Like a lot of Vermonters in the past couple weeks, Geoff Hand had been moved by the images he'd seen and the stories he'd heard about the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene. So moved, in fact, that he wanted to get off the couch and do something. So Hand, a partner with the Burlington law firm Dunkiel Saunders, fished around for a project.
"The scale of it really hit me," he says. "I was trying to think of places where needs weren't being met."
What he came up with was helping people fill out FEMA paperwork. He reasoned correctly that many people didn't have Internet access even before the flood, or weren't web-savvy, making the online paperwork a bear to file. He also figured the wait to file for FEMA assistance over the phone would be long and not the best use of time for people who had just lost their homes.
So, loaded up with four laptops from the office, a printer, a wireless card, envelopes, some pads of paper and pens, a table and some chairs, Hand hit the road and set up his own mobile FEMA assistance unit out of his old Subaru station wagon. Over the Labor Day weekend, Hand decamped to Waterbury, Duxbury and Moretown to help people get registered. As a result of his efforts, and those of his colleague, Rebecca Boucher, who went door-to-door to tell people about Hand's service, more than 30 families filed FEMA paperwork, hassle free.
During the three days he was volunteering, Hand talked to many people who were unaware that, not only did they have to fill out FEMA forms, but they also had to register with the state. Hand, who doesn't have any experience with FEMA or disaster relief, figured he would learn alongside the flood victims. After he walked a couple of folks through the online application, he got the hang of it. Many people, Hand says, were so exhausted from a week of clean-up that by the time they got to him, they were too tired to type. He had to do it for them.
"It was nice to be able to say quickly, 'Here's what you need; here's how long it will take,'" he says.
It took Hand 10 to 15 minutes to fill out each form, but he says the whole process typically took much longer. People were still trying to understand what had happened to them and often told Hand their stories. "All these folks are still processing the grief of all that was lost," he says.
Hand, who practices energy and environmental law and often works on municipal and nonprofit issues, didn't advertise that he was an attorney, mostly, he says, because he didn't want people to think he was trying to take their money. His service was free and had no strings attached.
At this point, most of the people who need to register with FEMA seem to have done so, Hand says, so he's trying to figure out how to continue to be of use. The Vermont Law School grad is hoping to collaborate with his alma mater to help process Small Business Administration loans that businesses will most likely be filing in the wake of the storm. VLS is already hosting workshops to walk people through the federal assistance maze. Hand hopes he can be some sort of outpost for the school in this region.
To FEMA's credit, Hand says, it has been surprisingly helpful and supportive of his efforts. Agency officials encouraged homeowners who hadn't yet signed up to go see Hand. They were also happy to answer any questions Hand had. But, in a funny twist of fate, the FEMA staffers mooched Hand's parking lot Internet signal to run their computers. Glad to know they were prepared.
Photo via dunkielsaunders.com