LAREDO, Texas -- “Help the people — that’s what we do,” said Charles Gonzales, a three year veteran of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Community Relations cadre.
Gonzales is one of 20 FEMA specialists working in South Texas helping residents recover from Hurricane Alex. The FEMA specialists are working hand in hand with Community Relations professionals from the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM).
“We are the faces of FEMA that the survivors will remember,” Gonzales said. “If we do our job, we leave a good impression of FEMA, and people get the help they need.”
Although most of the teams canvassing the eight counties under the Federal declaration for Hurricane Alex have specialists who speak both English and Spanish, Rebecca Vickers, who works with TDEM Community Relations said a smile often bridges gaps in language.
“It doesn’t matter what language you speak, a smile bridges all barriers, both cultural and language,” Vickers said.
Community Relations teams go into the communities and speak with survivors who have damage from events such as Hurricane Alex. They provide valuable information about registering with FEMA, the importance of returning paperwork to FEMA and the Small Business Administration (SBA), locations of State/FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) and are able to answer questions from survivors.
Vickers said that in her case, she has tried to communicate with several survivors only to find that they did not speak English. Because she only speaks a little Spanish, she would present them a flier in that language.
“They know we are attempting to communicate,” Vickers said, noting that she and her Community Relations partner had asked some survivors, “¿Muchas aqua en su casa? (Many waters in your house?)”
She smiled and said, “They laugh.”
Walking the neighborhoods hard hit by the flooding that followed Hurricane Alex, Vickers said as people took information from her, they have offered refreshments and hugs.
“We have been hugged a lot. A lot of it is our smile and attitude. We show that we are definitely not a threat,” Vickers said.
Gonzales said that most of the survivors are grateful to receive information provided to them. However, he said he is rewarded by working with the people.
“Seeing how they overcome adversity and their ability to bounce back after what could normally crush people. I am overwhelmed by their strength,” Gonzales said.
When the specialists visit with disaster survivors, Gonzales said they provide the phone number,
1-800-621-FEMA (3362) and even provide the use of the use of their FEMA cell phone if the survivors do not have a phone.
“We tell them when they receive a registration number to keep it in a safe place because they will need it as they go through the recovery process,” Gonzales said.
For those who have already registered, the specialists find out if the damaged residence has been inspected or if an inspection is scheduled. Gonzales said he also encourages survivors to fill out and return the SBA loan packet they may receive after registration.
“It is important to fill out the SBA packet even if they are not interested in a loan,” Gonzales said. By not completing the SBA loan packet, survivors may miss out on some FEMA grants and filling out the SBA loan application is a necessary step to be considered for some other forms of disaster assistance.
While providing information is an important part of the Community Relations specialists’ job, perhaps the most important part is listening to the survivors.
“A lot of our job is listening. Sometimes, it helps them to talk to som...