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FEMA Chief: Katrina Lessons Aid Hurricane Earl Planning

September 1, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As government officials prepare for the possible landfall of Hurricane Earl along the East Coast, Jim Lehrer speaks with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate about the storm.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight: Hurricane Earl. North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland declared emergencies today, as the hurricane approached with winds of 135 miles an hour.

The big storm, seen from the International Space Station, was still 700 miles off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, late today, but evacuations were under way along the exposed Outer Banks.

IAN BUTLER, tourist: We actually were going to stay until tomorrow morning. But when they said that they wanted the visitors to leave today from Hatteras, we decided that the best thing to do for the locals is to get out of the way.

JIM LEHRER: The state’s beaches were already empty, buildings were being boarded up, and some people worried they were overdue for disaster.

WOMAN: People feel we’re getting time for — time for the big one.

JIM LEHRER: Forecasters still expected Earl to turn north as it reaches the Outer Banks late tomorrow or early Friday. The projected track then takes it parallel up the coast. As a result, the National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning for most of the North Carolina coast and a hurricane watch extended to Delaware. The Coast Guard began flyovers along the Eastern Seaboard, warning ships at sea of the coming danger.

MAN: The hurricane will impact the coastal and offshore area.

JIM LEHRER: In Washington, President Obama was briefed by the head of the FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And from Long Island, New York, to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, beach towns began taking in lifeguard stands, while residents stocked up on supplies and marinas went into hurricane haul mode, pulling boats out of the water.

STUART SMITH, concerned about hurricane: We’re right on the elbow of the cape. It’s — it’s — we’re very exposed. We’re surrounded by water on three sides.

JIM LEHRER: Still, it’s been nearly 20 years, Hurricane Bob in 1991, since a storm this big threatened so much of the Eastern Seaboard. And today’s talk of Earl left some coastal residents and visitors unfazed.

EDDIE CANAVAN, skeptic: But, you know, a lot of times, it never materializes, what they estimate is going to happen. It would be a — a fitting end to a great summer, a little hurricane here at the beach.

JIM LEHRER: Even if there is no direct hit, officials warned Earl will create rough surf and dangerous rip currents through Labor Day weekend.

Craig Fugate is the administrator of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And I spoke with him earlier this evening about Hurricane Earl.

Mr. Fugate, welcome. What’s the latest you can tell us on the strength and the path of the storm as we speak now?

CRAIG FUGATE, administrator, Federal Emergency Management Agency: Still don’t have a forecast that brings it on shore, but, as Director Bill Read at the Hurricane Center reminds us, it won’t take much for this storm, if it does go a little bit further towards the east, to directly impact the shore. And that’s why we’re already seen, in the North Carolina outer barrier islands, evacuations taking place today.

JIM LEHRER: Is there a worst-case scenario you’re dealing with?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, absolutely. If this storm parallels to coast, we could just see impacts along the seaboard, mainly surf conditions and high seas. But if it comes inland, we could expect much more extensive damage, particularly with the high winds and storm surge moving inland, causing a lot of problems.

JIM LEHRER: Now, these evacuations are mandatory; is that correct?

CRAIG FUGATE: Yes. Down in the barrier islands out there on the Outer Banks, what they’re focused on initially is the tourists that need to leave first, and then the permanent residents. But they wanted to make sure they gave people plenty of time to evacuate, before they start experiencing tropical-force winds, which, based upon the forecast, may be getting there tomorrow afternoon.

JIM LEHRER: Now, beyond evacuations, what other preparations are under way for this?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, because we’re not sure where this storm may have the greatest impact, we have been working with all of the governors’ teams from North Carolina all the way to Maine. And we have our teams ready to go in. Our teams are currently in the North Carolina Emergency Operations Center. But we’re also moving supplies, both into North Carolina and up into New England, just in case we’re going to need, whether, you know, we take an impact anywhere along that coast, additional supplies to support the states.

And we have some of our search-and-rescue teams on alert. And we’re bringing in some of the management teams just in case. Again, we don’t have a forecasted landfall. But because this is such a large area, we don’t want to wait and find who is going to need help or where the impacts are going to be. So, we’re putting our teams in just about every one of those states, as the states are activated for this storm.

JIM LEHRER: How big of teams are they? And do they involve?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, these are incident management teams. They’re smaller teams. Again, we’re augmenting and joining the governor’s team in that emergency operations center. And what we want to do is have folks there in case the governor or state team needs any federal assistance. We have people there that are ready to get things moving.

The other thing we’re doing with some of these teams and some of these supplies is moving them near the coast. Even though they may not go to that state they’re in, they’re closer to the coast, so they’re ready to go if they’re needed.

JIM LEHRER: What kind of supplies are being prepared?

CRAIG FUGATE: We’re sending in things that we would normally have available: bottled war, nonperishable food stuffs, emergency generators, tarps, and other supplies that we would need in the first couple of days if a storm came ashore. And, again, we’re doing this based upon a track that could be anywhere from North Carolina to Maine, so we’re getting supplies in the area, but not necessarily down to the coast until we know where the impacts are going to be.

JIM LEHRER: Are you confident that everything is ready?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, I know we’re working hard on our side. I’m a little concerned, though, for a lot of people that are looking at this storm and maybe thinking, with the holiday coming up, I’m not going to worry about it too much, because it’s really pretty and the skies are great. This storm’s going to pick up speed as it comes along the coast and begins moving north.

And I think that it’s really important for people to heed any evacuation orders that may be necessary and take the time now to make sure they have got a plan and know where to go if they’re in that evacuation zone.

There’s too much uncertainty to say who will have to evacuate next, if any. I know a lot of people are trying to plan this weekend, their holiday. And I’m just telling people, get a plan now. Know what you’re going to do. Have some flexibility built in, in case this storm disrupts your plans.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any way to really have concrete, accurate advance information ahead of time, or are these things — is it just likely to suddenly change on this whole thing?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, it’s the weather. And the skills of the National Hurricane Center, I put a lot of faith in what they can do. And when Director Read is telling us and telling the emergency managers and telling the public this storm is too close to the coast, that even if that track is off a little bit, it could bring more serious impacts to shore. We have got to be prepared.

The science and the accuracy of the forecast just doesn’t give us, this far out, a precision that says whether or not it’s going to be 50 miles one side of the line or not. And 50 miles, with a storm this big, could mean more direct impacts along the coast.

So, that’s why it’s so important for people to take the steps now to make sure they’re prepared and have a plan. And, if they haven’t started that, they can go to our Web site at www.ready.gov and get started now. And the uncertainty of the forecast, as it gets closer, we will have more information. We will start firming up what the impacts are going to be. But if you have that plan now, that gives you the edge over the uncertainty in any hurricane forecast to be ready just in case.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Mr. Fugate, FEMA, of course, has just gone through the fifth-year anniversary of — of Hurricane Katrina. Is FEMA a different organization than it was five years ago?

CRAIG FUGATE: I think it’s very much a different organization. But we never quit trying to get better. The lessons learned of Katrina cannot be forgotten. And, as we face Hurricane Earl, again, you know, some of these lessons are coming into play now, particularly where Congress gave us newer authorities. In 2006, the post-Katrina emergency management format clarified that FEMA wouldn’t have to wait until a governor had declared a disaster and requested assistance from the president to start getting ready.

And, in this case, this, I think, is really paying off, because we’re not sure which states are going to get hit, so we can’t wait to find out and wait for those requests. We had to get ready just in case across the entire East Coast, as we did this past weekend in Puerto Rico and V.I. And Congress gave FEMA new authorities to make sure we’re prepared to support governors without waiting for them to be overwhelmed in a disaster.

JIM LEHRER: Are you keeping President Obama informed about what’s going on?

CRAIG FUGATE: Yes, sir. I talked to him on Sunday. And again this morning, I briefed the president on our steps, what we’re taking to get ready to support the governors. And, again, his direction to us, as the whole federal family until the leadership of Secretary Napolitano and Homeland Security, is to prepare for the eventual contingencies of what Earl may bring and make sure we’re ready to support the governors and our local communities.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Fugate, thank you very much. And good luck.

CRAIG FUGATE: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Soon after that interview, Earl was upgraded to a Category 4 storm.