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Still Recovering From Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico Braces For Dorian

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Many in Puerto Rico have still not recovered from Hurricane Maria in 2017. And now another major storm is about to hit there, likely today. Tropical Storm Dorian does not look nearly as bad, but this will be the first time the island's infrastructure will be tested by a storm since Maria. All of this makes a decision by the Trump administration curious. Just as Puerto Ricans are preparing, the Trump administration wants to take money away from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A hundred and fifty-five million dollars could be diverted from FEMA to pay for detention beds for migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Craig Fugate was FEMA administrator under President Obama. He also directed Florida's Emergency Management Division under Republican Governor Jeb Bush. And he joins us on Skype.

Welcome back to the program.

CRAIG FUGATE: Thanks for having me back, David.

GREENE: So the idea of the Department of Homeland Security diverting money away from disaster relief for another initiative or priority - I mean, how often that - did that happen in your time leading the agency?

FUGATE: It happened. This goes back to when they formed Homeland Security. The secretary has the authority to transfer funds within the components. So when we were dealing with another migrant crisis, the unaccompanied children crisis, funds were transferred out of FEMA's disaster relief fund to ICE to help cover their expenses that weren't budgeted.

GREENE: OK. And we should say, the Trump administration is saying this was in the works, although the fact that it, you know, is making headlines as a hurricane is approaching is certainly notable. I mean, like, why was DHS just able to take money away? Why did Congress give DHS the ability to just move money whenever it wants to?

FUGATE: Well, this went back to the creation of DHS. And in the beginning, they had only the funds that were in the actual components to work with, so they gave them that authority to transfer funds. It's not used often - the idea being it should be extraordinary cases because originally, Congress had budgeted everybody for the funds they thought they would need for that next year. So it's not unheard of. It's happened in the Obama administration.

The optics of it happening during a hurricane, I think, is coincidental. But it is something - I'm actually more worried about the Coast Guard because where FEMA has the disaster relief fund - it's not affecting FEMA's day-to-day budget - they're also talking about transferring money out of the Coast Guard. And I've never known Congress to be able to fund the Coast Guard for all of their needs. And so this is even - you know, for the other components, often, we feel that - when I was there, that - you know, we ended up getting taxed to help support other components after our budgets were set.

GREENE: So I just want to make sure I understand this. You're saying that money coming out of disaster relief might not affect day-to-day operations; FEMA might be in an OK position to respond to a hurricane like this, but that the Coast Guard, if they see money diverted away, might that affect their response to even this tropical storm as it's approaching Puerto Rico right now?

FUGATE: I doubt it would affect that. What it probably would affect more is their shipbuilding and their capital programs, which delays that. And again, that's another area for the Coast Guard, you know, with the icebreaker and all the other issues they face on capitalizing their ships. The biggest problem here for FEMA will be if the disaster relief fund has dropped down to the point where we do have something occur before the start of the next fiscal year, which I understand will probably be a continuing resolution. Congress would have to act and do a supplemental.

And as we've seen over the last couple of years - even all the way back to the Obama administration - Congress has not been real swift on getting these supplementals done. So that's always going to be the question. What happens when we have a major hurricane; they're on recess; FEMA is running low on dollars? What do we do? And for Congress, that means you got to get back in session and appropriate the money. And I guess, to a certain degree, that's why it's - I think people think it's not bad taking money away from FEMA because they know Congress will put (ph) the money back if there's a bad disaster.

GREENE: Oh, interesting. Can I just ask - I mean, you brought up the word optics. I mean, President Trump has obviously taken every opportunity to show the world that immigration is a priority. You have Democrats now making this huge deal, saying that it is appalling to take money from FEMA, especially at this moment. I mean, to be clear, it doesn't sound like this is going to have a significant impact at this moment and this storm. So is this largely political bickering we're seeing today?

FUGATE: Yes.

GREENE: (Laughter) That's a one-word answer. Well, beyond the bickering, is there a psychological impact? I mean, is - could it be a problem if this agency can't inspire confidence if they have a president taking money away at the moment a hurricane or tropical storm is hitting?

FUGATE: Well, there's always a chance that you'll have a storm hit, FEMA runs low on money, something goes wrong, and people say, well, this is the cause of it. I doubt that would happen. I think it's just important to make sure FEMA has the money to operate and right now probably turn our attentions to Tropical Storm Dorian and what it's about to do in Puerto Rico.

GREENE: All right - former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate joining us.

Thanks so much for your time this morning.

FUGATE: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.