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FEMA's Role In Responding To Disasters


Harvey's floodwaters are receding, and that means more residents have been able to return home to see how much they have lost. As the long process of rebuilding begins, many people are hoping the Federal Emergency Management Agency will come through for them. And let's talk with someone who knows well what FEMA can and can't do at moments like this after disasters. Craig Fugate ran the agency under President Obama and oversaw FEMA's response to Hurricane Sandy, among other disasters. And he joins us via Skype.

Good morning.

CRAIG FUGATE: Good morning.

GREENE: You know, when I was down in Houston last week, I was struck because so many people - I mean, many of them frightened about the future, many of them having lost so much - I mean, in some cases, everything - they would keep bringing up FEMA as if they would be their savior, hoping that, you know, FEMA would help somehow. Can the agency meet those big expectations?

FUGATE: Well, they can meet the immediate needs, I think, from, you know, providing rental assistance, or getting people, yeah, someplace to stay and the financial assistance there - they can. But in the rebuilding part, FEMA's programs are limited, as designed by Congress.

So FEMA's not going to make people whole who did not have flood insurance. And I think that's, unfortunately, what many people are starting to realize as they go through the process of registering for assistance - of not having insurance is going to make this much more difficult.

GREENE: So if you didn't have flood insurance - beyond, I mean, finding a place to be in the immediate future - are you basically on your own?

FUGATE: No. You need to register with FEMA. There's - Congress wants us to, you know, make sure that we're providing assistance to people but not supplanting the need for flood insurance. So your first steps are, register with FEMA, go to disasterassistance.gov or call the 1-800 number - 1-800-621-FEMA - and start your registration process. And it's going to be based upon what your needs are, what kind of assistance we - you know, FEMA can provide. The first thing is - is Small Business Administration disaster loan. So if you're a homeowner, you're going, why is SBA going to help me? Well, they make...

GREENE: ...Because you're not a business, yeah.

FUGATE: Yeah, they make - and this is one of the things they do a lot in disasters. They make low-interest emergency disaster loans, which are probably, for some people, going to be one of their best paths forward. It's going to give them enough money to repair and get back in their homes. It is taking on more debt, but it is a fixed, low-interest loans. It's an emergency program that SBA runs. And that will be the first step.

If you didn't qualify for SBA, then FEMA has grants that cap out about $34,000. But the reality is, for most people, they're going to probably get six to 7,000 to 8,000. That's about what average is. But each case is based upon what the needs are. So start the process by registering with FEMA, but understand that the tools may be SBA disaster loans or grants, in addition to providing temporary housing assistance.

GREENE: You know, I just want to play a little bit of tape here. This is from CBS' "Face the Nation" yesterday. It's the current FEMA director, Brock Long, talking about the situation right now.


BROCK LONG: This is a wake-up call. People cannot depend solely on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be responsible for a majority. You know, states do a lot of work, but I think that we all have to collectively sit down after this event and figure out how to collectively improve.

GREENE: Craig Fugate, it might surprise some people to hear the current FEMA director saying we've got to sit down and figure this out. I mean, after all these disasters - many, you've been through - what - why hasn't stuff been figured out?

FUGATE: Well, it's the - I guess you have to go back to, what is the role of FEMA? Is it designed to replace the need for insurance, or is it designed to provide a lifeline to the next steps? Historically, when we have these big disasters, FEMA deals with the initial needs. But other agencies, like Housing and Urban Development - community block development grant dollars are one of the ways that Congress has directed funds back into states to help rebuild homes that weren't insured and to help stabilize the housing markets.

So it's really - I think, you know, going back to all these disasters is a fundamental question. Do we want the federal government to pay for all disaster costs and not have any insurance requirements? Or do we want to provide incentives and ways to help people begin recovery, but look at other federal programs that actually deal with longer-term issues, such as HUD, for recovery? And that was the lesson we learned from Katrina is, you can't have one agency that's got all the answers. We have to really - we're bringing the federal family together - and look at all the programs that are - that can be out there.

GREENE: How do you think Brock Long's agency is doing so far? How would you grade FEMA in response to Harvey?

FUGATE: I don't issue grades. And during this response, you know, a lot of things that are going on - it's a disaster. We're going to do - you're going to see a lot of after-action reports. We always learn from these things. But I think the critical thing is, is we're moving - we're - still got response operations, we still have flooding - but as we start moving into recovery is, the initial steps of getting where people are going to stay - as they've talked about there in the school district, getting schools open, starting the initial recovery.

And for people, it's like, right now, did I have insurance? And if I didn't, what do I do? Get your house mucked (ph) out, apply for assistance, and begin that process. This is not going to be quick, and that's why we need volunteers to donate, generously, their time and their money to help rebuild Houston and the other areas impacted.

GREENE: We just have a few seconds left. What's it like to be a FEMA director at a moment like this when you have so many people relying on you?

FUGATE: It's a heavy lift, but you've got a great team. And you're there to support the community, the governor and that state.

GREENE: All right, Craig Fugate is the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, joining us on Skype to talk about FEMA's response to Harvey right now. Thanks for your time this morning. We appreciate it.

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