Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Bittersweet Commemoration and FEMA’s Bitter Mandate

by Lou Angeli

New York, NY (September 11, 2007) -- Today I joined thousands of Ground Zero responders in Lower Manhattan to commemorate the 6th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. Of that group, two hundred of us were were invited to read the names of those who perished 6 years ago, the first time that emergency personnel were offered such a privilege. Needless to say, the event was bittersweet.

For those of you who served at Ground Zero, you’ll recall that we were isolated from the rest of the World in our emergency village. There were no TV's, no newspapers at the disaster site, so we never saw the faces of the missing nor heard the pleas from their friends and families.

But today, 9/11 responders finally came face-to-face with the hundreds of families who lost loved ones during the collapse of the twin towers. When it was my turn to walk onto the stage to stand behind the podium, my reading partner and I were overwhellmed by the thousands standing before us holding out photos of their loved ones and waving so many signs of thanks.

Following the collapses, there were 20 rescues by official count -- perhaps one hundred others that were never recorded. Such rescues, especially those of Port Authority Police Sgt John McLoughlin and his partner Officer Will Jimeno, did a great deal to bolster the spirits of the thousand working at Ground Zero. Unfortunately, only one other rescue was made. Rescue turned to recovery within 48 hours.

In the years since 9/11/01, some fire-rescue personnel still feel that they had failed at their mission. One of them, Jeff Johns, a Transit Authority foreman and Ground Zero rescuer, ended his reading by apologizing to the families saying that, “We wish we could have done more. We tried” Failure is something firefighters, paramedics and law enforcement officers don't take to very well. Neither does Jeff Johns.

70,000 emergency and volunteer responders answered New York City's call for help during the ten day period following the disaster. They came from every state as well as Canada, Mexico, the UK, Germany, Italy, Israel and France. It was a nation coming together -- the world coming together in the spirit of volunteerism.

Some say that we've lost that spirit, but Americans proved again during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, that they were up to the challenge. As Americans, it is one of those things we do best -- Helping our neighbors in time of need.

Feds Attempt to Break That Spirit

However, the federal government has taken a bold step to esnure that volunteer responders, like most of us who were assembled at Ground Zero, won’t be able to respond to America’s next disaster. And that was the buzz at the World Trade Center site following this year’s commemoration ceremony.

Please take note that my definition of a volunteer responder has nothing to do with a person’s avocation. It includes professional firefighters, paramedics, law enforcement officers, building trades, and medical professionals, who respond to offer their skills during a disaster.

There’s a second equally important tier of responders, those who I refer to as support volunteers. They are the students, housewives, retired folks and church groups who are drawn to the disaster site to help in whatever way that they can. Without them, the crews at the WTC disaster site would not have been nourished or provided supplies.

But FEMA says – NEVER again!

To coincide with the 6th commemoration of the World Trade Center attacks, FEMA announced an ambitious ID program for rescue workers to keep SCUVs from swarming to a disaster scene. SCUV is FEMA’s acronym for self responders – Self Convergent Unafilliated Volunteers.(1)

According to an AP report, The Federal Emergency Management Agency came up with the idea after the World Trade Center attack and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when countless Americans rushed to help — unasked, undirected, and sometimes unwanted.

Volunteers and front line professionals who I’ve spoken to are livid. Even professional organizations, like the Disaster Research Center disagree with FEMA’s move to eliminate volunteers from disaster response.

“The rescue effort at the World Trade Center reminded us of the important role that emergent groups and volunteers have during major emergencies and disasters.” says DRC’s Patricia Smythe. (2)

Others aren’t as polite as Dr Smythe.

Popular internet journalist, Lew Rockwell suggests that FEMA is simply trying to enhance its credibility by discrediting the volunteers. “FEMA hates volunteers,’ Rockwell says, ‘since they do the actual rescuing and rebuilding, as in Katrina.” (3)

Oddly enough, following 2003’s Hurricane Isabel, FEMA’s issued a report that was clearly very favorable to the volunteer response to that disaster. (4) The headline reads, “Volunteers Perform Vital Function in Disaster Recovery.”

In the next edition of “Rescue Us” we’ll examine FEMA’s Volunteer Embargo with more detail, review the agency's track record and discuss what all of this will mean to the unlucky American community, which will play host to the nation’s next major disaster.

(2) Disaster Research Center (University of Delaware)
(4) FEMA Release Number:1490-60 (October 20, 2003)

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