A minister's dream is caught up in FEMA's web

Miscues frustrate her plan to help Katrina survivors - and show need for reforms.

For Rosemary Williams, patience is a virtue. She is determined not to be frustrated. But it's been difficult.

For at least seven weeks since hurricane Katrina, the Methodist minister and a band of volunteers have been online, on the phone, and meeting with dozens of local and federal officials. They're trying to find funds - $5.5 million - to build 40 new homes on 28 acres that she hopes to donate in DeLisle, Miss.

What they've found instead are bureaucratic tangles, out-of-date agency websites, and overloaded message machines that make getting through to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other government organizations extremely difficult. Once they did get through, they received confusing, inaccurate, and, in some cases, wrong information.

The story of Ms. Williams and her wrangling with the post-Katrina bureaucracy is a case study in overcoming confusion - her own, well-meaning but poorly informed government workers who took her calls, and staff and volunteers at charitable organizations. It is one of thousands of cases prompting disaster experts to call not just for reform of FEMA, but for a whole new approach to disaster response by Congress, government agencies, and charitable groups. Put simply, they must find a way to work together.

"We have to create a new organizational partnership that can come together in the hours that follow a catastrophe ... that can connect people to all of the different organizations that can solve their problems," says Paul Light, a professor of organizational studies at New York University. "This infrastructure clearly doesn't exist anywhere, and it needs to."

Such a partnership might have helped Williams. Her tale begins long before Katrina hit. Eight years ago, she had a vision that she and her church should build housing wrapped around an education center for people of all incomes and for young people as well as their parents.

In 1999, she bought 28 acres - flat, agricultural land on high ground in DeLisle on Mississippi's southwestern coast. It was the first step in a project she envisioned would take 50 years to complete.

Then Katrina struck. Afterward, as she drove past the piles of rubble that used to be homes in Pass Christian and DeLisle, she pictured the people who'd lived there and saw where some could settle next: on those 28 acres.

"It's needed now, and I just think it's in God's timing that it happened in this way," she says. "I'm hoping in the next few weeks we can move forward, that we can start making a difference in the lives of people for the total community."

But Williams has come to the same cold realization that is hitting thousands of other hurricane victims: Despite the pledges of billions of dollars, efforts of thousands of volunteers, and nonstop work of government employees, help is hard to come by, even in a town where 90 percent of the homes were destroyed.

Williams's story - as told by herself, her volunteers, and her niece, who is a lawyer - helps explain why. Within two weeks of Katrina, a FEMA contract worker in the area told them that FEMA had a public-assistance program that funded infrastructure projects for towns and nonprofits. That's where they should go, he said, and advised them to hurry, because the deadline was Oct. 15.

Because they couldn't get through to FEMA on the phone, they went to the FEMA website to learn how to apply. While the website had a description of the program, it had no information about how to qualify or whom to contact. So they got on the phone again, and after several days, they reached a FEMA spokeswoman in Jackson, Miss. She told them she'd never heard of a deadline, and she didn't know how they should go about applying.

So they went back to the FEMA contractor they'd originally spoken to. It turned out that he'd quit. He gave them the name of another FEMA contractor, whose phone was so overloaded that it wouldn't take messages.

Finally, after this reporter called FEMA's public-affairs office in Washington to ask about the program, Williams's group learned that the FEMA program was administered by the state and they probably wouldn't be eligibleanyway. The reason: The FEMA public-assistance program only offers funds to nonprofits that provide services unavailable anywhere else - and almost anyone can build housing.

At that point, now well into October, a local housing expert suggested that they try applying to different charities or the US Agriculture Department, which has a rural housing program. So they started all over again.

"It's literally a maze. It's like there's no one in charge," says Shantrell Nicks, Williams's niece, whose law practice was swept away in the storm. She became a kind of de facto neighborhood FEMA expert, helping her aunt and neighbors fill out confusing forms and navigate the bureaucracy.

"I understand the need for documentation and checks and balances, but they've got to make these forms clearer and more victim-friendly," says Ms. Nicks.

FEMA's problems were exacerbated by the unprecedented magnitude of Katrina's destruction. FEMA officials also say their mandate is limited by Congress, and they're doing the best they can.

"Last year in Florida, we helped 20,000 people, and at the time it was considered a modern miracle," says FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews. "Now we're looking at housing hundreds of thousands. It's just a generational catastrophe. It's our job to help but also to manage expectations. And we're working really hard."

But the public has a right to expect the federal government to be the "destination of last resort" in emergencies, says Professor Light. While he recognizes the disaster's scope, that doesn't give FEMA or the federal government "a pass," he says. What's needed, according to him, is for Congress to provide adequate funds so FEMA has the resources for huge disasters. He calls it "surge capacity" - something that's extremely expensive and rarely used, but crucial when local and state governments are overwhelmed.

"It's the hardest thing to get legislators or even presidents to fund the kind of redundancies [backup emergency resources] that are needed to respond to these crises," says Light. "But that has to be part of our national discussion."

Williams agrees that a national discussion is needed, but she has more immediate needs, such as finding the right government program or charitable organization to help build her housing dream. About three weeks ago, she got her first offer of a donation from an individual. It's a start, and she's grateful.

"There is a desperate need. If you took one walk though the area, you'd see the depth of devastation," she says. "If that piece of property can make a difference, then it will. I don't think God gave me that vision for nothing."

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