FEMA Under Trump

Sep 12, 2018
Originally published on September 12, 2018 6:34 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As Hurricane Florence moves towards the Carolinas, there are questions about how ready FEMA is to cope with whatever this storm brings. The reputation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency suffered last year in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. President Trump and FEMA officials say they're prepared this time. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: President Trump tweeted out a video this morning assuring people on the southeast coast that the government is ready for Florence, although with a caveat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're fully prepared - food, medical, everything you can imagine. We are ready. But despite that, bad things can happen when you're talking about a storm this size. It's called Mother Nature. You never know. But we know.

NAYLOR: Yesterday in an Oval Office briefing, Trump insisted his administration's response to previous storms rated an A-plus, even calling the efforts after Maria in Puerto Rico an unsung success - despite a death toll estimated at 3,000. At that same briefing, FEMA administrator Brock Long said his agency was ready but that it's a team effort.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BROCK LONG: Successful disaster response and recovery is one that's locally executed, state managed and federally supported. So what FEMA is doing is pre-positioning the federal government's assets to support each one of those governors that are about to be impacted with achieving their response and recovery goals. And that's the way emergency management and disaster response works best.

NAYLOR: But the agency's track record has been mixed. Earlier this month, a Government Accountability Office report found that FEMA's workforce was overwhelmed by a string of disasters last year. Barry Scanlon, a former FEMA official now with a disaster crisis consulting firm, says the agency likely remains understaffed.

BARRY SCANLON: I think they're probably still short of people because we have literally dozens of ongoing disasters going on right now around the United States. As I understand it, FEMA closed a lot of the smaller disaster offices around the country to prepare to send people to the Carolinas.

NAYLOR: In addition, one of the top posts at FEMA remains unfilled. And the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA's parent agency, admits it moved $10 million from a FEMA account to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. FEMA associate administrator Jeff Byard says that won't affect response to Florence.

JEFF BYARD: What I can tell you is we have plenty of resources to respond. We have plenty of resources to recover. That has not impacted our situation whatsoever.

NAYLOR: Byard says the FEMA disaster relief fund has well over $20 billion in it, and Congress can be counted on to appropriate more. He's confident the agency is prepared for this storm.

BYARD: A successful response - you know, it's a disaster. And it's named a disaster for a reason. It's going to disrupt services. It's going to destroy homes. It's going to destroy infrastructure. And they're power is going to be out. But we feel very confident that, working with our partners, we're going to quickly stabilize the lifelines that our communities are used to on a daily basis. Then we can turn our focus to that more long-term recovery.

NAYLOR: FEMA says it's positioned millions of bottles of water and meals along with generators, tarps and other supplies. Still, while utility crews have already been sent to the area, officials warn power could take weeks to restore.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.