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Ex-FEMA Chief Craig Fugate Is No Stranger To Disasters


We're going to talk now with someone who has the long view of big storms and their aftermath. Craig Fugate is the former head of FEMA. That would be the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Fugate was running FEMA when Hurricane Sandy hit - among many other storms he's worked over the years. He is on the line now from his home in Gainesville, Fla. Good morning.

CRAIG FUGATE: Good morning.

KELLY: Let me first ask, how you doing? What's the situation in Gainesville this morning?

FUGATE: Well, we're high and dry. It's still raining sideways. We have no power. Some trees are down. But the house is good. So we have internet and cell phone service, so we can talk to you this morning.

KELLY: Well, that's good news, at least. Let me ask you to put the storm into context as someone, who I said, has seen a lot of storms. I know before FEMA, you ran Florida's emergency management division. How big is Irma as storms go?

FUGATE: Well, the size of the storm is - basically, we're seeing record storm surge up in Jacksonville on the St. Johns River. You know, damage reports now coming out of the Keys are fairly significant impacts - their infrastructure. And the potential now for flash flooding and heavy rain all the way up into Georgia and the Carolinas. So for a lot of folks, you know, fortunately, damage hasn't been as severe. In some places - other places - it's been pretty bad.

KELLY: And it sounds like, I mean, you're dealing with a number of big challenges. We just heard our reporter Leila Fadel talk about how people were trying to get out of the eye of the storm, and they ended up just driving into it as winds were shifting. The other big challenge is this one-two punch - Irma coming just a week after Harvey.

FUGATE: Right. And there's something, you know, from the standpoint of FEMA we've, you know, always been prepared for. You don't get to have just one big disaster at a time. Part of our planning has always revolved around that. But it does mean you have to very quickly shift your response teams. Many of the search and rescue teams that worked in Harvey literally had just gotten home before they reloaded, repacked and started heading towards Florida.

KELLY: Well, does FEMA have the resources it needs to respond to both? I mean, Harvey - there's still a lot of work to be done, as we know.

FUGATE: Yeah. And in Harvey, they're in the recovery phase. Here in Florida, very much still in the response phase.

KELLY: Sure.

FUGATE: Power outages across the state. So, really, it's the funding. And, fortunately, Congress and the president have acted. There's enough funding now for the initial response.

KELLY: Have you talked to any of these people on the team that's leaving Texas? And, as you said, they just got home, unpacked, repacked and headed to Florida.

FUGATE: I haven't talked to them personally. But, you know, that's always been our plan. The team up at FEMA headquarters redeployed the urban search and rescue teams across the country. Also, there's a tremendous amount of state mutual aid with all the other states that are helping both Texas and now Florida.

KELLY: Can you give us some specifics? What size of team is FEMA going to need to deal with the aftermath of Irma, and what's their No. 1 job going to be as they arrive?

FUGATE: Well, right now the search and rescue teams and a lot of the other federal agencies are deployed in the response phase. The next important step's going to be individual assistance and assistance with housing. And that we don't really know until we get better assessments as we get our first full day in South Florida after the storm passes. But, literally, FEMA has thousands in Texas. They're going to need thousands here in Florida. Plus, we still have wildfires out west.

KELLY: So you're dealing with three moving targets, at this point, if you're working with FEMA right now.

FUGATE: Right. And, plus, you know, we have our teams - you know, FEMA has teams down in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico. U.S. Virgin Islands had, you know, significant impact. We still have another storm out there that looks like it's going to circle, fortunately weaken - but still be out there. We're going to keep an eye on it. So we're still - right now it's September 11 - you know, the attacks of the terrorists. It's also the peak of the hurricane season. We still have to go to November 30.

KELLY: Now, we should note that Congress has passed emergency disaster aid - $15 billion - that's billion with a B. Is that enough? What will it be used for to start with?

FUGATE: Well, that was primarily - that was FEMA funding. And it's going to support FEMA's initial response and response to support individuals and families and some of the initial rebuilding cost. But from Harvey - and we have yet to see the assessment from Florida - there's going to be a lot more requirements for funding, particularly for agencies like HUD, with their community block development grant dollars - a lot of the things that are going to be required for a long-term recovery. In many cases, FEMA's really focused on the initial response, recovery operations and the grants to help governments rebuild their damages. So a lot of the other impacts require the rest of the acronyms of the federal family to support.

KELLY: And, specifically, what are we talking about? You're talking about wood to rebuild homes, shingles to put on roofs - that type of thing?

FUGATE: No, I'm talking about the funding for the - particularly in Harvey, but we'll will probably see this in Florida, as well - the high number of people who didn't have flood insurance and have no insurance now and are facing total losses. FEMA's programs are limited to a maximum of $34,000 for families. Average pay-out is much lower. It's based on the impacts. And for a lot of families who didn't have flood insurance, or in the case of when there are high deductibles under insurance, it could be a financial challenge. And in many cases, they lose their equity in their homes. They can't make repairs. And that's really the financial hardship that FEMA's just not designed to take care of. FEMA was never designed to supplant insurance.

KELLY: In the few seconds we have left, if you could offer one lesson to your successor, what would it be?

FUGATE: Well, Brock knows the lessons. It's go big. Go fast. Be smart about it. You don't have time. So they've been moving teams before the storm hit, and they're ready to support the response.

KELLY: A reference to Brock, the current head of FEMA. That was Craig Fugate, the former head of FEMA. Thanks so much for joining us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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