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FEMA Chief Fugate on Challenges of Widespread Storm Recovery Needs

May 4, 2011 at 6:37 PM EDT
The Army Corps of Engineers is considering whether to blow up more levees along the Mississippi River after destroying a Missouri levee to save an Illinois town. Judy Woodruff talks with Federal Emergency Management Agency Chief Craig Fugate about the government's widespread effort to help victims of flooding and tornadoes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the latest on the U.S. government’s efforts to deal with flooding in the Midwest and the devastating tornadoes in the South.

Concern mounted today as towns along the southern reaches of the Mississippi River braced for disastrous flooding. In southeastern Missouri, National Guard troops built a secondary retaining wall of sandbags, in case the river tops a 50-foot wall in Caruthersville.

WOMAN: You know, we live on the river. The rivers have been a tremendous resource for us. And we’re going to deal with Mother Nature as we can.  

JUDY WOODRUFF: Already, the Army Corps of Engineers used explosives to blow open one levee, deliberately flooding 130,000 acres in Missouri. It was done to save Cairo, Ill., on the Ohio River. And the Corps is considering similar actions to divert water and ease pressure on other towns and cities along the Mississippi.

Memphis, Tennessee, and points south to Natchez, Miss., are on high alert. Forecasters have projected the river could break records set during the Great Flood of 1927. An emergency declaration is in effect in Shelby County, Tenn., including Memphis. Some 5,300 homes and businesses could be flooded there.

PAUL ROBINSON, resident of Shelby County, Tenn.: And you have got to have a little bit of faith in the — you know, in the Corps of Engineers and what they say. And this is their area of expertise, so that’s what we’re banking on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Farther south, Alabama residents are still struggling to clean up after the nation’s deadliest tornado outbreak since the Great Depression. The storms killed at least 328 people across six states last week.

Alabama’s state insurance commissioner today warned that insured losses will exceed $2 billion, the total done by Hurricane Ivan back in 2004. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has set up a number of recovery centers, and hundreds of people have begun applying for assistance.

This afternoon, I sat down with the man in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency at its headquarters.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, thank you very much for talking with us.

CRAIG FUGATE, Federal Emergency Management Agency: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s start with today’s news, the flooding in the Midwest, the fact that those levees have had to be breached, blown up, in some areas. How worried are you about that situation there?

CRAIG FUGATE: This is something that we’re seeing flood levels on the Mississippi River and many of the tributaries that are causing a widespread flooding.

And the Corps of Engineers has had to exercise some of the plans to open up floodways that will impact and are impacting farms and homes. But it was to protect the mainline levee system from catastrophic failures for other communities. And so we’re seeing very high levels in the river. We’re seeing the Corps having to exercise those floodways, and again, a lot of concerns, particularly in states that are dealing with not only the flooding along the river, but rivers that flow in that are backing up in their states, causing localized flooding.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were just saying, as a result of the heavy spring rains, on top of the wet winter that the country had.

CRAIG FUGATE: Yes, this is a — this is a system you have very — very heavy snowfall over these areas. And we have had repeated storms with heavy rains.

I was talking with the governor of Tennessee, and he says, we’re — for the first time we’re doing mandatory evacuations in some of our small communities due to flooding caused by backing-up rivers in the heavy rainfall in his state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The farmers who are affected, though, by this Corps of Engineers having to blow up, destroy the levees, their cropland is being flooded, what do you say to them? And they’re now worried about their livelihood.

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, we’re working with the governor of Missouri. And one of the steps we will take after this flooding has occurred is do what we call preliminary damage assessments and look at the type of assistance.

Again, because a lot of this agricultural, we will be working with our partners at the United States Department of Agriculture, looking at their programs. But, again, this was a designed system. This was designed to be operated this way in these conditions. But we are going to work with the governor of Missouri about what programs and assistance will be available to those impacted by this floodway.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you expect, Mr. Fugate, in the next 24 to 48 hours in that area?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, again, the reports from the Corps was that, along the mainline levee, particularly around the towns of Cairo, it was coming down. That’s — the thing that they were most concerned about was taking pressure off of some of those levees. They were getting very concerned about sand boils and other early signs that they were reaching the point they could have catastrophic failures.

So, with the water levels coming down, it’s reducing pressure there, but again, this is a system that has a lot of water in it. And additional rains are compounding problems. So we expect this flooding and these actions to take some pressure off, but still see a lot more to come.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s turn now to the tornado damage, the aftermath of the terrible tornado damage in the Southeastern United States. You have seen a lot of disasters in your — in your tenure here. What’s the scope of the damage, of the situation there now, human and in terms of people’s property?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, these were tornadoes that stayed on the ground for very long periods of time. I think the National Weather Service has already said April was one of the record-setting months for tornadoes.

But what was different about these tornadoes, they stayed on the ground so long, and they were so powerful, that they were destroying not only what we oftentimes see with mobile homes, but houses, apartment complexes, anything in its path.

So I think images don’t do justice to the amount of damage over large areas, particularly in Mississippi and Alabama. But we have had a loss of life in Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, as well as in Virginia, from these storms.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what is the federal government being asked to do right now by these state and local officials?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, again, the governors have requested and President Obama has declared these states disaster areas.

Primarily, right now, we’re focused on the individuals and families, the survivors of these storms. I think one of the things that we’re working in partnership with Secretary Donovan at HUD is, what are the housing needs going to be?

We lost so many homes and so many apartments, that there’s a huge challenge to get housing, both in the urban areas, as well the more rural parts of these states.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in fact I read — one of the stories I read today on an AP wire was about a man who was a contractor. He had his contracting business in his house. He has lost everything. He has a wife who happens to be brain-damaged. They’re living in a motel. They are running out of money.

What about people in these — really at the end of their rope?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, again, that’s why the president concurred with the governor’s request.

Part of the program we did turn on, at the direction of the president, is what we call individual assistance programs. These are programs to bring in immediate assistance, particularly financial assistance, to those in need, people that didn’t have insurance to begin the recovery process.

But we know that FEMA programs alone won’t make people whole, so we’re working with Small Business Administration, working with HUD and other federal programs, as well as volunteer and faith-based organizations, to help people through this, to help in the recovery.

But it’s important that everybody in the area that’s been impacted by these storms register at FEMA at 1-800-621-FEMA, and start the process, so we can determine what assistance we can provide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have reported that Alabama officials said they thought the insured losses would exceed $2 billion. Any idea of what the overall cost, the dimensions of the cost will this be — this will be?

CRAIG FUGATE: Not at this point.

As you know, like on many disasters, we will do a lot of damage assessments and come up with a dollar figure before we declare disasters. In this case, based upon the severity and the magnitude of the individual and family suffering, President Obama declared these. And so we are now coming back after this to count up those damages, so we focus more on getting assistance for the survivors right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, thank you very much for talking with us.

CRAIG FUGATE: Thanks for having us.