Filing Freedom Of Information Act requests just after a disaster is much like playing solitaire on your computer. It's lonely, something to occupy your mind while you're waiting for callbacks, and sometimes no matter how smart you play, you will lose because the cards are stacked against you. Yet I still FOIA frequently enough to use the initials as a verb.
Unlike FreeCell, where if you play smart you can always win, FOIAing after a disaster is often an exercise in frustration. That doesn't mean don't file, it just means don't get your hopes up. As much as I tell myself this, I unfortunately can't get that message through my brain and I usually file a FOIA and think "I'm going to find something good."
There's another reason that I tend to avoid FOIA requests after disasters: the agencies do have something better to do, namely respond to disasters.
After Katrina, I was not thinking FOIA. I was reporting on the government's response, but as a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, I am on its list-serv. The weekend after Katrina's landfall, there was a plea from Alark Schleifstein, a friend and prescient colleague who covers environment and hurricanes for The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune. Homeless and writing for a city of Katrina victims with immediate environmental life-and-death concerns, Schleifstein had been unable to get any real environmental data about water, air and soil testing from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He filed a FOLA but said he couldn't follow up as urgently as he normally would. He asked for help.
I filed a similar FOIA. SEJ President Perry Beeman of The Des Moines Register wrote, a column about our problems. And then we waited. Sure, EPA put some data on its Web site and had a handful of press conferences, but after the agency withheld reports following the Sept. 11 World Trade Center collapse, many of us wanted to see all the documents. Trust but verify, to quote Ronald Reagan. We waited some more. I called EPA's FOIA office, which used to be responsive, quick and a model of efficiency. I was assured that we'd get expedited review. As I write this six weeks have passed. Nothing, except a fee waiver and promises.
Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency was faster.
In late September, Schleifstein called the same FOIA officer from EPA who'd kept assuring us. It was 3:30 p.m. New Orleans time, 4:30 p.m. Washington time. The FOIA officer, Schleifstein said, couldn't talk because he had to get to his son's baseball game. Schleifstein didn't say anything, but he later pointed out to me that his son lost his apartment and …