Why Kafka Would Like FEMA

“What sort of people were these? What were they talking about? What office did they belong to? K. was living in a free country, after all, everywhere was at peace, all laws were decent and were upheld, who was it who dared accost him in his own home?”
–Franz Kafka, The Trial


I have an unpleasant feeling this is going to be part of a series. Our first exposure to the folks from FEMA was a few days after Hurricane Sandy, which devastated our neighborhood on Long Island Sound. A platoon of FEMA agents, readily identifiable by their official-looking jackets with “FEMA” emblazoned on the back, spread out across the neighborhood offering the distraught residents oodles of sympathy—oodles—and plenty of forms to fill out and web sites to visit.
Since then, we’ve been introduced to, oh, lots of FEMA agents. They’ve attended town meetings. They have set up a “Disaster Recovery Center” in our town. They hail from all over: Georgia, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts. Every single one we’ve encountered has been polite, empathetic, and positively oozing with sympathy. Oodles of sympathy. Each and everyone is sorry for our loss. They’re here to help. (Yes, that’s right: They’re from the government and they’re here to help, just like Ronald Reagan said.)

Yesterday I spoke to, let’s see, eight, maybe nine different FEMA agents. Each one was there to help. Each was polite, sympathetic. Oodles of sympathy. Almost all had a form for me to fill out, a web site to visit. Each of the long, long line of people who came to see these agents went away with forms to fill out, web sites to visit.
At the Disaster Recovery Area at our local Town Hall, a large RV stood humming outside with a placard announcing that it was the FEMA chariot. No one was inside, however. All the agents were huddled in a suite of offices down a long corridor inside Town Hall. There was the Cerberus outside the sanctum sanctorum that made sure you had “registered with FEMA.”That done, he provided you with a routing slip that detailed the services you might be eligible for. Then you sat for an hour or two, as if you were a patient at an NHS facility in Britain, or an Obamacare facility in America in the near future. You then talked to one nice person after the next. There was this form, and that form, and a web site you could visit, and handbook you could read. At one stop I was given, for free!, a longish pamphlet explaining what I could do to make my property less liable to flood damage: “Mitigation Ideas For Reducing Flood Loss” it said on its cover. After a flood, it told me, a house needs to be dried out and cleaned. “Move things you want to save to a safe dry place.” Noted. “The longer they sit in water, the more damaged they become.” I was glad to know that.


FEMA, of course, is just one of many sympathetic agencies. Our mayor came to a town meeting. He was sorry for our loss. A chap from the Small Business Assocation, which might be willing to lend you money, was very sympathetic. He took a show of hands, two or three, to see how many of us had suffered damage and when. A FEMA field agent spoke to us, as did our member of Congress, who positively beamed sympathy. He was there to help in whatever way he could. What way, exactly, could he? That tantalizing detail was left unspecified.
Then there was the building department. Most people who had serious flood damage had ripped up floors, removed walls, plumbing, and wiring. After that was all accomplished, but only then, the phrase “building permit” was uttered. You needed one, of course (of course!) to redo the floors, walls, plumbing, and wiring. But if your house had flooded, it might not be up to code. If it wasn’t up to code, it might not be able to rebuilt without first being elevated. That would take time. An inspector would have to be sent out. They were awfully busy now.

Meanwhile, you had meet with an insurance adjuster. You had come to a rough agreement about the extent of the damage. A check, a first installment, would be sent out immediately. That was three weeks ago. Meanwhile your contractor had spent tens of thousands of dollars ripping things apart and cleaning and dehumidifying your house. It was then you discovered that the check, when it came (it would come, wouldn’t it?), would be made out to you–and your mortgage company. Oh. They, of course (of course!), would only dole out the funds in dribs and drabs, in checks made out to you and your contractor, and of course (of course!) only after their inspectors (what a lot of inspectors there are in the world) had ascertained that the work was done in a way that satisfied your mortgage company. It was unclear whether that would be before or after the town’s building inspectors had decided whether the work was up to code. If, that is, any work could be done, because a building permit could only be issued after the Planning and Zoning board certified that any work could be done on the house in the first place. But hadn’t the insurance company insisted that you must immediately take steps to prevent more damage by removing anything exposed to salt water (floors, walls, wiring, etc.)? Yes. But no one spoke of Planning and Zoning then. At that time—only a few weeks ago, but how distant it seems—everyone was urging you to push ahead quickly, quickly, maybe you’d be back in the house by Thanksgiving. Or Christmas. Or New Year’s. Certainly by the end of January, or February at the latest. Unless, of course (of course!)—well, let’s just say that there are still more chapters to come.


I used to think that Franz Kafka exaggerated things. I see now that he was not so much a novelist or fantasist as he was a documentary artist. I can’t say I am happy about the discovery.


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