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.
See also: 5 lessons from Hurricane Sandy
I began pruning the tops of the trees and working my way down to their trunks when Aaron, the 20-year-old fellow who lives in the house next door, came out to his driveway to have a smoke. He lives there with his mother, who rents the house from Brooklynites who 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 he first tree, thankful that I work 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, 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 than I did 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 is 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?