FEMA Incident Manager: ‘No Magic Wand’
There were more than 500 people at St. Francis de Sales Church on Wednesday night and it was apparent soon after Mike Byrne got up to speak that the great majority of people in the audience had a beef with the burly ex-FDNY firefighter.
Byrne leads FEMA’s National Incident Management Assistance Team – East in the wake of Superstorm Sandy’s destruction in New York City. He is in charge of the federal response to the storm for New York State.
Even with his lofty title and his appointment by President Barack Obama, Byrne says that he has “no magic wand,” and is limited by his mandate as to what he can do to ameliorate Rockaway’s suffering.
At a meeting at The Wave office prior to the St. Francis meeting, Byrne says that he has already spent $1.6 billion in this area, with about $750 million going directly to individual families.
“We take care of people who can’t take care of themselves,” he added.
Many of the people in the audience at St. Francis, however, had heard stories of people getting grants of tens of thousands of dollars and wanted their share. They were angry at FEMA for refusing to hand them a check or for covering the majority of goods they lost under several feet of water when the storm surge struck.
Byrne was only one of a series of speakers from city agencies and private companies such as LIPA and Verizon who spoke at the meeting, sponsored and hosted by Assembly-man Phil Goldfeder.
Each representative spoke for a few minutes and later answered questions. After the meeting, residents had an opportunity to speak one-on-one with the representatives in the warming tent in the church’s playground.
One of the major questions concerned setting up temporary housing in trailers, as was done for Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Byrne told The Wave that the trailers are only the third option when dealing with emergency housing.
“First, we look at rental resources, and there are plenty of those in New York. Then, we look at hotels, but most of them are in Manhattan and are expensive and booked in advance, especially in the holiday season. Only when there are no resources in those two areas do we look at trailers and there are no sites locally where we could quickly put trailers, which need electric and gas hook-ups. Many people say that Floyd Bennett Field would be a good site, but they forget that it is in a flood plain and we can’t place temporary housing in a flood plain for obvious reasons,” Byrne explained.
While many at the church meeting said they expected to be reimbursed for everything they lost, Byrne ex-plained that the maximum grant for everything a homeowner lost is $31,900.
“It is what it is,” Byrne concluded, added that he understood why that total makes people who lost their basement apartments unhappy.
“I’m a response guy, not a long term guy,” he said with a smile. “I’m open to every possible idea, but I have to play within the rules. Our response is too important to people for it to be any other way.”