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FEMA Official On Dealing With Hurricanes, Fires And Pandemic At Once

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Megafires continue to burn in the West. Meanwhile, as Gulf states begin to assess the damage from Hurricane Sally, several other storms loom in the Atlantic. When it comes to natural disasters, it has been a challenging year for many Americans. Yet in the future, this may just be a typical year, due to global warming. To get a sense of how the Federal Emergency Management Agency is helping with the recovery from such widespread destruction, we have MaryAnn Tierney on the line. She's a regional administrator with FEMA.

MaryAnn, welcome to the program.

MARYANN TIERNEY: Thank you for having me.

PFEIFFER: And I want to get a sense from you of how FEMA prioritizes its disaster relief work. So let's look at Sally. It's left about a half million people without power. Some places got more than 2 feet of rain and now have extensive flooding. How does FEMA decide what to do first and what's its biggest priority?

TIERNEY: Well, from COVID-19 to the wildfires, floods and tornadoes that have happened this year, as well as the recent hurricanes in the Gulf and storms that are looming off the coast, thousands of FEMA employees are currently activated and deployed to support individuals and their communities as they respond and recover. And I do want to take a moment to recognize them and thank them for their efforts. FEMA has a robust system in place to monitor events and then deploy people as needed. We have teams at the ready, and we have teams deployed today throughout the country responding and helping people recover.

PFEIFFER: And how do you decide what you do first when you're overwhelmed - potentially overwhelmed by a situation like this?

TIERNEY: Well, the first thing that you do in any emergency is you have to assess the situation. And from there, you can identify what the needs are. We do that by talking to governors and state officials, as well as local officials. And then we activate resources across the federal government. It's not just FEMA. Emergency response is a team sport. So it's us with our federal partners. State agencies, the nonprofit sector and the private sector all play a critical role in responding to emergencies.

PFEIFFER: And helping guide you in what you do - sure. You mentioned COVID-19. Even without that, this would've been a tough year, just given the size and number of natural disasters. Now mix in the coronavirus and trying to get people to safety without being infected. It's even more difficult. How would you say the coronavirus has affected federal disaster response?

TIERNEY: Well, coronavirus, like everything else, has impacted what we're doing. And there's three things that I really want to focus on to help people understand what we're doing and what we need them to do to be ready. The first thing is we need to act earlier. So for example, in a storm, making evacuation decisions, things like opening non-congregate shelters - we're making those decisions earlier. We also need people to be acting earlier. If there's an evacuation decision for your community, don't delay evacuating. And don't let coronavirus be an impediment to evacuating. If you're in immediate danger, you need to seek refuge as quickly as possible.

The second thing is you need to consider COVID in your planning. We're doing that at the federal level. State and local officials are doing that. And we need people in the - out in the public to do that as well by having additional supplies in your go kit that address coronavirus, like face masks, hand sanitizer. Thinking about where you may evacuate - what you would've done pre-COVID may not work in this environment. The people you may evacuate to - they may not be able to accept you into their home. They may be immunocompromised. They may be in a hot spot. So those are things you need to be thinking about.

We're also considering the health and safety of responders and also thinking about social distancing in our operations. And then we need to be delivering our services in a different way, so thinking about how we assess damage, how we deliver assistance like commodities - you know, food and water - thinking about how we coordinate with agencies where we can't convene in a big operations center with a hundred people and then leveraging technology.

PFEIFFER: Also sounds like you're saying there's some personal responsibility here. Be ready. Don't just wait for people to save you.

TIERNEY: Yes, people need to be ready. And that's not just in the coronavirus. It's in any disaster. People need to be prepared, and there's really simple things that people could do. This - September is National Preparedness Month, and this is a really great month to learn more about how to prepare. You could do that by going to ready.gov or downloading the FEMA app.

PFEIFFER: MaryAnn, after a bad year of hurricanes and fires in 2017, FEMA put out a report admitting it was short-staffed. It also called on state and local governments, even private citizens, to join first responders and help with lifesaving activities, like using their boats to rescue people stranded in floods. That was to supplement FEMA being stretched too thin to provide an adequate response on its own. Is that still the agency's stance?

TIERNEY: Well, I think if you think about emergency response - and I've been doing this for quite some time - neighbors are your first responders. Like, whether it's a tree falling on your house or a flood or a fire, neighbors are usually the first people that come to help you. And so it's not - it's - I don't think it's out of the ordinary to ask individual citizens to do something that they would normally be doing in an emergency, which is helping each other.

PFEIFFER: Earlier this year, President Trump diverted nearly $50 billion from FEMA's budget to help fund COVID jobless benefits. In about 20 seconds, could you tell us if that leaves FEMA with the resources it needs to handle the current crises?

TIERNEY: FEMA's current disaster relief fund - it has ample funding in it for us to respond. We've demonstrated that because we are responding today, and we are ready to respond to whatever is next.

PFEIFFER: That's MaryAnn Tierney, regional administrator with FEMA.

Thank you for taking time to talk with us.

TIERNEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.