine?
Cold water could have easily fetched $100 a glass that week. The ground was so warm the liquid that flowed from the tap felt like bath water. The long-standing sheltering plan was expertly enacted in our county, but the plan fell far short of addressing both the amount and type of need which occurred during the storm. There were plenty of cots and warm blankets, which would have been great during the winter or the annual “flood season” around here, but a wool blanket was not on the list of priorities that July. The disaster trials and tribulations at the shelters led to planning for cooling stations, more water bottle stockpiles, and one-time use ice packs. None of the officials involved in the emergency shelter planning considered the possibility of running out of bottle water or how to keep the ill, elderly, and babies cool during severe heat when the power is down.
Had the outage lasted longer and the lack of sufficient help from FEMA continued, we would have had to begun the heart-wrenching process of prioritizing resources. Who would get one of the dwindling cases of water, an elderly man, a diabetic woman, or a family with young children? There are three senior citizen housing facilities in our county, how much of the equally dwindling food supply should go to those centers where the residents were already struggling to maintain their health due to the heat? Should the county seize cows and crops from local farmers to feed the residents who allowed their own pantry shelves to become nearly empty before the storm?
FEMA arrived in our county on day three of the disaster. The county commissioners and EMA staffers did not great them with smiles. Once the “rules for distribution” were read, apparently the rules were news to local officials, the frowns turned to expressions of anger. The lack of gas had hit its peak by day three, so residents from around the county, all 13,157 miles of it, shared rides or sent one person from the “holler,” country church, or extended family to bring home the offerings from FEMA. The federal disaster relief policy involved one pack of supplies per vehicle and said supplies are only given to one family and their name is marked off a list.
FEMA did not bring enough supplies, which were just water and ice, not medications or food, to serve even one village in the county. The water and ice were removed from refrigerated trucks and placed on pallets in the school parking lot. It took all of three minutes for the ice to melt and the water to inch toward the boiling point – the tempers of residents and local officials were at the same level by this point. FEMA staffers caused line of cars, which stretched from miles in both directions, to move excruciatingly slow. The staffers wanted to check ID addresses from a master list they thought county officials knew they would be required to provide.
The firefighters, police officers, elected officials, and community members who quickly volunteered to help with distribution started breaking the FEMA rules, they knew the people by face, marked them off the list immediately and allowed the melting bags of ice to be sent back with family, holler, neighborhood, or community representatives. The water and ice ran out long before the need was filled. FEMA promised other trucks would be arriving later that day an the following day with more water and ice and non-perishable food. No trucks have pulled back into the county since.
FEMA vouchers to purchase food and forms to complete to recover the cost of food lost were promised. They eventually arrived, but only the residents on public assistance were permitted to utilize the aid – a fact that the FEMA staffers did not share with local officials. Middle class families who lost hundreds of dollars in perishables and spent their available funds trying to drive far away enough to find a working ATM, get more gas, food, and water, suffered financially from the week-long power outage.
The FEMA response to the power outage in the Midwest that fateful summer is not a story unique to my county or the communities in multiple states impacted at that time. It is never safe to assume, and doing so could be a deadly mistake. Get involved in your community and work with or form groups to help deal with the disaster response in your area. Research FEMA emergency response procedures and go to public meetings to discuss what you have learned with your elected officials. Introduce yourself to your neighbors, talk to them about disaster preparedness and work together to plan a response for the neighborhood.