Hundreds of firefighters who volunteered to help rescue victims of Hurricane Katrina have instead been playing cards, taking classes on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s history and lounging at an Atlanta airport hotel for days.
“On the news every night you hear [hurricane victims say], ‘How come everybody forgot us?’ ” said Joseph Manning, a firefighter from Washington, Pa. “We didn’t forget. We’re stuck in Atlanta drinking beer.”
As of Tuesday, some of the firefighters, such as Thomas Blomgren of Battle Creek, Mich., had waited at the hotel for four days. Now he and a colleague have been told they may be sent to a hurricane relief camp in South Carolina to do paperwork rather than help the devastated Gulf Coast.
“FEMA hired the best of the best firefighters, got them together and gave them secretary jobs,” Blomgren said.
He and colleague Steven Richardson said they followed FEMA’s advice and brought huge packs filled with special firefighting suits, sleeping bags and lifesaving equipment to survive in harsh conditions for as long as a month.
“But we’d be better off bringing pencils and cellphones,” Blomgren said.
Throughout the hotel, burly firefighters in blue shirts loafed on couches Tuesday. A few sat outside in the gentle August breeze, eating boxed meals.
Kelly Wayne Sisson, a firefighter from La Mesa, Calif., lounged on the floor of the hotel lobby.
“It’s been frustrating because we’ve been here for a couple of days,” he said. “But FEMA’s a big machine. We’ll get sent out when the time is right.”
Tony Russell, FEMA’s official in charge of the firefighters, said he was trying to get them deployed as fast as he could but wanted to make certain they were sent where the need was greatest.
When FEMA called for 2,000 firefighters from across the country, it emphasized that the mission was one of community service and outreach -- not firefighting, Russell said. The firefighters are paid by FEMA.
Deskwork may be the first priority for some firefighters for now, but the mission’s needs could rapidly change, Russell said. Those who are upset, he said, are free to go.
“This is not a draft,” he said.
Russell said it took at least two days to process and train the volunteers, who continued to arrive in Atlanta. About 500 firefighters have been sent to needy areas and hundreds more await their orders, he said.