Monday, September 04, 2006

Letter to Bill Maher

Dear Bill:

First let me say I’m a great fan and I missed you. Glad to have you back!

Regarding the show that aired Friday Sept.1, 2006. For the last ten years I’ve worked as a Disaster Loan Officer for the Small Business Administration. I worked 9/11 and Katrina. So I’ve seen the disasters up close. Nagin, while not politically correct, spoke the truth when he pointed out that NYC (possibly the richest town in the US) had not recovered in five years, and Katrina had a much larger area to cover (Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, from the water to a mile inland totally destroyed; and to a lesser extent, parts of the Alabama and Texas coasts as well as inland through all those states for 30 miles, most with depressed economies).

Harry Anderson was also right when he said that he could not stay because he just had not expected this inaction on the part of the government: streets are still lined with debris. We all know what a total cluster %#*& the rescue response was (with the exception of the Coast Guard), the sluggish pace of the clean up; the national amnesia that set in after the first charity drives were exhausted; and the collective gasp when we all realized not only that America had a poor, abandoned underclass, but that America was not prepared to save it. Harry was right to leave. It’s going to take a long time for things to get back to normal in New Orleans and the Gulf.

I make my home, when not working disasters, in Puerto Rico, which is not only the last American colony on the planet, but also a third poorer than the poorest state of the Union, Mississippi. So I know what it’s like to live in a floundering regional economy of the US that gets battered both by weather and by the growing pains of the world becoming a global economy, with real unemployment running in the 20% range.

America lives in an economic society that prizes financial self-sufficiency. While it is facile to say that Washington does not care, or that insurance will not cover, or that FEMA was woefully inadequate, (all true), those things do not address the reality that none of those entities, even if you put them all together, can pay for the rebuilding of such a vast area, and make whole such a large population. And they should never be expected to.

Yes, expect the local, state and federal government to rebuild infrastructure, education and health facilities (in fits and starts). Yes, expect insurance to pay for those people that were fully covered (most people don’t have the coverage to cover a total loss, because it is too expensive, believe me, I know), but insurance is a business like any other, and if you pay to replace half the cost of your home for thirty years and at the end of thirty years you lose the whole home, you will only get half of the value, minus deductions, unless you paid the premium to get replacement value. Yes, the insurance companies are pigs about paying out money, but they run the numbers and cover their asses, and you get what you pay for. I’m not saying they’re right, I’m saying buyer beware when you buy insurance, and don’t make them the scapegoat when you are not fully insured.

Lastly, FEMA. FEMA is there to see that initially people are safe, and have food and shelter for about six months, and they ask the SBA to decide who can repay a loan and rebuild, and who gets grants. They are not set up to do anything else. Now, they didn’t even do that well in Katrina, but they should not be excoriated for failing to fulfill any other expectations. Other nations that suffer disasters don’t even have those basic services.

In the smaller disasters I worked before 9/11, such as floods or smaller hurricanes, the displacement was not even close to the massive migration that Katrina has forced upon the Gulf coast, and things were usually back to normal in a year. Victims of earlier disasters could stay with family members in the next county. Businesses could rebuild and rehire most people within a six month period. This is not the case with Katrina. All along the coast places are leveled to the ground. I have the pictures I took while there. You can see them at, but they don’t do justice to what I saw. Half a million hurricane victims had to be bussed to the surroundings states, not to nearby counties. No one can expect them to come back any time soon. What do they have to come home to? Particularly since many are finding more job opportunities in their new communities? Realistically, it will take at least a generation to rebuild the coast. And those that stick it out will have a rough few years before things get better.

Just as Europe and Japan needed the Marshall Plan to rebuild after WWII, the Gulf needs a Marshall Plan, 1) because the victims will not be able to pay two mortgages (hell, without a job they won’t be able to pay the mortgage on their destroyed homes much less building new ones! Think of the domino effect on bank foreclosures!). 2) Because the elderly will not be able to get a loan to rebuild. 3) Because (I’m willing to bet) 90% of the victims have maxed out whatever credit they had and are now desperately looking for ways to pay it down, and there are no jobs there, 4) I don’t care how many initiatives the government has, bringing in new businesses takes time, and businesses don’t do well in areas with 40% electricity or with 50% of the population still missing (those percentages are my approximation). In fact, the whole US needs a Marshall plan for all of its displaced, dispossessed, and disenfranchised. Why don’t you propose a Maher Plan?

In the SBA we historically have given loans to about 33% of all the loan applications we receive. The rest either had bad credit or were already carrying too much debt. So those people were only eligible for grants, which while free, ranged from 10,000 to 25,000. That’s it. Not enough to build a house. As we know, insurance covers some of the damage, some of the time, but in a case like Katrina, the insurance companies either fight the claims or go bankrupt, so they’re fighting. And States are fighting back with class action suits, but that just makes the lawyers rich.

While it is heart wrenching to know that inevitably, many victims will have to sell their properties just to avoid losing them in bankruptcy, or worse; and that big and small landgrabbers and present-day carpetbaggers will swoop in and take advantage of their plight for their own gain; our economic system is working just as it was set up to work. Ethical decisions are not included on the bottom line. Corporate ethics and capitalism need an infusion of humanity, a new master plan; one that includes more sharing and less grabbing.

And charity, well, charity can only go so far. I was so proud to see the hundreds of millions donated to various causes to help. I also went to sleep with the bittersweet knowledge that while appreciated, it would only serve as a stop gap. How is a single mother of three going to survive for the next two years without a home, a job, an income? On charity? The funds will run out. There are just too many people in her same situation.

Here is one piece of not-politically correct thought that I have experienced repeatedly while working disasters. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way. And if you do, prepare yourself. You cannot fight Mother Nature. She’ll batter you once, and then come at you again a few years later and do it again. And again. I’ve been to the same places over and over because in places where a flood has struck, it’s likely that there will be another flood. In some places, floods come every year. In some places, hurricanes are to be expected. Why are people caught so unawares?

I saw Spike Lees’ documentary, When the Levees Failed, and was struck by a comment made by a victim that the flooding of New Orleans should not have happened. As a disaster worker, I have to say that most everyone knew that New Orleans was a tragedy waiting to happen. There’s no “should” about it… there was only certainty. But people chose to live there. And the Army Corps of Engineers did the best they could forty years ago, and have been busy with the Mississippi since. And some people chose not to evacuate, and there was no system in place for those that wanted to but did not have the means. We have got to both protect low-lying areas and divert flood plains like the Netherlands do, or simply not let people live there, build there, and die there.

It takes six months to build a house. In New Orleans alone there are over 250,000 homes that have to be rebuilt. The existing infrastructure can house only so many construction crews, and they can only build so many houses at a time. Even for the small percentage of victims that have the money to rebuild, there will be competition for construction crews and materials. If a planned community of 150 homes takes two years to build excluding permits and financing and weather, how long will it take for the whole coast? The famous Levittowns in the fifties built only 17,000 homes in 20 years. And the developers that do come in, while happy to help, cannot carry a financial burden without making a profit, and in the process, price most victims out of their neighborhoods. That’s the housing part. The lousy part of the housing part.

Planning and constructing and funding infrastructure projects will not only take enlightened leadership within the community and the local, state and federal government, it will take the few civilians who do have homes and incomes to step forward and lead their communities back to health. I lost everything during the banking shakeup of the mid-nineties, and spent five years getting back up, but I learned that whining does no one any good. By all means ask for as much help as you possibly can, and explore every possible avenue for survival. But also face reality, pick yourself up, and persevere. You’re in a hole, not of your making, but you have to get out of it. The situation is going to be bad for many years to come. And not only does the government at every level have to get their act together, every individual has to also. And that is never an easy or comfortable thing to do. I’ve seen the faces of the people. Some in despair, some just worn out, some plain disgusted. But they are all there, fighting, and intend to stay there. And live again. They are truly inspiring.

But most of all, we need a national will to set priorities straight, to decide that we must survive together; that we need not be the world’s policeman, in fact that we should be building coalitions and sharing power; that we must take care of things at home before we do anything else; that we must face the reality that in 100 years there might not be any oil at all, and we have to start living “as if” right NOW in order to be ready; that global warming is here to stay and we have to adapt quickly; and finally we must give government a mandate to stop acting like the neighborhood bully, and start acting like a benevolent coach; and relegate the military-industrial-congressional complex to an agency subjugated to the people, not vice versa. If I spent 50% of my income on security measures I’d be a basket case too. And if I had to worry about being attacked all the time, I wouldn’t have the clearness of vision needed to take care of all the other stuff I have to take care of. Playing world dominator just because we have the money, a Texan President and a weak Congress does not make us right.

Whew!! Sorry to lay this on you, but I just had to get it off my chest. I know from listening to you that your jokes are based on your understanding of the ironies of our world. So I thought I’d let you know your listeners are grateful. And that a complex situation sometimes can’t be reduced to a witty one-liner. But it sure is entertaining to hear you discuss it.

Mónica Pérez Nevárez