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FEMA Chief: Saving Lives Priority No. 1 as Winter Storms Threaten Much of U.S.

February 1, 2011 at 6:51 PM EDT
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Ray Suarez gets an update from FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate on how residents, municipalities and transportation hubs are coping with the onslaught of bone-chilling temperatures and dangerous precipitation.

RAY SUAREZ: And for the latest on preparations, we are joined by the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. Craig Fugate is at FEMA headquarters in Washington.

And, as we just heard, Administrator, this is a multi-region storm. Does it require a different kind of response by your agency?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, it does mean you have to be prepared in a lot of different areas supporting states.

And because we’re not sure how bad it’s going to be, particularly the ice and the damage to the power lines, we’ve been positioning supplies and generators from as far west as Oklahoma City and all the way up to get ready to support the Northeastern states.

So, a lot of area to cover, but we’ve been working with the states for the last day-and-a-half, getting ready in place, just in case we’re needed to support them.

RAY SUAREZ: There’s heavy pressure on transportation systems: road, rail and air. Is there some sort of coordination between parts of the country about what gets shut down and how and when it comes back up?

CRAIG FUGATE: Yes, I think it’s more due to the weather. I mean, the airports, again, the airlines have been telling people up front, you know, get ready for a lot of cancellations. Adjust your travel.

Again, the interstate systems, as those are being shut down trying to get those back open, and I think it’s because it’s such a large area. It isn’t that there’s so much, you know, we’re going to coordinate this, as much as we’re dealing with the weather as it occurs trying to get things back open or get some capacity back up as quick as possible.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s already been very snowy in many of the parts of the country getting hit by this storm. Are counties and cities running out of salt, running out of money for overtime, for plows, that kind of thing?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, I think there’s definitely been a financial impact to the repeated storms. Right now, our primary concern is on the life-safety efforts, and particularly as states are looking at these heavy snowfalls.

Some states are putting their National Guard on alert. And that’s really our focus for the next 24 to 36 hours, is life-saving, and then after that looking at what recovery assistance may be needed.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier, we heard Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana say he would rather have a foot of snow than a couple of inches of ice and worried about the infrastructure. Are power outages a possibility for overnight for a lot of people?

CRAIG FUGATE: Yes, that’s the real question. As the governor pointed out, oftentimes, snow will have some power outages, but in some of these ice storms, we have seen large-scale power outages. And that’s been a concern with this forecast, is how much ice we would get and how much of the power system would be impacted.

We do expect power outages, but hopefully they will be the power outages of short duration measured in hours, not in weeks, as we have seen with some of these ice storms.

RAY SUAREZ: And, finally, Administrator, it’s commonly heard during storms like this, if you don’t have to go anywhere, don’t. Do people listen when they’re urged to stay home? Or do they think, well, actually I have to get out on the road?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, I think, a couple of folks, they were going to do that and opened the door and got some of these frigid temperatures, decided to sit tight.

Here’s the deal. Give the crews that are cleaning the roads a chance to get roads cleared. Every time you get out there, if you get in a wreck or you get stuck, those plows have to work around you and rescue crews have to go out. That just adds stress to the system.

So, you know, if you want the roads cleared faster, don’t add to the workload. Sit tight. If you don’t absolutely have to be out there, wait until this thing gets by. Let the crews clear the roads. Then, when it’s safe, get out and do what you need to do.

RAY SUAREZ: FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, thanks for joining us.

CRAIG FUGATE: Thank you.