From North Dakota to New York, the long road for one Community Relations Specialist

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At FEMA we’re in the business of customer service and my boss, Administrator Fugate, often refers to our Community Relations teams as the face of FEMA. And rightfully so, because they are the team who literally pound the pavement and talk with survivors at their homes, apartments or at shelters. 

Community Relations teams also do what we call AIR, which stands for Assess, Inform and Report. They report back what they’re seeing in the field, allowing those in the disaster field office to be alerted to specific issues. This information is critical for us to set priorities.

Community Relations take the lead from the local emergency managers and help out wherever they are needed, depending on the circumstance.  They can take calls in the local emergency manager office from survivors or work with the National Guard to organize supplies, or distribute food, water and blankets to those in need. And, of course, a large part of their job is to make sure everyone with disaster damage registers with FEMA.

fema employee looks out window

CAPTION: New York, N.Y., Nov. 29, 2012 -- Community Relations specialist Jean Riendeau has been with FEMA since 1997 when she became a survivor of the Red River Floods in North Dakota. Since then she has worked at over 50 disasters sites, including most recently Hurricane Sandy in New York.

The following is a first-person account from Jean Riendeau, a veteran of our Community Relations program who is also a disaster survivor from the Red River Floods of North Dakota in 1997. She is one of more than 1,000 Community Relations specialists in New York.

For the last week I have been working in Coney Island and Brighton Beach as a Community Relations specialist and even though I have done this so many times, I still get emotional. When this happens, I follow an early mentor’s advice: “Cry in your hotel room at night, but not with a survivor.” I don’t want to feel sorry for them, I want to empower them. 

I know what it’s like to lose everything to a disaster. I started working for FEMA in 1997, the year I had to evacuate from my home during the Red River Flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota. At the time, it was the largest evacuation to ever take place in the country; almost the entire city of about 50,000 people. I went to Fargo and slept on a loveseat in my son’s apartment for 10 days. I guess it was then that my instincts for community relations came out. A friend and I found a space at a college where all the evacuees could meet. We had computers set up and the Red Cross and other organizations came in. But it wasn’t a place for donations; it was place to connect and share information.

Since then I have worked more than 50 disasters all over the country, from California wildfires to tornadoes in Kentucky and Missouri to Florida Hurricanes. I discovered how resilient New Yorkers can be the last time I was here after 9/11. I was working with special needs cases on the pier. I was helping a woman who had just gotten out of the hospital with more than 80 percent burns on her body. She asked me to wheel her to the wall where photos of the missing were posted. She pointed to a few, saying “I know that person…I know that person.” I was so impressed with her strength. She was determined to get through the trauma, and was doing so by talking about what she experienced and what her future might hold. 

These days, in Brooklyn, we walk down pitch-dark hallways with flashlights, trying not to trip over the garbage put out by homebound residents. Most of the people are elderly. They’ve been living with no heat or electricity. They need food, water and medicine. We alert our FEMA contacts and our voluntary partners to make sure they get what they need. The nearby hospital was out of commission, so the American Medical Response units worked jointly with the National Guard to offer community wellness checks.

One of the toughest parts of this job is bearing the brunt of a lot of frustration:  “Why is help taking so long? Why is it so slow!” I know not to take it personally. I know I’m talking with people who have been stripped of their security and sometimes their livelihoods. And I am the one standing in front of them wearing a FEMA shirt.

I understand the trauma, the loss of security, the feeling of powerlessness and at times hopelessness. But the grieving process must play its course.

After the evacuation to Fargo, I went back to Grand Forks where we had intermittent power and a porta potty on every corner. My father-in-law’s home was totally destroyed; it was one of the homes always shown on the news. We helped him move into a new home, and had a FEMA trailer on our property. My daughter moved out of town for a year with my grandchildren, our business was closed, friends died. I received FEMA assistance as well as an SBA loan [during disasters the U.S. Small Business Administration provides low-interest disaster loans to individuals and families] and I began to pick up the pieces. And that is why I do this work. 

When I tell people, “It will get better,” I am happy and most grateful to speak from experience.

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12/04/2012 - 17:07

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