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Heck of a Blog

A good friend works for the US government. He’s an uncommonly bright guy and does amazingly complex technical things for a government agency you’ve never heard of (not one of the sinister ones) at a facility somewhere near Washington DC.

(He is, as you may have gathered by now, trying fairly hard to protect his identiy for reasons that will be, momentarily, obvious.)

Like many of us, good friend was moved by the images he saw of Louisiana in the aftermath of Katrina and wanted to help out. As a government employee, this was easier for him than it is for some others – with permission of his supervisor, he was able to ask to be “seconded” to FEMA (the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, for my non-US readers) for some period of time.

Friend had hoped he’d be quickly deployed to New Orleans, hoping to use his vast technical knowledge to help with the communications infrastructure, or perhaps be immediately useful on the ground, handing out relief supplies. Instead, he waited. For weeks and weeks.

And then a couple of weeks ago, he got an email, asking him to drop everything and come to Florida. So he did. And he’s now perhaps the most overqualified data entry technician, helping victims of Hurricane Wilma (two hurricanes post-Katrina) somewhere near Orlando.

Here’s the thing – as an OFA (“other federal agency”) FEMA staffer, friend gets paid his regular US government salary and regular government overtime for being in Florida. Given that said friend is a (deservedly) well-compensated employee, this ends up being one whole hell of a lot of money. As he puts it:

But we are severely overstaffed, and we spend too much time playing solitaire. We aren’t cheap, either: most of us OFAs are GS-11s or higher, and we get time-and-a-half for overtime and weekends. You do the math; I’m kind of afraid to.

(A quick bit of translation – GS-11 is a pay ranking in the US government – as the numbers get higher, the salaries and benefits get higher as well…)

It wouldn’t be so bad if there were lots of work for my friend to do. There’s not.

The problem is, the people of Florida aren’t showing up. When I got here on Thursday we logged about 50 people, five an hour for our ten-hour day. I helped six. Friday we got 40, and today we barely hit 30 before closing early for rain. Probably a quarter of these people just want tarps for their roofs. My friends at the site to the south say the same thing: barely anybody to help, even though they’re pulling 12-hour days.

In an email I got last night, friend says that yesterday he and nine other OFAs worked a ten hour day, collectively helping FIVE people. In other words, American taxpayers paid 150 hours of high-salaried government employees primarily so FEMA can make the case that it reacted to Hurricane Wilma more effectively than it did to Katrina.

Fortunately, friend is using some of his copious free time to maintain a blog, titled “Heck of a Job”. The title is a reference to President Bush’s vote of confidence in Michael Brown, former FEMA director: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

So far, it’s a heck of a blog, though for all the wrong reasons. Friend had hoped to offer an account of what federal employees are able to do to help communities recover from natural disasters. But so far, it’s largely a chronicle of frustration at a bureacracy that seems to do a very bad job of allocating its resources. Very much worth a read for the next few weeks friend reports from his position within FEMA.

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