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FEMA Associate Administrator On Hurricane Florence : NPR

FEMA Associate Administrator Jeff Byard joins NPR’s Audie Cornish to talk about FEMA’s response to Hurricane Maria, and preparations for Hurricane Florence.



AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For more on that and how FEMA is preparing for Hurricane Florence, we’re joined by FEMA associate administrator Jeff Byard.

Welcome to the program.

JEFF BYARD: Thank you. Good afternoon. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today.

CORNISH: So do you at FEMA believe that nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans died as a result of Hurricane Maria?

BYARD: You know, what I believe is that any loss of life is one too many. And we can prevent that…

CORNISH: But we have a president…

BYARD: …To the best of our…

(CROSSTALK)

CORNISH: …Saying that he doesn’t believe that’s the case and that the federal response was a successful one.

BYARD: So you know, I believe that we did a great job in 2017. We provided, you know, a tremendous amount of resources, tremendous amount of support not just to Puerto Rico but to Texas, Florida, the California wildfires. We had a tremendous season last year. So…

CORNISH: Now, earlier this summer, FEMA’s internal report found that before Hurricane Maria that you guys had difficulty getting key supplies on hand in Puerto Rico; you had challenges delivering emergency supplies after; not enough power generators; that specialized disaster staff had been deployed to other storms by the time Maria had struck. So how did you address these issues going into this hurricane season?

BYARD: The best model for emergency response and recovery is definitely, you know, locally executed, state managed and federally supported. That was not the case in Puerto Rico. You know, the island was devastated. Many of the first responders were survivors themselves.

And as far as power, we brought, you know, a number of generators on the island. The power infrastructure itself was not maintained, heavily out of date. And that obviously compounded the problems that we faced. But – and as far as responders not getting in, I assure that all of our workforce is qualified and capable to do the jobs that they are called to do.

CORNISH: What do you say to a resident of Puerto Rico – right? – who has only just gotten power in August who hears you call the FEMA response essentially a success and disagrees, who feels really let down by FEMA?

BYARD: Well, you know, what I would say is we want everybody to recover in a timely fashion. As far as the power, I would ask that they call PREPA. I would ask that they call the power company that was there before and really demand a better service. That would be my take to them as far as power.

But my focus right now and the focus of the agency right now is on those citizens that are being impacted as we speak. So we have over 3,000 staff currently in Puerto Rico who will be there until the job is done.

CORNISH: What were the lessons learned from that 2017 hurricane season, in the end?

BYARD: Well, we have to have a unity of effort in our country when we deal with any disaster but definitely one that’s going to impact multiple states or multiple levels of government. And our unity of effort is centered around two things. The priority is always lifesaving. But the effort is going to be stabilization of safety and security; food, water and sheltering; health and medical; energy, such as power and fuel; communications; transportation; and hazardous waste. To do that, that is an industry-led effort we are now incorporating that industry-led effort into publicly led emergency management. So…

CORNISH: So you’re saying there’s more private industry – whether it be the Walmarts and the Lowe’s, those kinds of things – you expect the private industry to step in a little bit more.

BYARD: No, I think they step in all the time. What we want to do is enable them to get back to what they do on a sunny day. You know, you look at the responses to Texas and Florida and Maria, both in the Virgin Islands and the commonwealth, and you can see where some linkages were missing. And we want to make sure that we close those gaps. And the private sector, you know, they bring a tremendous amount of resources. So that’s a lesson learned. Also, employing the right people at the right time to do the right job – and as you can see with Hurricane Florence, there’s an impact in multiple states. At one point, we had staff and resources in states from Pennsylvania all the way to South Carolina. So…

CORNISH: What’s your biggest concern specific to Hurricane Florence?

BYARD: So you know, we have multiple concerns. You know, you’re still looking at sustained winds – not safe for anybody to be out in. But if you look at the current forecast, there has been no weakening of the surge impacts – 9 to 13 feet of surge in a lot of the areas, 6 to 9 in the others. That is a strong storm to the likes that this part of the country hasn’t faced in many, many years.

Also, this storm is huge. You’re going to have tremendous inland flooding, and it’s going to be there for a while. You know, it’s not a fast-moving storm. It’s not going to clear the area in 12 to 24 hours. So it presents, you know, a lot of challenges. And again, we are in close coordination with the states, both in North Carolina – South Carolina and also Virginia. We’re also engaged with the state of Georgia, who’s currently under a governor’s state of emergency, and any other state that it moves into. So we’re well-positioned, and we’re ready to respond to the needs of our citizens.

CORNISH: Jeff Byard, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BYARD: Yes ma’am. Thank you for having us.

CORNISH: Jeff Byard is associate administrator for response and recovery at FEMA.

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