After the flood – a cynical epistle

My favorite sneakers, in sewage

We are here for you. We will help you. Time to pull together.

It’s all bullshit.

The governor, senators, mayors and their PR team members, FEMA representatives, the Red Cross, R.A.F.T., recovery groups, news anchors, downtown shop owners, your landlord, your  property management team, your neighbors, your fellow city dwellers …


The government cares more about infrastructure (though if you ask a government rep what that means, most don’t know). I think it’s electric and sewer and rail systems and buses and getting people back to being normal.

You will never be normal again.

What you lost

My apartment, post-flood

It doesn’t matter if you lost a million-dollar home or the use of a studio apartment, your Gucci bag collection or your baseball-hat collection, you are all the same flotsam to the government.

On the road

I spent five months on the road – in towns I never heard of before the flood, in hotels in far-off construction zones, and in rooms with locks installed in 1970.

Exorbitant prices

A city that cares? Tee hee! Once property managers, apartment managers, and hotel owners realize the money to be made by desperate, homeless people … you are screwed.

The Big E

The E in FEMA – I think it stands for “emergency.” It took their emergency staff five months to set up a trailer for me. For those five months, I was on the road – spending my savings – staying in hotels hours away from my family because I couldn’t find a hotel room in Minot.

One FEMA rep had the nerve to say, “Oh, you have a condo in NM? Why don’t you move back there?” After I just told this witch that I needed to stay in Minot because my family was here.

Once FEMA “sets you up”

My former neighborhood

You’ll be answering questions you wouldn’t want to answer for your bank, your employer, your psychiatrist, your proctologist, or your BFF.

City government

I had one nice conversation with a secretary in the Mayor’s office. After that it was a PR firm rep hired to manage the influx of calls. He kept telling me to be patient, giving me resources that didn’t apply to my situation.

State government

Ha. They are too busy campaigning or filing the forms I have tick marks on.

Bend over

In the year I was in a FEMA trailer, I had five or six different reps. I lost count. None of these reps cared about my situation, my family, my loss, the baseball-cap collection I compiled over thirty years, the ELO albums I’d saved since high school, the pictures and maps I had handed down to me by my Mom.

They ask you hundreds of personal questions, but they rarely answer any of your questions.

Reps that care

A FEMA rep will visit you once a month and tick off a form. FEMA maintenance people will show up and tick off a form. A guy with a clip board will show up after the maintenance visit to tick off his form.

There will be people and reps poking you where you never got poked before. It’s like bad sex without the dinner.


Sewage-covered street

Most of the resources I was given were not available to me because I made too much money, I was insured, I didn’t lose enough, I was not a homeowner, I was not this, that, or the other.

Writing letters

You write a letter to the mayor, you get a form letter. You write a letter to your governor, you get a form letter. You write a letter to a senator, you get a form letter. I had a letter to the editor published – that got a few comments.

People in your own hometown

Yeah. If they weren’t in the path of destruction, they carry on like it’s a Fourth of July picnic.

Who you can depend on

I’m not quite sure at this point. Most of my family and friends forgot I was displaced because I was displaced for so long.

It’s not their fault – they’ve never been through the nightmare. They think being held up in an airport for a couple days or losing their internet connection is an inconvenience of epic proportions. Most friends will go about their business like nothing happened.

Minot vs. New York

Minot got a few minutes of fame. Some movie actor is from here, so we got a little attention. But NEW YORK! When the next tragedy strikes, you will be shoved aside for the latest news story.


Yep. You betcha.

A plea

If you know someone directly affected by the tragedy in New York, reach out and reach out often. Don’t forget about them after a week or a month – their difficulties will continue for some time. My situation has dragged on for 18 months, and there are still others waiting for help – to finish rebuilding their homes, to find affordable rental units, and to get their salvaged belongings out of storage.

If you are too far away to do anything in their company, you can still call or write, ask questions, and sympathize.


Filed under Personal Articles, Special Events

18 responses to “After the flood – a cynical epistle

  1. Thank you Karen. Thank you for writing such a wrenchingly personal experience. This needs to be on the desk of every government worker in the United States, to remind them that their constituents are people. People who work hard and face life-changing events, and should be treated like human beings and not numbers or tick marks on paper.

  2. Have you been able to settle into a more permanent home yet?

    • Just last week, I did get an apartment – and that thanks to the kindess of friends (they are justing finishing up their apartment two-plex re-construction). I should be able to move in a couple weeks. And getting the apartment came at just the right time. FEMA is “consolidating” all their displaced people, and I was going to be moved to another location, a different trailer.

  3. Great post, Karen.

    We have to find a better way–one which doesn’t weigh and balance people’s live, but is simply there when needed. The political right puffs itself up on “American exceptionalism” yet wants to hamstring the government and it’s essential aid when that exceptionalism is most needed.

    The idea behind FEMA that Car ter had was so right–then Bush shrunk it down and handed it over t hacks and now we’re trying to get our emergency responses back on track.
    So unperfect, yet from what I’ve seen here in the aftermath of Irene and the urgency now with the victims of Sandy, I do hope we’re movng in the right direction–forward, not back.
    I can’t imagine what the east coast would be facing today if Romney had his way and privatized FEMA. …
    Sorry for the rant…

    • Ii don’t know how to fix it. I AM grateful that I did have a roof over my head, though the invasion of all things private – and in such an impersonal way, tick, tick, tick – is hard to take. After what I have experienced, I feel so bad for so many people – they are promised help, but many won’t get the help they need. And they won’t be treated like people, but like a bothersome herd.

  4. Karen, the saddest part of all this is I can make almost all the same complaints about the struggles I faced trying to get Social Services help for my parents. AND THAT WAS 40 YEARS AGO!

  5. Karoline Stock

    Well said, Karen. It’s a shame that the people who are supposed to be helping won’t be seeing it. I hope your apartment is nice and that you can feel like you’re “home”.

    • I already feel “lighter” and happier. I’m sleeping better. Just knowing I have a home is a great relief; that I can finally get my few saved belongings out of my family’s garage and hang pictures!

  6. Babette Becker

    Well said, Karen. My family and I are sitting here watching and reliving the horror of what we went through back in 2003 when Hurricane Isabelle hit the East coast. We then had a nice middle class house on the Elk River in Chesapeake City, MD. The morning after the hurricane hit, we awoke and thought that we had made it through pretty much unscathed, with the exeption of some downed tree branches. We felt relieved as we were on pretty high ground in our neighborhood. So we headed out to help our neighbors in distress and spent half the day getting people out by row boats. When we later got back to our house, we found the entire lower level of our home under at least 2 feet of water. The sump pump was not working with the power outage and the water table had risen with the tide. We then spent the next week in the dark, spending all day emptying out the house and freezing at night with our six kids. You don’t realize how fast mold grows until you go through this and then you realize that you can’t get away from the smell of mold. We never received help from anyone. Our devestation was not on a large enough scale to deserve the government’s attention, so there was no Red Cross, no FEMA, no donations made. We were on our own. Eventually the elctric came back on, but because only our lower level was engulfed by water and mold, our home was not a total loss, so the the insurance company sent us a check for only $13,000. In desperation, we hired a contractor to repair our home, only to have him take our money and disappear. We found out later, that we had been scammed, he was an unlicensed contractor and there was nothing we could do. Our home lost it’s value as we could not afford to properly repair it, and we eventually lost it to foreclosure. So, as I watch all of these people who I know are very much like me and my family, my heart bleeds for them. I know the hell they are about to go through. Unless one has gone through this nightmare, they cannot grasp how it can completely devestate a family and their basic capabilities to lead any kind of a normal life. Loss is not a strong enough word for the experience! You should really send your article to the papers or to the President. They need to know what Americans are truly experiencing!


    p.s. Now we are living back in North Wilmington, high atop a hill in a solid fieldstone house! We will take no more chances!!

    • I too know a few people who have been screwed by unsavory contractors. And no, “loss” is NOT strong enough. I feel so sad for people who think that they will be presented all the resources they need. They are in for a great disappointment.

  7. I can feel your anger and disappointment, Karen. I would feel the same. Such a good idea to help people who desperately need help, but then the clipboard holders get involved. This post reminded me on the movie Brazil, and the madness of government bureaucracy. I hope your new apartment makes up for some of what you’ve gone through.

  8. Wham, that was powerful and raw, and something that needed to be said, a reminder we all need to hear. Because whether we deal with someone displaced or not, we ALL have interactions with people who deserve our attention beyond their immediate traumatic situation–after all the immediate sympathy has fallen by the wayside. I’m wincing to think of some of those people right now. I see a few phone calls in my immediate future.

    • Well, with media the way it is, one tragedy out-posts the one before it. I guess it’s a fact of life. I like that you have thought to call some people. It helps people to know they are not forgotten. Thanks, Elizabeth.

  9. Karen, I can relate a little too well. Our house has been flooded twice. The Red Cross was amazing, but the government? Yeah, right. It’s all about the businesses and neighborhoods with important people living there.
    We’ve had politicians come ’round -with the cameras rolling of course- to give us all their promises and they look like wonderful caring people on the news. Problem is, they never follow through. But of course that doesn’t make the news.

    • I wish someone at FEMA – or in “government” – would get a few dozen flood-ravaged people and put them on a consulting committee, a committee that would actually help people. We had the same “fluff” going on here.

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