Shake, rattle & toll

Government | Big or small, federal disaster relief can be disastrous for communities

Issue: "Nuke nightmare," Feb. 25, 2006

SEATTLE- In the spring of 2000, Andrew and Diane Ryan purchased their dream home, a private three-bedroom

A-frame nestled into a steep hillside overlooking Puget Sound. Less than a year later, the couple and their two children were forced into a hotel, then an extended-stay hotel, then a rental home-where they remained for two years.

That nomadic nightmare began suddenly and without warning a few minutes before 11 a.m. on Feb. 28, 2001. With a Japanese foreign exchange student sleeping inside, the foundation to the Ryans' home dropped 8 inches, sinking into the shifting earth that rumbled beneath it.

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A 6.8-magnitude earthquake, centered near the Nisqually delta in South Puget Sound, wrought significant damage on 14 dwellings in the Ryans' Maplewild neighborhood. Thousands of other structures throughout the greater Seattle area sustained damage as well.

But for most residents of western Washington, the Nisqually earthquake rippled through the region like waves on a pond-temporary, unobtrusive, and easily forgotten. Its epicenter buried more than 30 miles beneath the earth's surface, the high-powered quaver destroyed no major thoroughfares, toppled no skyscrapers, and killed no one.

As the quake's five-year anniversary approaches, remnants of its destruction are few. Even the Ryans, having moved back to their newly earthquake-retrofitted home, are once again enjoying the routines of normalcy. Most natural disasters throughout the country follow a similar script, leaving only fading anecdotes and a blip on a region's history by the time five years have passed.

But the trigger-happy inclination of President George W. Bush to declare national disasters-he did so roughly every three days during the first four years of his administration-pushes the combined financial cost of such mercifully minor calamities well beyond that of once-in-a-lifetime catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina. While national scrutiny and criticism more closely follow the expenditure of resources in blockbuster events, the improper handling of yearly storms, floods, and tremors holds greater sum potential for waste.

At the same time, few taxpayers realize how woefully short of covering the costs is most disaster assistance. Government aid to Nisqually victims reached $200 million, and insurance companies supplied another $315 million. But estimates of the total damages from the quake ranged between $2 billion and $3.5 billion. Charities and wealthy individuals helped make up a portion of that disparity, but some unprepared people were left without remedy.

Mr. Bush loosed the resources of federal relief in the Nisqually quake before local officials could accurately assess the level of damage. Within days, FEMA officials swooped down to the Boeing Field tarmac as though sporting a giant "S" on the chests of their tailored suits. Bureaucratic chaos ensued. "FEMA responded with the wrong resources too quickly," recalled Jim Mullen, Seattle's former director of emergency management who has since moved on to hold that position for the entire state. "They turned it into a campaign boiler room. With their new director, they were showing off."

Rather than allow local authorities to direct them according to comprehensive disaster plans, FEMA workers began posing for news cameras with unnecessary door-to-door visits and daily politically motivated announcements of what the federal government was doing to help. FEMA efforts were equally showy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with former director Michael Brown betraying the organization's improper motives in a memo outlining the duty of employees to "convey a positive image" of federal relief.

The focus on appearance over substance crippled even the simplest post-Nisqually operations. A FEMA hotline, set up to field telephone questions, often disseminated outdated or incorrect information. FEMA's public relations department informed people not to worry about whether their homes were bolted to the foundation but to check instead for wind damage-advice indicative of officials more familiar with hurricane relief. "Those things coordinated nationally were done badly with a gross insensitivity and mostly with a view to looking good," Mr. Mullen said. "We spent a lot of time resolving conflicts that arose because they told people inappropriate things in public meetings." The FEMA regional office did not return WORLD's repeated requests for comment.

But FEMA's presence was not wholly despised. Hundreds of homeowners, businesses, and nonprofit organizations turned to federal aid as their only recourse. Even Mr. Ryan, who had protected his largest investment with earthquake insurance, applied for funds to help cover his deductible. "They tried to be very helpful and respond," he said. "People that had minor damages under the $5,000 range-for chimneys and heat systems-they got money right away and very easily. Ours was a little more convoluted than that. It took several months."


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