September 07, 2005

Advice from the Floridians Who Came Before You...

Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, take heed of the words of the Floridians who came before you. Tom's latest FEMA outing is essential reading:

When we finally reached an allegedly living FEMA representative, the first thing we learned was that we'd need to write down our case numbers in order to proceed with any claim or loan. We were also told that the interview would result, invariably, in a letter from FEMA denying our claims. We were told to ignore that, as it was simply part of the routine.

So we sat there at tables in the recreation center, making our calls. When it became evident that we would need to write down case numbers, I asked for a pencil. I hadn't come with one, nor had most other people.

FEMA had not brought pencils.

Not such a hopeful sign: An agency whose prime directive is to address immediate need in the face of a catastrophic event, a crew of freshly scrubbed professional emergency workers in crisp blue shirts, failing to bring the only things everyone undergoing their process would be sure to need: a pencil and a piece of paper.

And Tom is right. Brown's head on a platter would be a symbolic yet unfulfilling offering--and not so helpful the next time one of us who has lost everything expects help from the giant tangled-tentacled monster known as FEMA.

It's a similar level of frustration I heard on a smaller scale from a friend volunteering last week at the Red Cross shelter. She witnessed a sort of amnesiatic state among those "in charge," who had apparently forgotten everything that has been invented in the way of art and science that might help streamline processes and get things done.

Should a business process expert ride along with every disaster-related team to make sure processes are optimized--or at least workable? Should technologists and business people partner up with the FEDs and non-profits to make sure that the smartest thinking and best technology is available and impemented? OR are all these things already available and just sitting back at headquarters working on the slow and inefficient business of government?

It shouldn't be all that hard to make a difference in the life of someone who has lost everyting. As Tom points out, something as simple as a pencil can make a world of difference.
The only other time I saw hurricane behavior in Florida achieve FEMATIC levels was among Florida drivers waiting in line on long gas lines. Lines of cars backed up at the few stations that had some gas, and invariably there would be within view a station across the road that seemed to not have long lines, but a steady stream of cars nonetheless.

It seemed improbable that so many cars would be going to an empty station, but in fact that is what was happening. Lines would form, each car would drive up in turn to the pump, try all the levers, discover there was no gas, and move on, leaving the next driver to make the same discovery.

The striking thing here was the remarkable breakdown in communication. It would have taken one sign on the pump, or better, on the station's marquis, to save hundreds of gas-starved people the experience of learning an identical thing, over and over. Any single driver could have hollered or made signs to the folks behind indicating the pump was empty. Somehow it was like the very option of giving voice to another was unavailable. Language had not yet been discovered. There was no other.

Or maybe no one had a pencil.