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How prepared is FEMA for Hurricane Florence?

President Trump has said the federal government in "totally prepared" for Hurricane Florence, but the federal reaction to Hurricanes Harvey and Maria last year have raised questions about the nation’s disaster response. Judy Woodruff talks with former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate and Chris Currie, a director of the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president has said the federal government is — quote — "totally prepared" for Hurricane Florence.

    But there have been questions in recent days about that, in light of the response to Hurricanes Harvey and Maria last year.

    We get an assessment from two people who have watched this closely.

    Craig Fugate was the administrator of FEMA during the Obama administration. He now consults in that world. And Chris Currie of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO, he oversaw the agency's recent report on FEMA's response to disasters in 2017.

    Gentlemen, we welcome both of you to the program.

    And I should say at the outset we invited FEMA to participate today, but they were not available.

    But, Craig Fugate, as somebody who knows that agency very well, how prepared are they for this hurricane that is coming, do you think?

  • Craig Fugate:

    Well, they're in better shape.

    I mean, think about what we were facing with Maria. It was the third major hurricane to hit. So, I mean, they're busy. They're in Guam. We have got Hawaii. We got wildfires. But at least on the East Coast, this will be the first significant land-falling hurricane. They're moving a lot of resources.

    The other thing is, is you're going into an area. These states have quite a bit of resources and capability themselves, local governments who have been faced with hurricanes before, so you got a pretty good spread from local to the federal government working on this.

    But it all comes down to people evacuating and heeding those evacuation orders. We can always rebuild communities, but rescue operations in the height of the storm are impossible. And if you look at this threat, 88 percent of deaths are related to water, not wind. So the evacuation is key.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Craig Fugate, you would say they're better prepared than last year?

  • Craig Fugate:

    I would say that got more stuff, because they're not — this is the first hurricane.

    When you got to Maria, you were on your third major hurricane. And three hurricanes back to back of Harvey, Irma and Maria is going to stretch us any — every time. But this being the first one on the East Coast, major hurricane, they have more resources available that they had literally run out by the time Maria got here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Chris Currie, your agency, GAO, the report you put out last week looking last year at the response to Puerto Rico and the other storms, you did point out that there were many factors, including the particular situation of Puerto Rico.

    But you also looked very closely at FEMA. And among other things, you said they were overwhelmed. They were not prepared to deploy enough qualified staff.

    How would you sum that up?

  • Chris Currie:

    Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

    You summarized it very well, Judy. By the time — and I think Craig summed it up pretty well, too. By the time Maria hit, you had had three sequential hurricanes. Remember, Harvey, Irma, and Maria happened within 26 days of one another.

    So by the time Maria hit, supplies and resources and people were already allocated other parts of the country, which made it very, very difficult to marshal the resources in Puerto Rico.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Because when you read some of what you reported, you spoke about it colloquially being down to the barrel, that more than half of the staff they were using were not qualified for the job that they were holding.

  • Chris Currie:

    Yes, what I was referring to was the numbers of FEMA personnel. They had already deployed thousands of people to Harvey, to Irma in Florence. And also remember, I think at the time FEMA had over 600 open disasters throughout the country.

    So very, very difficult to marshal both the numbers of people you need and you needed in Puerto Rico, but also a lot of their highly qualified staff were in other places, which made it very difficult to fill critical positions in Puerto Rico.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Craig Fugate, does it surprise you — did it surprise you to see this assessment?

  • Craig Fugate:

    No.

    And, again, quite honestly, we faced the same challenges in the Obama administration. We'd oftentimes be running so many sequential disasters, we were pulling people out of active disasters to go to the next one. We had to do it when Sandy was threatening. We had to do it numerous times.

    And this kind of goes back to how FEMA is resourced and our dependency at FEMA on reservists, who, quite honestly, they're — we only pay them when we're working disasters. We don't really have good incentives. We have made recommendations to give them status to apply for career jobs as an incentive. We have asked for opportunities to pay them when we're not doing disasters, similar to the military for the reserves.

    But, again, we're dependent upon a work force who may or may not be available when disasters happen at a scale when we're talking 10,000 to 16,000 people. That's not sustainable with the current workload we're having.

    And I think Congress needs to go back and look at, how do you build and maintain a staff for these types of events in the frequency we're seeing? Because the current system wasn't built for it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Chris Currie, what about that? I want to ask you about that point. And, also, I mean, just looking at this, we know there was no way anybody could have forecast there were going to be three major storms within the course of one month.

    But does it reflect a lack of planning on the part of FEMA last year?

  • Chris Currie:

    I think it reflects a lack of planning in terms of the scale of the disasters.

    You're correct. I mean, nobody expected to have three sequential disasters just like that, and four if you count the California wildfires afterwards. But if you look at the Atlantic Ocean right now, we have three disasters, maybe even four looming out there.

    So these rare events are happening every year. So I think, as Craig mentioned, we have to — we have to start planning and preparing for these types of things routinely. And having the work force and the numbers of staff we need to do that every year for this potential number of disasters is part of that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Craig Fugate, how does that happen? I mean, there's politics involved, obviously, when you talk about Congress, when you talk about appropriating more money.

    Where does it — where does the change needs to come from?

  • Craig Fugate:

    Well, these to come in the appropriations process, something that we have had a challenge with Congress just passing budgets.

    It seems they can always come up with the money after the disaster. But the key part here is, if we're going to change these outcomes, we need to be spending more money before disasters happen. We're going to have to grow and sustain that work force.

    And, unfortunately for FEMA, they tend to get resources after we have failed in a disaster. And then, when we don't have a lot, they cut the budgets again. I mean, we went through sequestration in the Obama administration, and I will tell you that had an impact on FEMA's ability to respond last year.

    So it goes back to, we can either pay for a lot of costs after disasters very inefficiently, or we can make investments and build a team for the — for the type of disasters that are happening, in support of the states and local governments.

    But it is a resource issue. If you don't have the resources and funding, hard to build a team. When you have that many disasters, you're going to run out of qualified people. As a result — a result of that, the response suffers, and we put our citizens on the wrong end of what we are capable of doing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Chris Currie, as someone who is serving right now in the federal government, do you see the pieces in place to make these changes happen in time to make a difference?

  • Chris Currie:

    I agree — I agree that funding is a really important part of this.

    But, in GAO, our responsibility is to provide independent, fact-based oversight. And we have been looking at these issues for years and years, particularly after Katrina. And we have made a number of recommendations to FEMA over the years.

    I think there's a responsibility on the agency to plan for the work force it needs, and then to train that work force with the abilities they need to perform the mission. So funding is important to build up your numbers, but once you have the people, you also have to ensure that you train and you retain those people, so they're ready to go when something like this happens.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, all of this is really important to think about as we confront yet another major hurricane.

    Chris Currie with the General Accounting Office, GAO, Craig Fugate, formerly the head of FEMA, we thank you both.

  • Chris Currie:

    Thank you.

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