GIBBS: Before I take your questions, we're going to hear from our Administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Craig Fugate, to give you all an update on the flooding in Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as the storms that we all saw last evening in Oklahoma.
FUGATE: Thank you. Good afternoon, everybody. The last couple weeks we've seen a lot of severe weather moving through the southeast Atlantic states and Gulf Coast areas, including now central parts of the U.S. Yesterday, as many of you know, we had a rather significant tornado outbreak across Tennessee going into Arkansas — right now, reported five fatalities, numerous injuries. And we have been in contact with the state team there since last night.
We already had a presence in Oklahoma from previous disasters, so we're working with Albert Ashwood, the State Emergency Management director, and his team there requesting that we conduct joint damage assessments with state for both impact to survivors as well as government.
They have no outstanding federal response needs, which is — given the severity of the tornadoes, many people say, well, why isn’t FEMA responding? And the answer is because in many disasters, the local and state responders are dealing with the response phase and they’re assessing whether or not they’re going to need federal assistance for recovery.
But earlier in the week we did see another severe weather outbreak, this time manifested in heavy rainfall across Tennessee, Kentucky, as well as Mississippi. And that did result in significant flood damage, particularly in Tennessee, where the governor requested on Monday of last week an expedited major presidential disaster declaration — which, on Tuesday, the President concurred with and declared that a disaster did exist in the state of Tennessee.
Prior to that we actually had folks working with Tennessee, as we knew the severe weather was impacting the state with the flooding. We have regional offices, 10 of them, and our office of Atlanta, the region which covers the state of Tennessee, deployed staff in Saturday evening and began working with the state. But once again, much of the response was being done by local responders, state officials, volunteers and other groups. And so, again, our role in this response was to support recovery, and that recovery I'm afraid is going to be substantial.
So far, just as of this morning, over 23,000 people in the state of Tennessee have registered for individual assistance. Right now we have already approved in our system $51 million for individual assistance. Much of this is going to individuals who have lost their homes and not had flood insurance or had uninsured losses. And we expect these numbers to continue to increase as we do that outreach. And again, through your ability to get the word out to folks, the process of beginning that assistance with FEMA is to register. So if you’ve been in the state of Tennessee or watching that — we’ve been talking a lot about this — is you’ve got to register at 1-800-621-FEMA to start this process.
After Monday, I had actually met with the governor and brought his request back. I went back Thursday and particularly wanted to get out to some of the more rural areas of the state, western Tennessee. There’s a lot of focus on Nashville, so the tendency is — the images you’re seeing is that Nashville got hit hard; what about the rest of the state? And I can assure you that what you saw in Nashville was being replicated across the state, moving all the way over into Shelby County in Memphis, little communities such as Millington, up where Russia Naval Air Station is, got heavily impacted. Small towns throughout rural Tennessee, heavily damaged, flooded, businesses still under water.
In fact, on Thursday when I was there, you still had water rising in parts of the river system there — a lot of impacts, agricultural, but a lot of impacts to homes. And, unfortunately, again, not many people have flood insurance. We’re going to be working to support that.
But the great story out of Tennessee was the level of participation of volunteers — faith-based organizations, local responders, the state, and our role as the federal government in support in the recovery phase. Since that time, Secretary Napolitano was there Saturday, met with the governor’s team to address issues. We’ve had Secretary Locke. We’ve had Secretary Donovan yesterday, SBA Administrator Mills there today.
One of the things we know about these large-scale disasters is FEMA does not provide all of the tools necessary for a complete recovery. In this case, with the duration and the types of disasters, it’s going to require a full federal response and a full federal recovery going far beyond our FEMA program. So we already have been working at the President’s direction to start addressing not only the immediate needs of the survivors, but also beginning to look at long-term recovery for the state of Tennessee.
This response, again, on top of tornadoes previously in the week in Mississippi and Alabama, today President Obama has declared the state of Kentucky now as part of the disaster from last weekend. And we continue to respond in support of those survivors, those communities — but through the state teams.
The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and FEMA have actually put together a Facebook page to help update people with fast moving information, allowing people to share information. We’ll get you that information. It’s kind of one of these long-winded things. It’s like tndisasterinfo — “tn” — for Tennessee — disasterinfo. But again, the idea of starting to use more and more the tools that are reflected for people. (The correct website that FEMA Administrator Fugate mentioned in the briefing is http://www.facebook.com/TNDisasterInfo)
And then the last piece before I’ll turn it back over for questions, is when you’re dealing with these situations, a lot of our stuff we’ve always done on the Web. Well, if your home is flooded you don’t have Internet — I can’t get to the Web; how do I get information? Fortunately, about two weeks ago, we had been working on something to get out a mobile version of our website, so if you have your phone you can get information in a format for you. So if you go to m.fema.gov with your phone, you can get information that’s tailored for you, the survivor, to figure out very quickly the sources of information, get those links, and be able to get assistance without having to go through the full website.
That just happened to be something that came online, but it’s really, I find, very useful for people who are not at home, probably staying at a hotel, staying with friends, or staying somewhere else like a shelter, trying to get information.
So, again, m.fema.gov, 1-800-621-FEMA. In all these states where we have individual assistance declared, the first step is to register.
And the last part is, we cannot do this response without the communities themselves, the state, and the federal family. It’s like I tell people, FEMA is not a team; we're part of a team. And we’re there supporting the governors on behalf of the President and Secretary Napolitano in this initial response phase.
GIBBS: We’ve got time for a few questions because we’ve got to get the Administrator to the Oval Office. He and the President are going to talk to Governor Henry from Oklahoma.
Q: When we were in Tennessee on Saturday, we talked to Secretary Napolitano, and she said that the extent of FEMA’s ability to help was limited. Given how many people there did not have flood insurance, how heavily impacted they are and how limited the FEMA aid is, where do you suggest these people go, beyond that? I mean, obviously $29,000 isn’t enough if you’ve lost your home and you don’t have flood insurance.
FUGATE: That is correct. That’s, I think, part of the reason why — we look at disasters a lot differently than probably in the past, and we know that it takes a full federal team to support recovery. We have a lot of programs that Secretary Donovan brings to the table, with the HUD Community Block Development Grant; other types of programs that help. Plus another thing that we’ve not always done well on the federal side, and that is really collaborate with faith-based and volunteer organizations that can oftentimes provide labor and other assistance to people in trying to rebuild their homes, where we can use our dollars for materials.
And so, again, if you come in and you do what I call a federal-centric or government-centric response to these disasters, you’re going to have a lot of unmet needs, because we do have very defined programs and limits to those programs.
But if you look at a team approach and looking at what are the resources in a community; where are we going to be able to pull resources together to address particularly those folks that just are not going to have many other options — for a lot of folks, some of the more affluent neighborhoods, SBA disaster loans will help them get their homes repaired. But for those that don’t have the ability to do the loans and where our grants may not be able to return their home back to a useable condition, partnered with volunteers and other groups as part of a team effort gets us to those unmet needs.
And so this is our approach of not just looking at what one program can do, but how do we leverage the entire federal family to recognize there’s a lot of other resources in the community that we have tended not to bring to bear or work in a coordinated fashion. Oftentimes, they were trying to do one thing — we’re over here, we’re not talking. And we don’t help the survivors.
Q: Who leads that? Is it your team? Or is the state?
FUGATE: It’s a joint team. We go into a coordinated response with the state. I have a federal coordinating officer, as appointed by the President. It’s Gracia Szczech — she’s there, worked a lot of disasters before. And we work with TEMA, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. And then at each local level, you have various groups, but generally coordinated through the county or city emergency operations centers.
So one of the groups that we were working with or talking to, that set up some of the first information center was All Hands, a volunteer organization that was already working, getting information to the survivors in the aftermath of the disaster. So it’s our ability to, one, work with the state as a team, and then bring in and work with some of the more traditional volunteer organizations like Red Cross and Salvation Army, but also some of their very localized — or may only be in one community.
Q: The Tennessee delegation sent a letter to the President today asking for a separate appropriation in the supplemental. I wonder if he’s had a chance to consider that yet.
GIBBS: I will check with legislative affairs to see if the request has been received and what it might be. I’ll have them check on that.
Q: Is FEMA financially able to handle all of these disasters right now? Because we understand recently FEMA was running out of money and there was a call for more money from Congress to — more money for FEMA.
FUGATE: You’re referring to the disaster recovery fund, which is an allocation that we’re given based upon potential disasters, also dealing with previous disasters in the past. Around the February time frame, we were running to a point where our fund balance was getting below what we were comfortable with, having to deal with existing disasters and future disasters, so we go into what we call immediate needs funding. And what that means is we are still funding response, individual assistance, and immediate needs, but we have stopped all funding for permanent work going all the way back to disasters prior to Katrina.
So we have limited our funds to just those things that are necessary to do a response, to meet initial needs, take care of individuals, the survivors of the disaster, but we have stopped all of our permanent work until we get a supplemental to support that.
Q: So for this immediate funding, with this immediate needs funding, I mean, how long does it take for this money to run out? How much money do you need, or how much money do you have to deal with these emergencies?
FUGATE: It’s really kind of an unknown. Given where we are right now with Tennessee, we’re still fine. We’re still responding, but it is finite. And so again, we are working. The House has passed the supplemental request. It’s now with the Senate. We have done things to really minimize our impacts and be able to continue to focus on response. And we continue that as we await final resolution on replenishing the disaster recovery fund.
Q: How much is in the supplemental?
FUGATE: The request from OMB and us as we worked this up is $5.1 billion.
Q: You mentioned Katrina. I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit about how much the lessons learned from Katrina are guiding you in Tennessee and what those lessons learned are.
FUGATE: To me, the big lesson was — I was actually the state director in Florida during that time frame; I was there through the hurricane and stuff — was you got to go in as a team, you got to work as a team, and you got to focus on survivors. And I think we've been able to demonstrate, with the President’s leadership, our commitment to that and his commitment to bring the full team to bear.
It’s not one of these things where one agency is trying to solve all the problems by themselves. We really bring together the expertise of all the agencies and look at what the needs are.
Q: When hurricane season starts in, what, two or three weeks, what —
FUGATE: Twenty-one days. (Laughter.)
Q: — what shape are you in when a first big storm hits? Will you be able to handle it?
FUGATE: Well, the first big storm — generally hurricane season may start June 1st, but really the time frame when you start seeing the more devastating hurricanes tends to be about August, mid-August through. Again, we are resetting, because as much as people focus on hurricanes — and I come from a hurricane-prone state — Chile and Haiti should have taught us something. We don't get to pick the next disaster. And an earthquake could strike at any time. Any other event that could occur, we have to be ready all the time.
So although hurricane season gives us a reminder to get people ready for something, at FEMA we have to be ready 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I don't get the luxury of waiting for a forecast season; I have to be ready to go. So we keep adjusting. Even with Tennessee and others, we have a lot of disasters going; we keep resetting our team and looking at where we're at and go, right now if something happens, what are we ready to do and what do we have to do to be prepared?
Q: The present situation right now, are you fearful that you might not be able to meet the need, as things arise with the financial problems that you're going through?
FUGATE: No. I mean, if I looked at it just as FEMA was the only game in town, I might be a little bit concerned. But we're not the only game in town. We work as a team on the federal side, again, with a relationship that we have in this administration across all our resources. We're going to respond; we're going to take care of people. That's not the question. The question is really getting back to the permanent work, and that right now we cannot move forward on without supplemental.
GIBBS: Thank you, sir. Thanks, guys.