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Vince Vitrano: Not For Broadcast



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"My opinion of FEMA has gone WAY down."

I didn't know that was possible. Is there anyone left with a high enough opinion of FEMA that there's room for it to go down? Apparently, the federal response to flooding in Wisconsin has caused that to happen.

The above statement came to me from a viewer Tuesday who was commenting on the long and chaotic line outside the Marcia Coggs Center in Milwaukee. Sally's email went on to say, "It is disgusting to see all those people lined up for free food in Milwaukee, when there are people not too far away who really NEED the help, not just a handout."

Sally mentioned Jefferson County in particular, where federal disaster aid had not yet been made available. That's about to change soon, as FEMA just yesterday finally declared Jefferson County a disaster area.

It was a long time coming, though, wasn't it? It's so badly flooded they're not using the toilets or sinks in the Jefferson schools during summer school. It's so badly flooded, that a bridge that connects parts of Jefferson was shut down... causing people to drive miles out of their way just to get across town. It's so badly flooded, part of the Interstate Highway System had to be closed, and even now there's only a temporary fix. It's so badly flooded that people still can't even get to their homes without a boat.

Yet the same benefits now afforded to all of those thousands of people who lined up for food vouchers in Milwaukee... those same benefits have not been available to the people of Jefferson County. Again, that will change now, but it sure has been a long wait.

I got this email from another faithful viewer, Tonya: "Why can't the story be told as it is. 2000 people in the inner city in line trying to get something free from the Feds with absolutely no business being there. I do not understand why or how people can get away with this? No proof needed that you had flood damage. These people should be ashamed of themselves!"

Whether its vouchers for food or reimbursement for losses, nothing happens until FEMA has declared a particular county a disaster area. Once that happens, then all of these things become available. Right now, Milwaukee County is among those declared Federal Disaster Areas, and as I stated earlier... until yesterday Jefferson was not.  

Here's another issue people have raised. These thousands of people applying for food vouchers in Milwaukee are supposed to be flood victims. We saw sewage back-up in basements throughout the county. A lot of people had other water damage. No doubt some if not many of the people in line at the Coggs center had legitimate claims and needs for help.

Some did not, however. People in line admitted to our reporters that they were there for the free food but didn't have any flood damage. "How are they going to know," quipped one person to our Diane Pathieu on Tuesday. 

That's not right and not fair. It exposes another weakness of FEMA, and other help agencies. How are they supposed to verify each claim? Reportedly, investigators will perform spot checks to see if people who got help actually suffered damage, but that will be well after the fact.

Let's go ahead and just address the "white elephant" in the room. Well, in this case, it's the "black elephant." The people in line for help in Milwaukee are mostly African American. The people not getting the help they need in Jefferson County are mostly white.

When I read parts of the email I received to some colleagues this morning some scoffed that it was just some person who's got a racist ax to grind. Someone who saw black people in line for help and thought the worst.

I can't say what's in the hearts and minds of every person out there, but let's try to see beyond white and black on this one. Some of the very people I saw interviewed about the controversy where African American. One black woman stood in line for hours, saying she had flood damage and didn't feel most of the people in line with her did. Another black woman said she had been caught in the back-up in I-94 in Jefferson County and she felt that's where the federal relief was needed most.

People who are standing in line looking for something to which they're not entitled are wrong. People prepared to lie to agents about having flood damage in order to get a few hundred dollars in free food vouchers are stealing. Doesn't matter what color they are. Wrong is wrong. Deviance, ignorance, and laziness are not conditions of race. Those behaviors ought not be tolerated nor excused.

It's important to remember, though, that FEMA agents work for us. If you're not happy with their performance, time to ring up your Congressmen and Senators.

I welcome more thoughts on this from all of you. emails:


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