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Assessing The Damage From Superstorm Sandy


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We'll talk next with the man coordinating the federal response to Hurricane Sandy. Craig Fugate is head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He's at FEMA headquarters in Washington.

Mr. Fugate, welcome to the program.

CRAIG FUGATE: Hi, good morning.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you're on a speakerphone, Administrator Fugate. I think we'll hear you a little better if you pick up the phone. What's the greatest need right now that people have along the East Coast?

FUGATE: Well, I think right now it's power restoration. And the challenge is, again, with all the areas impacted, is starting that rebuild time for the crews.

INSKEEP: Rebuild time - what do you mean?

FUGATE: Well, it gets into how much of the power lines are just down that can put back up versus how many are whole substations that were flooded, areas that have to be pumped out. Just a lot of work's got to go. But the crews, you know, were pretty much - until the winds came down - not able to do a lot. But we've already started seeing power restoration across areas outside of the most devastated areas. But when you start getting into particularly areas that have the serious flooding - in some cases, some of the substations, they're going to have to pump out the water to get in there to see what it takes to get it back up.

INSKEEP: So you're describing a situation where, in some cases, it's just some wires that need to be put up. But in other cases, there's physical rebuilding that needs to be done. That must also be true when it comes to questions of transportation: train lines, the railroad lines that have been washed away. Are there situations where vital services may not be restored for weeks, rather than days?

FUGATE: Unknown at this point. That's part of what they're trying to get in and assess and move teams to quickly get things up. And in some cases, there may be workarounds where there will be temporary fixes that will get things back up, but permanent work will still have to go.

In other cases, like in the cases of the tunnels, until they're physically pumped out and the safety teams can get in there and make sure there's no other physical damage and the systems will operate safely, they may not be able to get some of the underground systems back online. But we're already seeing airports open up in the area of impact. We're already seeing many of the highways, as debris is cleared, they're getting back up. Buses are back on the road. Bridges are back open. So it's really coming back to the things that were damaged that still require assessments, or they need to be physically repaired to operate.

INSKEEP: Now, you mentioned the tunnels. Of course, you're talking about subway tunnels, primarily, in New York City, one of many kinds of infrastructure in New York that are underground. New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo noted this week that this is a city that was not necessarily built for this kind of flooding, which leads, I think, to the question of resilience. Disasters happen. As you look at what has happened over the last couple of days, how well-built and how well-prepared do you think that the East Coast has been, as proving itself to be for a disaster like this?

FUGATE: Well, I think we'll start with the rescue operations. Again, we saw that although areas were flooded and people got trapped, rescue teams were working through the storm, through the night and into yesterday rescuing people. When it gets to the infrastructure, it's built, and the hazards that we deal with, you know, we need to take the opportunity to look at: How do we come back as we make repairs? And not just merely fix it, but also mitigate it against these threats.

Again, with so much of the critical infrastructure underground, are there things we can do that would reduce future flood risk? Again, this is a known threat for New York City. This has happened in history, although not quite as severe as this, and certainly not without the technology that was vulnerable this time. So, again, as part of this is not only the response and rebuilding, but also how do you mitigate the future, so that we minimize future disruptions from flood events and storms.

INSKEEP: Two more quick questions, Mr. Fugate. First, President Obama acted quickly to make emergency declarations. You've called those extraordinary, I believe. The Bush-era administrator of FEMA, Michael Brown, who was administrator during Hurricane Katrina, is saying that the president acted too soon, perhaps for political reasons. Why move so quickly?

FUGATE: It's better to be fast than be late.

INSKEEP: You said better to be fast than be late. Is that right?

FUGATE: It's better to be fast than to be late.

INSKEEP: Simple enough. Let me ask about one broader question, though. There's a debate over FEMA's role. We're in an election season, here. And if I could summarize the question, it's whether the federal government should play a role in disaster relief, or leave that to state and local governments. Could you just inform - very briefly - inform that debate by telling us how it works now? What is your role? What is the state and local role? About 30 seconds.

FUGATE: We're a federal government. We're not a national government. Disasters are local. Through state constitutions, the governors are the primary incident commanders for the entire state response in support of that. And the role of the federal government is to support the states when the disaster exceeds their capabilities. And when it's this bad, we work as one team. But we are in support of the governors, as they are in support of the local officials. It's a federal system of government.

INSKEEP: So they're in charge. Andrew Cuomo's in charge. Chris Christie's in charge. That's the bottom line.

FUGATE: We're in support. And president's direction is when he declares these disasters, they are to make sure that all of the federal resources are brought to bear at the request of the governors.

INSKEEP: OK. Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator, thanks very much.

FUGATE: Thank you, sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.