BR.floodvignettes.adv015.jpg

FEMA trailers are evident on almost every street in Central after the August floods.

Advocate Staff Photo by PATRICK DENNIS

Baton Rouge will serve as the test site for a program designed to convert hundreds of temporary FEMA workers into reservists — creating a ready-made response team prepared to tackle any future disasters in this area.

"For the regions most impacted by storms, we want to create a workforce that is more readily available in those areas to respond to disasters," said Carisa Berkeley, supervisor, human resource specialists, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Typically when FEMA responds to a disaster, it calls on employees and other people it has on standby from around the country and also hires local people to help with the recovery, she said. The local hiring stimulates the local economy and helps give disaster victims who may have lost jobs the chance to work again.

Two weeks after the August flood, FEMA advertised for positions ranging from administrative assistants and construction cost estimators to environmental experts and travel agents.

Adding together the number of people it hired locally and the FEMA employees and reservists who came here from distant places after the August flood, the contingent peaked at 2,611.

FEMA now has 300 local hires and wants to turn all of them into reservists — giving the Baton Rouge area a ready-made team of disaster responders and potentially cutting some of FEMA's travel, food and lodging costs associated with bringing in extra responders. However, the reservists may also be called to other disaster areas.

Brant Mitchell, director of LSU's Stephenson Disaster Management Institute, said he wasn't familiar with the pilot program. However, making reservists out of FEMA employees in Baton Rouge that now work or have worked in the FEMA/Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Joint Field Office is "an outstanding idea," he said.

"FEMA’s recovery assistance programs are fairly complex, especially hazard mitigation," Mitchell said. "Having a team of reservists that are already knowledgeable about the program, and more importantly are familiar with state and local government in Louisiana, will ensure a more efficient and more timely delivery of federal assistance."

Mark Riley, deputy director of recovery in the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said by recruiting and training locally, FEMA creates consistency and continuity for local disaster victims.

At times in the past, people have said they talked to a FEMA worker, told them about their issue, got comfortable with the worker's communication and advice, only to have FEMA send the worker to another place, Riley said.

"Hopefully, this new process will forestall that effect and create the stable environment that is necessary to support a recovery," he said.

Berkeley said reservists typically work in three of FEMA's four pillars: public assistance, individual assistance, hazard mitigation and flood insurance. 

Hazard mitigation includes any action taken to reduce or eliminate the long-term risk from natural disasters. Public assistance includes funding for repairs to roads, bridges, publicly-owned buildings, and debris removal. Individual assistance can include help with housing or repairs. 

"For a lot of our specialist positions we will train you and teach you exactly what you need to know," Berkeley said.

Berkeley said serving as a reservist offers a number of benefits, such as additional income — reservists can make up to $24 an hour depending on experience — or finding career opportunities.

Berkeley began her career as a teacher. During summers and breaks, she served as a reservist, working in public assistance for FEMA all around the country. Eventually, she became a full-time employee with the agency, working in a number of positions.

The work also provided her with a moral benefit.

"It gave me a chance to separate from the world that I was in on a regular basis and step in to help somebody that was going through a hard time," she said.

The way FEMA's disaster response has been working, reservists must be able to deploy with little or no notice to anywhere in the United States and its territories. In most cases, the deployments last from 30 days to 50 weeks, she said. It's one of the main reasons that retirees make good reservists. Another is that they don't depend on catastrophe work as their main source of income.

After 30 days, workers can take off a weekend or a week to return home and take care of personal matters, Berkeley said. But that depends on post-disaster needs. In the initial stages, reservists may work 14-hour days, seven days a week.

FEMA takes care of all of the reservists' expenses while they're in the disaster area: travel to and from the area, food, transportation and lodging.

It's kind of like a hidden paycheck, Berkeley said. Depending on where a person is sent, those items can add up to $2,000 or so a month, tax-free.

But FEMA expects to sharply reduce those costs by having reservists in place in disaster-prone areas, she said. Those workers won't have much, if anything, in the way of lodging or travel expenses.

"Essentially this is our test case. We are using this location to work out the pieces as well as look at future planning," Berkeley said.

If the Baton Rouge pilot proves successful, FEMA will look to establish similar efforts in other states frequently hit by disaster. Many of those are on the Gulf Coast.

Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.