FEMA dispatcher: Inspector heads into Katrina's wake

Peter Drenan is no newcomer to disaster relief. For the past three years, the home inspector has worked with FEMA to rebuild homes ravaged by natural disasters. Now Drenan is headed to Baton Rouge, where he'll join the largest clean-up operation in American history.

"How do you inspect 2,000 houses?" he asks. "Sometimes we never know how it's going to go until we get down there. We make it up as we go along."

To start with, Drenan, 51, will be heading up a team of 600 volunteers using a plan he helped create when Hurricane Isabel soaked Central and Eastern Virginia in September 2003.

He's excited to start work on devastated Louisiana, but the scope of the cleanup is daunting. The team will have to cope with 21 million cubic yards of debris– the skeletons of remaining houses, rubble, animal carcasses, contaminated soil, and trash trapped in stagnant flood waters.

"Almost everybody has been feeling the need to respond," Drenan says. "I'm just glad that FEMA can put my skills to use and make it easy for me to help."

The task won't be a walk in the park. Most of the 5,000 FEMA volunteers are working 12-16 hours a day, seven days a week. They sleep on cots, live in tents, and eat military-issue Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). Drenan insists that folks willing to pitch into this operation are not unusually self-sacrificing or heroic.

"They're just salt-of-the-Earth people," he says, "not the political version, but the people who are actually working." That's why, because he plans to work with FEMA for the foreseeable future, he has put his Charlottesville-based company in the hands of his business partner.

Drenan is concerned about the future because the destruction wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is like no other disaster America has faced. "We often try to get people after disasters to go back to their houses to get a sense of normalcy," he says," but here there are no belongings to pick up."

The important thing for Drenan is to be sure people in Charlottesville don't forget the catastrophe and return to business as usual. When the community knows that one of their own is rolling up his sleeves in the trenches, he believes, the disaster become real and personal. Drenan intends to keep Katrina and Rita alive for Charlottesville by sending weekly dispatches to the Hook.

"It's true that the clocks tick and that tomorrow's emergency is going to make this one fade into memory," he says. "I hope to show people what it's like to get your hands dirty down there, and really be without."

Peter Drenan