Behind the Scenes in Disaster Relief

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Mark Brooks was one of the people behind the Hurricane Katrina clean-up – but his work went beyond clearing rubble and handing out food and water.

As an attorney for the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brooks works on the legal side of disaster relief – an important aspect of making things happen.

Brooks works on the ground, and in the field, but it can be his sign-off on a document that will ultimately bring life-saving water, food, clothing and shelter to hundreds or thousands of people.

Question: You work as an attorney for the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). One of FEMA's most high-profile jobs was dealing with Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Texas in 2005. What did you do to help people there affected by the hurricane?

Answer: I was sent on temporary duty first to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and then New Orleans as a field attorney. My primary responsibilities included review of Public Assistance requests by schools, hospitals and other charitable entities that were damaged or destroyed by the Hurricanes for legal sufficiency.

Public Assistance differs from what we call Individual Assistance; it is federal aid to entities as opposed to persons. The help I was able to provide in these instances was to ensure that such facilities qualified for benefits under federal law. Repair of damaged infrastructure was a major component to the recovery of New Orleans. Schools for the children, hospitals for the ill and infirm, plus the roadways and other transportation structures to get to and from them - all were impacted by the storm.

Question: Did you meet anyone with an inspiring story about getting through the hurricane or back on their feet afterward?

Answer: Too many to count. I actually worked with several remarkable people who lost family members as well as homes and possessions or both.

In particular, Sandra is an exceptional person who barely escaped the flooding in New Orleans with the clothes on her back. A trained organizational manager, she ended up in Texas after the storm with her husband and decided returning to New Orleans would be just too traumatic. Her husband had been a popular DJ on a local jazz station - both lost jobs because the businesses they worked for were utterly destroyed. Sandra lives a life of faith and optimism. Although hit hard, her faith got her through the death of family members, the destruction of nearly all she owned and loss of income due to the damage wrought by the storm. She accepted an administrative position with FEMA after getting to Texas and as a result has reached out to countless others. She was and still is an inspiration to me.

Question: You worked as a field attorney during the hurricane and afterward. How is a field attorney different from other attorneys?

Answer: Field attorneys are the backbone of the FEMA Office of Chief Counsel. Forward deployment to a disaster area is the hallmark of a field attorney and is required in order to be one. Simply stated, the FEMA statutory mission to save lives and to alleviate suffering, loss of income and property loss and damage is difficult to accomplish solely from the office in Washington, DC.

That is not to say that all FEMA attorneys are in the field - there are about half located permanently at headquarters and both headquarters and field counsel play a vital role in helping to assure that the mission is carried forward.

Typically a field attorney will receive an assignment or legal question from the presidentially-appointed administrator of a particular disaster or other on-site officer. The field attorney will either address the question immediately or refer back to HQ for additional assistance.

Question: How important are legal issues when it comes to disaster relief?

Answer: Extremely important - much more so than one would think. Federal statutes that both created FEMA and provide federal funds to support FEMA missions do not answer all questions regarding how the money is to be spent and who is eligible to receive it. The rules and regulations must often be interpreted to provide a fast response to eligibility and funding questions.

Many in the US do not realize that federal aid is a supplement to local, state and tribal jurisdictions and much of FEMA's work is reimbursement of eligible expenses for disaster relief, in addition to initial response actions.

FEMA must absolutely insure that eligible recipients receive assistance as expeditiously as possible. The Office of Chief Counsel supports the mission by quickly advising FEMA leadership on statutory requirements in answer to those questions.

Question: What do you do to help with preparedness for emergencies?

Answer: The Department of Homeland Security and FEMA work together on a variety of preparedness programs, including grant programs to assist local, state and tribal jurisdictions to properly plan responses to natural and man-made disasters.

The attorneys again provide assistance in interpreting appropriations laws and reviewing programs to insure consistency with statutory requirements.

FEMA provides training and education to a multitude of entities, and each must comply with stated rules and regulations in order to receive federal funding.

Question: What other emergencies and disasters have you worked on for FEMA?

Answer: Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were my first, but since those I have been involved with literally dozens of other disaster and emergency declarations - too numerous to mention, and some of which are on-going.

I have worked on flooding disasters, snow and fire emergencies and more hurricanes including Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which caused so many more problems along the Gulf Coast last summer. All this while still in the midst of recovery efforts for Katrina.

Attorneys review all proposed declarations for legal sufficiency before they are sent to the President; requests for presidential disaster declarations by the governors of states must follow statutory guidelines and are reviewed both quantitatively and qualitatively for that purpose.

Question: How do you feel your Adventist faith complements your work? Do they conflict?

Answer: My faith sustains me in all that I do, and I cannot say there is any conflict at all.

As you might imagine, disaster relief does not recognize a seven-day week or a 24 hour clock. I have worked many Sabbaths and expect I will be called upon for many more during my tenure here.

That said I try to live my life in a way that reflects positively and to do good wherever and whenever that is required.

Question: How do your colleagues see your Adventist faith?

Answer: My faith is an asset. I think my colleagues would say it is exhibited in a positive, can-do attitude, optimistic outlook and dogged determination to get the job done without stepping on too many toes.

Question: Do you feel you are making a difference in your job? Is it satisfying? Is it frustrating?

Answer: I am absolutely making a difference! There is opportunity to do much good under the worst possible circumstances. It is immensely satisfying insofar as I can actually see the fruit of our labor.

Whether attending the opening of a rebuilt school or hospital, helping a family move into a new home or simply signing off on a document that will ultimately bring life-saving water, food, clothing and shelter to hundreds or thousands of people I will never see, there is never a time this job has failed to satisfy my need to be of service.

Of course frustrations are everywhere in life - no less so with this job. Not everyone agrees every time and the work it takes to smooth out difficulties in a timely fashion can be frustrating.

Question: Do you enjoy the travel aspect of working for FEMA? Would you consider yourself an intrepid traveller?

Answer: Intrepid is defined as "resolutely courageous and fearless." Resolute, yes. I firmly believe in what I am doing and enjoy traveling immensely, but it takes a toll.

Courageous is another question altogether. I've been in a few situations where I wished I was someplace else, but I persisted in staying despite the fear. Driving very near a tornado comes to mind.

I can't say I am in favor of being away constantly - I lived full time in Texas and Louisiana for two-and-a-half years, with additional time in other locations. It is a tremendous strain on a relationship, but strong ones can and do survive.

Question: What advice would you have for other Adventists who want to work for the government, or who feel that they want to work in a major organization in order to make a difference? Do you feel this route is more effective than working for the Adventist church?

Answer: Follow your heart's desire. Live your life as if each day was your last - it just might be. Strive to do good in addition to doing well. No matter what, keep a positive attitude and don't let the turkeys get you down. Maintaining a good relationship with everyone you meet is critical - strive to keep them strong and positive.

Mark Brooks has worked as a lawyer for 23 years. First he spent three years working for the Adventist church, then in private general practice for 12 and then as a county level assistant state's attorney for almost four years before joining FEMA.

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Sat, 09/13/2014 | San Diego Adventist Forum
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