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Former FEMA director Craig Fugate weighs in as Biden visits Florida


We turn now to someone who is no stranger to responding to storms and natural disasters. Craig Fugate served as the administrator of FEMA under President Barack Obama, and he also served as the director of Florida's emergency management division. I spoke to Fugate earlier today as President Biden was surveying hurricane-ravaged portions of Florida, and I asked him what he thought of the federal government's response to Hurricane Ian so far.

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, before the storm hit, FEMA had staff in the state EOC, the State Emergency Operations Center, working with Governor DeSantis' team. They'd been working to get resources in. They had moved search and rescue teams in, water, food, generators. All those things were being moved in the state before the hurricane hit.

And while you don't always hear what FEMA's doing, a lot of what the state is doing is being supported by FEMA. And as we transition from search and rescue, FEMA's role will grow in the recovery after President Biden had declared it at the request of the governor - more disaster assistance, one of the programs which is designed for people that didn't have insurance or didn't have enough insurance, the individual and family programs, sort of starting to register people.

SUMMERS: You know, in the days leading up to this visit, there has been a lot of conversation about another moment a decade ago that I remember well and I'm sure you remember even better - when President Barack Obama went to New Jersey and toured the damage from Hurricane Sandy. And he was greeted by his one-time political foe, Chris Christie, who was then the governor. And I know you were on that trip. Is there anything you remember about that trip? Or what do you think is instructive for political leaders trying to navigate this?

FUGATE: I would say that the whole time I was there - and their interactions was all about the disaster, how they needed to work together, what needed to be done. Nothing about, you know, we're in the middle of a presidential campaign. That didn't come up. Political issues didn't come up. And nobody said this. Nobody said it wasn't about politics. It didn't have to be said. It was two leaders working together for that state as they were starting to look at what it was going to take to recover from Superstorm Sandy.

SUMMERS: Now, we are still, of course, in the immediate aftermath of this storm. But what do you believe should be at the top of the list of what the federal government is focused on providing for the people there in Florida?

FUGATE: Well, the thing that's starting to change is you go from lifesaving to just meeting basic needs, what we call life, you know, sustaining, is going to be temporary housing. For a lot of folks in these areas, they're not going to be able to return to their homes. There's not a home to return to, or so it's badly damaged they can't get back in there. So FEMA had already turned this on. This was part of the president's declaration for individual assistance. And they're registering people to provide temporary housing. And for a lot of folks, that's going to be vouchers to hotels and motels and undamaged property. But a lot of this is not going to be possible in the immediate hard-hit areas. They're going to have to perhaps go north or south or maybe as far inland as to Orlando or over to the East Coast.

And I think longer term, this is going to be a huge challenge that - we'll have to look at how we reestablish affordable housing in these communities that were already seeing huge challenges for, you know, extremely high rents, extremely high cost of homes in that area. And this will exceed FEMA's capabilities. That's why you're already hearing people talking about other funds that may be needed.

I think this will be a major request that's going to need to be made for funding from HUD for their Community Block Disaster Grant (ph) program for disasters that gives states and government, local governments, flexibility in applying that. We saw this in the 2016 flood in Louisiana and then after Hurricane Harvey in Texas, where both governors used those disaster Community Block Development Grant dollars to give grants to people who had flood damage who didn't have flood insurance to make repairs to get back in their homes.

SUMMERS: And lastly, before I let you go, I just want to ask, it is not lost on me that we are seeing a sharp increase in the number of weather-related disasters, natural disasters over time, driven in large part by climate change. How much harder does that make the job for elected officials who are trying to manage disaster relief and recovery for an agency like FEMA, which you led?

FUGATE: I think we got to look very hard at, as we rebuild particularly the infrastructure, that we're not just building it back based upon what's happened in the past but what could happen in the future. I mean, look at - throughout the storm of Ian, how many times you heard record-setting water levels, record-setting event. And that's our challenge is as we make these investments and we talk about investing for future risk and we talk about resiliency, is making the commitment to where and how we build in a way that these will occur again, but they won't be as catastrophic, and we'll recover faster if we make those investments on the front end. It takes more time. It takes more money, but it's a choice we need to make that we just can't keep rebuilding time and time again only to have it destroyed in the next event.

SUMMERS: Former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate. Thank you so much for being here.

FUGATE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]