By Bill Coffin
Yesterday, I was into my fourth day without power or heat thanks to Hurricane Sandy. Our communications were spotty at best, since the local cell towers all were either offline (since they drew electricity from the grid like everything else) or they were going on and off because they were running on backup generators and those were running out of gasoline. (At the time of this writing, gasoline is still pretty scarce in the Garden State, despite major efforts to replenish supplies. Waiting for hours in line is commonplace. Fights are breaking out in some lines, requiring the police to oversee things and make sure everybody stays civilized.)
Since we had gotten some of our other damage cleaned up, yesterday was time for me to attack a trio of small trees against our side-yard fence that had broken mid-trunk and toppled, hanging on the fence and into my neighbor's yard. I went over to cut the trees apart and get the lumber to the curb. It wasn't a huge job, but doing it with a hand saw made for slower work than, say, with a chain saw. But with gas so scarce, a hand saw would suffice.
I began pruning the tops of the trees and was working my way down to their trunks when Aaron, the 20-year-old fellow who lived in the house came out to his driveway to have a smoke. He lives there with his mother, who rents the house from Brooklynites who don't live there, either. They just use the place as a summer home. As I worked on the trees, Aaron remarked that he had already taken pictures of them so he could submit a claim to FEMA.
"Yeah, man," Aaron said. "Gotta get me some of that FEMA bread."
"There is no FEMA bread for this," I told him. For starters, these broken trees were mine, not his. Secondly, they didn't cause him any damage. The only damage done was a pair of broken slats on my fence. Thirdly, he didn't even own this place, he rented it, so the damage done to the structure, if there had been any, would have been the owner's problem and not his.
Aaron stared blankly at me, and at the trees. "Oh," he said. There went his FEMA bread.
He went back inside and I cleared the first tree, thankful that I worked out regularly. Tree trunks, even small ones, weigh a lot more than they look. As I began working on the second tree, Aaron's mother, Catalina, came out and asked me who she should call to submit a FEMA claim for the trees. I explained to her that there was nothing to make a claim for, and now, since I was a little peeved at this family's ignorance, I explained that FEMA money is for people who have suffered a serious loss. You know, like every freaking family that lived near the beach about two miles east of us. Those people. Whose houses were reclaimed by the sea. Who lost family members. They get FEMA bread, not you. And not anybody in our neighborhood, where we have suffered minor damage, power loss and a lack of heat. It has been uncomfortable for us. It has not been life-threatening.
Catalina seemed dumbstruck by the same revelation that blinkered her son: There would be no free government money coming their way for this. Although, I have to admit that I felt a little more sympathy for her son. Aaron seemed interested in FEMA money so he could blow it on smokes or something. Catalina seemed to want it because she had no car and her 98-year-old mother was in a shelter the next town over, where there was a big dormitory for the elderly, and there was an adjacent dormitory for younger refugees brought in from elsewhere. Catalina was unsure of where the younger refugees came from, only that she considered them "riff-raff" from either Atlantic City or Asbury Park. This was code for "inner city troublemakers," which they certainly seemed to be. Catalina's mother reported that the young refugees were already stealing from the elderly refugees, and the National Guard had already sent orders for reinforcements to double down on security there lest they have a miniature recreation of the New Orleans Superdome on their hands.
Be that as it may, all it took for Catalina to get her mother out of the shelter was a local cab ride. By the time I was onto the third tree, she and Aaron had called cabs and were bugging out. Life without power and heat was too much for them, I guess.
By the time I was done with the trees, there was a handsome pile of lumber by my curb, and I was in sincere need of some food and a beer. My wife was bringing over some hot food to Christine's house; she js a neighbor with whom we are close. Her kids and our kids play together, and we get together from time to time. We stayed there after lunch, and soon some other neighbors came over too and a little blackout party developed. As night fell, we stayed at the table, playing games and telling stories. My account of the FEMA bread received a few requests for re-telling; people just couldn't get over it. Were Aaron and Catalina the kind of freeloaders who make every government aid program suspect as well-intended largesse for the lazy and unscrupulous? Or, were they so deeply ignorant about how something like FEMA works that they honestly thought that just for having lived through a hurricane, they had some government bonus money coming to them?
Either way, it generated no small amount of head-shaking from the folks at the table, some of whom pointed out that incidents like this are why government aid programs always seem destined to fail. I did not agree entirely, but I sure did see their point. Catalina and Aaron left me feeling angry and disappointed.
Not long after, Christine's husband Matt came home. He runs a local airport and owns his own banner plane service. You know those single-engine planes that fly those signs overhead at the beach? That's what he does. And he flies all over doing it, too, so you have seen one of these planes at any beach on the East Coast, the chances are pretty good that you have seen him at some point.
Matt had come home late because just a few hours before, he got a call from FEMA to fly banners with 800 numbers for people to call if they needed to file a claim. Matt is officially registered with FEMA for just such emergency work, and he had been on standby to do the job for a day. All they were waiting for was the state to be declared a federal disaster zone. Once it was, FEMA could pull the trigger on hiring Matt. Even though he got the call late in the afternoon, within 30 minutes, Matt and his ground crew had the sign manufactured, airborne and photographs of it sent to FEMA to prove the work was being done. FEMA was stunned. They were not prepared for how fast Matt and his crew could turn around the job.
Matt flew his plane all up and down the coast, where he got a firsthand view of the devastation. "There isn't a single part of the coast that looks right," he said. He also said that he got choked up while surveying the damage. Even for as much media coverage as there was, he said, it still did not do the scope of the damage justice. He showed me pictures and video he took from his plane. Shore towns where the streets were still flooded. Others that looked like collections of buildings poking out of new sandbars that covered everything. Other towns where homes had been blasted off their foundations and had ridden the storm surge hundreds of yards away. It was like the entire coast had been an elaborate system of sandcastles destroyed by the bored child that had built them. I told Matt my FEMA bread story, and he just laughed. He knew FEMA enough that folks like Aaron and Catalina didn't have a prayer of actually getting any money from FEMA, because FEMA actually checks to see if you deserve the money you are asking for. That said, he was angry about it. People really need that money, and they are not getting it as fast as they could be because the government has to try to make sure that nobody gets resources they don't really need.
I keep thinking about FEMA bread, and how in a single day, I got to see both deplorable and laudable approaches to how we recover from disaster. There are people who will see the loosening of somebody else's purse strings as an opportunity to get a free lunch. There are others who will see it as an opportunity both to conduct honest, hard work as well as a chance to be part of the solution for everybody else. We are a great nation filled with great people who have prevailed through disasters before, and will prevail through this one, too. The reason why we prevail, though, is because for every Catalina or Aaron, there are two or three or five or 10 Matts. The notion of selfish or ignorant freeloaders stings us so deeply because we are a hard-working people who honor sweat and toil far more than gaming the system. That is how it should be.
I have long said that one of the most difficult challenges the insurance industry faces — and this applies to both the life and health industry as well as to the property and casualty industry — is that people who buy insurance often have a skewed attitude toward it. They see it not as a product they buy, with specific terms and conditions, but almost as a right to a disruption-free life that they happen to pay for. Filing an insurance claim for destroyed property or a liability situation is often seen as entry into some weird kind of lottery where you might get more paid back to you than you actually lost. Filing a life insurance claim can feel even more so by those who never took part in the purchase, and see themselves as suddenly winning a pile of money they never worked for. Life insurance is meant to keep wounded families going, but my late father, who was the executor for many estates, lost track of how often he watched members of threadbare families look at life insurance payouts as the only reason for maintaining their family ties at all. Insurance is just another form of FEMA bread. The question is, how do we look at it? Do we look at it as some kind of massive freebie to cash in on, either because the money is coming out is somebody else's pocket or because we naturally distrust insurance companies of all kinds and relish the thought of them paying more than they ought to? Or, do we look at it as something that we collect for unhappy reasons, and should treat with respect?
We have paid for it in one form or another, both in the premiums we pay and in the loss we experience to justify a claim. But collecting on it, no matter how much we deserve it, should never be done with a cavalier attitude. Insurance is serious business. The reasons for filing a claim are serious business. And to treat it otherwise does far more than disrespect the men and women of an industry that does so much to maintain certainty in an uncertain world. What it disrespects is the fragility of life itself and the worlds we build around it. It disrespects the pain suffered by others. And it disrespects the fact that everything we have can disappear in the blink of an eye. We would do well to remember that always, and to be thankful.