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Hurricane Irene’s Cost May Hit $7B as Pricey East Coast Cleanup Begins

August 29, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Hurricane Irene's death toll reached at least 38 Monday as cleanup crews from North Carolina to New England continued to pick up after the storm amid ongoing flooding. Gwen Ifill discusses the storm's impact and the cost of the government's multiple disaster relief efforts with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
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GWEN IFILL: It was a day for clearing away the mess and calculating the cost along the path of Hurricane Irene. The scope of the wreckage was less than feared, but the storm did kill at least 35 people in 10 states and triggered ongoing floods.

Irene was long gone today, but a weekend of storm-driven downpours left behind a trail of damage, sometimes to lethal effect.

CRAIG FUGATE, Federal Emergency Management Agency: We have seen record flooding in Vermont, record flooding in New York. We still have rivers that have yet to crest. The river forecast center for the Northeast was reporting that some of these rivers may not crest for two to three days. So, the extent of impacts, we still don’t know.

GWEN IFILL: Officials said the flooding in Vermont was the worst in at least 80 years. It swept away historic bridges more than 100 years old.

WOMAN: Oh, my God.

GWEN IFILL: In Upstate New York, streams turned into swollen torrents, leaving roads impassable and entire communities cut off. And in Pompton Lakes, N.J., a house exploded into flames and burned amid the floodwaters, possibly from a gas leak. The storm also knocked out power to nearly 7.5 million homes and businesses along the East Coast.

Governors in Connecticut and Maryland warned today it could take some time to turn the lights back on.  

GOV. DAN MALLOY, D-Conn.: We have never had as many people out of power as we have had as a result of this storm. Some number of those individuals are going to be without power for a week or more.

But some member of those folks are going to start having a restoration fairly quickly.

GOV. MARTIN O’MALLEY, D-Md.: At the peak of the storm, in Prince George’s County, for example, there were 113,000 households that were without power. That is down now to 40,000. But if you’re one of those 40,000, you’re not going to be satisfied.

GWEN IFILL: As for travel and transportation, service on New York’s subway system was partially restored today. Airports reopened. And airlines spent the day playing catchup, re-booking passengers stranded by 9,000 canceled flights.

But it could have been far worse. The hurricane was strongest when it hit North Carolina, leaving people to clean up today as far inland as Raleigh, the state capital.

ERICK VICK, N.C.: I was hoping it would be like some of the other ones, where it’s a lot of bark and no bite, but this one had a little bit of a bite.

GWEN IFILL: Irene weakened as it pushed through Virginia and Maryland, and on to the northeast and New England.

Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick:

GOV. DEVAL PATRICK, D-Mass.: It is a remarkable thing that more people were not — were not hurt. And I consider that a great blessing and also a testament to the extraordinary and exceptional professionalism of the emergency responders.

GWEN IFILL: New York City also dodged the worst of the storm, leaving Mayor Michael Bloomberg to defend his decision to evacuate 300,000 people.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, (I) mayor of New York: What we want to do is to protect people and protect people’s lives. And we’re never sure what’s going to happen with a forecast for the weather. As we all know, weather forecasts are very unreliable. But you want to go and take the kind of precautions that, in retrospect, if the storm, if the worst case arrives, you say, yes, I’m glad that I did that. And the next time, for all I know, we will get lucky again.

GWEN IFILL: Property damage was also less extensive than expected. But it may yet reach $7 billion.

At the White House today, President Obama promised to help.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It’s going to take time to recover from a storm of this magnitude. The effects are still being felt across much of the country, but I’m going to make sure that FEMA and other agencies are doing everything in their power to help people on the ground.

GWEN IFILL: FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said today its disaster relief fund is running low. As a result, money that would otherwise have been available for long-term rebuilding projects in places like tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo., has been diverted to immediate needs.

As the cleanup from Irene begins in earnest, forecasters are turning a watchful eye on yet another system far out in the Atlantic. It could grow into a hurricane and threaten the U.S. mainland in about 10 days.

For more on the impact of Hurricane Irene and its relief efforts, we turn to Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security. I spoke with her from FEMA headquarters this afternoon.

Secretary Napolitano, thank you for joining us.

What would you say is your most critical concern right now in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene?

SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY JANET NAPOLITANO: Well, Irene has now converted from a coastal hurricane into a significant amount of inland flooding, particularly in places like New England, Upstate New York, New Jersey.

And so, dealing with flooding — a lot of small towns have really been hurt by the flooding. And then we’re already working with states like North Carolina and Virginia that were hit by Irene over the weekend on their damage assessments and things like getting power restored, working with the power companies to get their power back up.

GWEN IFILL: Can you tell us how many states have been declared federal disasters at this point?

JANET NAPOLITANO: I would have to say at least eight, possibly nine. I haven’t done the recent count.

But what will happen now is, we will go back and do damages assessments, looking at the extent of uninsured losses for individuals, for communities, for businesses, for agriculture, and we will amend the disaster declarations that have been entered to expand to include the losses that we can now see.

GWEN IFILL: Have we seen the worst of it in states like Vermont, New York and Connecticut?

JANET NAPOLITANO: I think, in Vermont, we probably have.

But in some of the other states in New England, rivers aren’t expected to crest for another 24 to 48 hours. And so, as I have been explaining, we look at every disaster in three phases: preparation, response and recovery.

The preparation window closed by the end of last week. We’re mostly in recovery. But in a few areas, such as upstate New England, Upstate New York, we’re still in response.

GWEN IFILL: FEMA has had 65 major disaster responses so far this year. How costly has this been?

JANET NAPOLITANO: It’s been very costly.

And there have been questions raised about the amount of monies that we have available now that Irene has hit. So, let me just assure your viewers that the survivors’ needs will be met. They are our number-one priority. Projects that were already under way in places like Joplin in the Midwest where we had all those horrible tornadoes, those projects will continue to be funded.

The only adjustment we made over the weekend was to say no new projects in old disasters will be started until we make sure that the immediate needs of the Irene survivors are met. But in the meantime, we’re already working with the president and OMB and with the Congress to see what other adjustments need to be made for FEMA funding through the end of the fiscal year.

GWEN IFILL: But there has been some talk over the weekend that FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security are in essence robbing Peter to Paul.

JANET NAPOLITANO: Yes, I think that was a misimpression.

As I said earlier the needs of survivors always come first. Those will be met. All the projects already under way in the previous disasters we have had this year, those will be met. The only thing we will not approve right now until we get through Irene and see what we have are new projects.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned that you will rely on Congress and the president to provide more funds for disaster relief. Given the recent debates we have seen on federal spending here in Washington, are you optimistic about that?

JANET NAPOLITANO: Well, typically, Congress has passed what’s called a supplemental for FEMA at the end of every fiscal year.

Why? Because it is difficult to project at the beginning of a year how many disasters you’re actually going to have. And as you have mentioned, this has been a very heavy year. We have gone from spring tornadoes, record flooding to now Hurricane Irene, which covered a number of states, and now the flooding associated with Hurricane Irene.

So it’s been a heavy disaster year. And, again, the pattern is, they fund us for kind of a best-guess estimate, and then a supplemental normally covers what obviously can’t be predicted at the beginning of the year.

GWEN IFILL: As we went into the weekend we heard catastrophic forecasts, that rivers would run in the streets of New York and that basically the storm would be much worse than it was. How accurate were those forecasts?

JANET NAPOLITANO: Well, first, I would say, look, we still had loss of life occasioned with Hurricane Irene.

This was a serious storm. But here is the problem that confronted local officials last Friday and Saturday, which is to say that the projections were that the path of Irene was going to come right up into Long Island. And it was difficult to measure what the level of intensity would be at that point in time.

If that forecast had been off just a little bit to the west, it would have been right in downtown Manhattan, right through Wall Street. So the mayor made I think really the only decision possible, which is to evacuate low-lying areas, particularly a hospital, nursing homes and so forth, because you can’t do that after the fact. Better to be prepared.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like you’re saying better safe than sorry.

JANET NAPOLITANO: Well, it’s a good adage for this, but it was also very reasonable in this case, because the forecasts, while they are very good, are never as precise as one would hope. And so you have got to make your best decisions based on the information you have.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary Janet Napolitano, thank you very much.

JANET NAPOLITANO: Thank you.