Much of Southern Ohio still remains in a state of emergency following the severe thunderstorm last Friday. More than 1.4 million customers were without electricity during the peak of the power outage, according to American Electric Power (AEP) statistics. As of yesterday the power company reported that approximately 169,000 Ohioans remained without electricity. Rural Southern Ohioans may be better prepared to deal with emergency outages than our urban counterparts, but surviving in 100 degree heat without ice and in some cases water, is far more than even the most self-sufficient homeowner had ever envisioned as a possibility.
Ohioans unfortunately gained a deeper understanding of the frustrations New Orleans residents felt towards the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after Hurricane Katrina. The extensive online list of angst-filled acronyms NOLA residents created for the letters F-E-M-A, may grow even longer once all Southern Ohioans again have access to the Internet. Unable to find a single bag of ice within a 40 mile drive in any direction, one would think the arrival of FEMA with pallets of bags containing the frozen water would temporarily solve the problem, but it did not.
It took FEMA far too many days after the area was declared a federal disaster area to arrive and when the welcomed refrigerated trucks pulled in – each household was only presented with two small bags of ice. Residents trying to save what food and medications they could saw the precious FEMA ice bags melt away in their coolers by late evening. A momentary cheer emerged from Southern Ohio when it was announced that $400 FEMA food vouchers were available. Unfortunately for thousands of residents who lost everything in their refrigerators and deep freezes, they did not qualify for the emergency assistance. Only those who were already existing on public assistance and had children in the home were of concern for the powers-that-be at FEMA. Apparently, the hunger of those who pay the taxes which fund the agency is of little consequence. A vast majority of residents spent hundreds of dollars on gas for their generators and yet more still to drive to towns with open restaurants and grocery stores to feed their families.
The inability of the federal government to adequately respond to a disaster did not deter the members of many Southern Ohio communities from helping one another. There is only one grocery store in Vinton County and the owner Mary Jane Ferguson, unhampered by a nonsensical governmental style mindset, opened her store temporarily by flashlight. The staff guided residents down the aisles, allowing them to sign for what they needed if they did not have cash to pay for the items. A “cooling station” was opened at the school where residents shared food from rapidly refrosting deep freezes with others and showers at the county fair grounds were opened for public use.
The county is entirely served by well-trained and dedicated volunteer firefighters who handled more than 30 emergency calls during the storm, and many additional calls in the days which followed. The firefighters and a host of other local elected officials, civic volunteers, EMS, police and Sheriff’s office staffers unloaded pallets of ice and water for more than three hours each day for four days in record temperatures to help get the supplies to those in need.
All of us who thought we were prepared with small generators, a few cans of gas and extra food and water on our shelves learned a very valuable lesson over the course of the past week. Conversations over the kitchen table once we have all modern amenities returned will likely focus on how to avoid the feeling of helplessness and frustration (which began sinking in about day four of the outage) from creeping into our psyches ever again. Undoubtedly, Southern Ohioans will be able to put the “preppers” featured on the National Geographic reality show to shame once we regroup and restock.
We helped ourselves, but surely would have appreciated a truly responsive FEMA to bring in appropriate amounts of life-saving ice and water much more quickly. This writer’s opinion of the Federal Emergency Management Agency – it’s not fit for print.