Since Missouri was inundated by severe flooding and storms earlier this year, 98 people trained to provide disaster assistance have knocked on more than 500 doors in the state, trying to help people whose homes were damaged.
The job requires people like Debbie Artzner to be ready at a moment's notice. She keeps a go-bag packed and her eye on the weather, and waits for the call that will send her to the next disaster.
She does it, she says, because someone once did it for her.
Artzner was living in Orlando, Florida, when Tropical Storm Fay hit in 2008. Her house was inaccessible because of flooding. Her friends had to send her food in canoes because people were unable to get to her door.
Artzner didn't know what to do who to reach out to. But then she had a visit from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
“One day I had a couple of people knock at my front door and said, ‘We’re here to find out if you’re okay,’” Artzner says. “And I never forgot that.”
With FEMA's help, Artzner was able to rent a place while the water level went down and fix the damages to her home.
“And after that point I thought, I want to do this,” Artzner says.
Now, Artzner is a leader for one of Missouri's FEMA Disaster Survivor Assistance Teams. Her job is to canvass around neighborhoods hit by tornadoes, hurricanes and other catastrophes, and get people registered for FEMA aid.
She expects to be in Missouri for as long as it takes to help everyone in the disaster areas. The teams will work with local emergency managers to make sure they visit every affected neighborhood.
“We work long days and we can get tired,” Artzner says. “But we’ve learned to look out for each other so we can look out for the survivors.”
While FEMA doesn’t provide repairs or aid on the spot, teams like Artzner’s go door-to-door looking for people whose homes are untenable and connecting them with federal funds to fix houses or find lodging and buy medical supplies in the meantime.
“We can help replace those immediate needs so they can get that leg up on the road to recovery,” says Kristiana Sanford, public affairs specialist for FEMA Region VII.
At the beginning of July, President Donald Trump declared 20 Missouri counties as disaster areas, which is where Artzner has been canvassing. According to Sanford, FEMA has approved about $3.1 million for aid in Missouri.
Although her primary job is to get people registered, Artzner says sometimes compassion is all that’s necessary.
“We were talking to a lady and it was her third time flooding,” Artzner says. “She was just in tears, so we didn’t take the time to tell her about all the FEMA programs. We took the time then just to be a shoulder.”
Since her own house was flooded in 2008, Artzner has been deployed several times, including to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“I guess you could say it’s awful in seeing what’s happened,” Artzner says. “But once you realize that when you knock on their door that you may be able to make their life a little easier, it’s all worth it.”
To register for FEMA aid, go to disasterassistance.gov or call (800) 621-3362.
Debbie Artzner spoke with Sam Zeff on a recent episode of KCUR’s Up To Date. Listen to their entire conversation here.
Emily Aiken is an intern for KCUR’s Up To Date. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @em_aiken.