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Spring Disasters Bring Out FEMA's Best Response


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Violent storms in deadly tornadoes tore through towns and cities in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri this week killing more than a hundred people, leaving vast areas of devastation. The largest, most severe of the tornadoes struck Joplin, Missouri. When the storm had passed, it would become known as the deadliest single twister in this country in six decades.

KYLE CARDER: We could see clouds swirling around, and that's when we ran down into their basement.

BRANDON MCCOY: All the windows started shaking, and it was just - you couldn't see past the windows; there was so much debris. And then all of a sudden, the windows blew outwards and then the tornado picked it back up and it went back inside.

TIFFANY STORY: That is the stairwell. That's where we were all hiding. It took everything I could do to hold him on the ground. I almost lost him.

SIMON: Voices of people in Joplin, Missouri. Their stories and images from their devastated communities are echoed in other parts of the country that have also been hit by violent storms this spring. A scale of destruction stretching over many states is a challenge for federal officials who are trying to handle multiple disasters at once.

Craig Fugate is FEMA's administrator. He just returned from Joplin and joins us in our studios.

SIMON: Mr. Fugate, thanks so much for being with us. This must be a busy time.

CRAIG FUGATE: It has been unfortunately for us.

SIMON: And what did you see in Joplin?

FUGATE: Many homes you wouldn't recognize or even recognize there was a home there given all the debris. And the hospital that was impacted again, heavy devastation in a very concentrated area. And it's somewhat deceptive because you're outside of that. As you're driving in, you see little or no damage and all of a sudden everything is destroyed. There's not a lot of minor damage.

SIMON: You've had all these tornadoes. You've had Mississippi River flooding. FEMA in any danger of running out of money?

FUGATE: The funds we have right now will support immediate response. And that's really been key throughout the spring, is there's not a limiting factor on the initial response to these. But we also haven't gotten completely yet what the recovery and rebuilding costs will be, because in many cases, the states and locals are still dealing with the most immediate issues. They haven't gotten down to, well, this fire station has been heavily damaged or destroyed, we need to rebuild it, do we have a price tag yet? So as those numbers come in and we'll have a better idea what the rebuilding costs will be.

SIMON: So I don't have to tell you, Mr. Fugate, there are more than a few unscrupulous souls who view federal assistance and local assistance as an opportunity for plundering. What kind of guarantees do you have in place that try and work against that?

FUGATE: Well, yeah, everybody wants 100 percent guarantee and, you know, we look to minimize the impacts of waste and fraud. So what's been done since the Katrina era has been really to make sure that as people register with FEMA we do a inspection. We actually send somebody out to where they live. We actually verify you live at that address, we look at the damages before we start determining what assistance you may need.

And this really I think goes back to making sure that a person applying on behalf of a family is actually tied to a physical location there and can demonstrate some proof that they actually lived there; a driver's license, a utility bill. So were not just having people show up and claiming a residency, trying to apply for assistance.

SIMON: But a lot of people lose that kind of stuff in disasters, right?

FUGATE: Well, that's true and that's why we work and this is not to preclude people but also make sure that we have a reasonable assurance you actually live there.

SIMON: How do you balance short-term relief versus longer term assistance in rebuilding?

FUGATE: Well, when you've got a lot of these going on you've got to kind of look at them in what is it going to take to get to a point of stabilization? And you really focus its first on the life safety. And then what we call things like life-sustaining, which are things like the most immediate needs. And then you start looking at what are going to be the steps you have to give and do for people to move a little bit further along, such as temporary housing or renter's assistance, getting debris cleaned up so that they can start the process of rebuilding.

And then you get into now, what wasn't insured? How much is this public infrastructure? And are we going to rebuild it where it was? Do we need to build it back in a different location? Do we need to build it back hopefully better? Particularly mitigating against the effects of the storms, do we make sure that we're not just rebuilding things as they were but hopefully making them stronger against future disasters. So, that process will take some time. And as we get a little bit further into the response. I mean, it's hard to believe that it's only been 30 days since the tornadoes broke out in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and North Georgia. And now we have Joplin. So these have been very close together. So the numbers for recovery are yet to be determined because we really are still, in many, cases just getting to that initial phase of the recovery.

SIMON: In April, of course, a rash of tornadoes barreled through Tuscaloosa and other places in the South, and some people, according to reporters, are still in shelters. What kind of efforts are going on to try to get them into mid-term and long-range housing?

FUGATE: With these tornadoes I think it's been a big challenge and we identified this very quickly was it's going to be housing. You know, the preference is if we have the ability is to give people the renter's assistance so they can rent something and stay in the area while they rebuild or recover. But when you have that many apartments and that many homes destroyed, that oftentimes is not going to be available. So you end up doing other things such as temporary housing units, bringing in manufactured housing or other things to provide a place until people get to where they're going to be rebuilt.

SIMON: These are the wagons that we've seen in places like that?

FUGATE: Yeah. But this, again, the lessons of Katrina, we've learned that we want to move away from some of the travel-trailer project type where you put it all in one place and really not create that kind of environment, but really, you know, deal one-for-one if your house is destroyed, you need a place to stay while you rebuild. Can we put something on your lot? That keeps you in your neighborhood and gives you a chance to, you know, continue to work on your property.

SIMON: Tell me about the specter of Katrina when it comes to your agency? A lot of Americans, and I have to tell you, lost faith in the agency.

FUGATE: We will always be judged against Katrina. Everything we do will be compared against Katrina. And until there is another disaster as big as Katrina there will be those that doubt or have concerns or questions about our ability to function. You know, I can dwell on that a lot more I can say that's behind us, we have to keep facing the future, we have to keep getting better and we have to focus on the disasters at hand, understanding that you have to prepare against a catastrophic disaster. And so, when you have a lot of activity like we've had, as, you know, as traumatic as it's been, and as unfortunate in the loss of life has been so grave, you have to keep thinking, what about the next disaster? And that next disaster could be an earthquake with tsunami...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

FUGATE: ...It could be this hurricane season. It could be a variety of larger scale events that have impacted even more people than these tornadoes and the floods have.

SIMON: Craig Fugate is the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Thanks so much.

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