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FEMA Chief: Isaac's Slow Track Means Slow Response


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We've been hearing, all morning, reports of Hurricane Isaac coming ashore along the gulf coast, and we're going, now, to Craig Fugate. He is the FEMA Administrator, the Federal Emergency Management Agency - and he is spending the morning on the gulf coast. Mr. Fugate, where are you now?

CRAIG FUGATE: We just got to Baton Rouge, we were over in Mississippi yesterday. And we're going to meet up with Governor Jindal and his team today.

INSKEEP: So, what have you seen in the last 24 hours?

FUGATE: Rain, and lots of it. Unfortunately, this is a slow-moving storm. So, not only do we have the coastal effects, which you've heard reports of, we're expecting heavy rainfall and flooding to continue, well inland, as this storm continues to move very slowly across the region.

INSKEEP: So when we hear reports of Plaquemines Parish, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, flooding - as we have heard this morning - that just may be the beginning, you're saying.

FUGATE: That is the beginning, and this was something the Hurricane Center was very concerned about storm surge in these coastal communities. Now, as this storm moves ashore, that storm surge is not going down because the storm is so big and so slow-moving. But now we're adding to this, power outages and heavy rain, isolated tornados, as this moves in, led across a large area.

INSKEEP: Is it your sense that everywhere that needs to be evacuated, has, for the most part, been evacuated at this point?

FUGATE: Well, that was the orders that were given and many people heeded those. We do know, however, people stayed behind. And our concern is that it's very treacherous out there, rescues are going to be delayed, as well as other response activities, because this storm is moving so slow.

INSKEEP: So, what kind of resources do you have on hand at this moment?

FUGATE: Well, there's been everything from search and rescue, ambulances, to basic commodities - water, food. Generators have been stocked. But the problem we're going to have - and this is not just for FEMA, it's everybody - is the storm's moving slow, so it's going to be a slow response until it's safe to get out and move about. So we're just asking people, if you're somewhere safe, stay there. But until the storm moves out, everybody from the power crews on down, is going to be a very slow response until the weather improves.

INSKEEP: I don't want to turn you into a weather forecaster, but what is the assumption you're working with about how slow is slow - by which I mean, how long is it going to be before you can really get in there and help people?

FUGATE: Well we think that, you know, conditions are continuing to deteriorate. And here in Baton Rouge the outer bands are starting to reach here. And we're going to see areas with 24 or more hours of tropical force winds and heavy rains. Again, we won't wait for the sun to shine, but typically for electrical crews, it's very dangerous for them, when the winds are blowing this hard, to even begin to even make the basic repairs.

INSKEEP: Mr. Fugate, you mentioned that you're meeting with Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana. You've been meeting with officials in all three states that you've been visiting. What have the governors been telling you that they need from the federal government?

FUGATE: Well primarily, it was on the front end, it was looking at search and rescue capabilities. So here in Louisiana, the U.S. Coast Guard has got the lead on the federal response for coordinating our urban search and rescue assets. And then the other thing has been, as the storm moves through, with widespread power outages, is going to be supporting them with commodities as they begin access the impacts of the storm.

INSKEEP: I'm remembering that, during and after Hurricane Katrina, there was a lot of unhappiness between federal, state and local officials; a lot of finger-pointing along the way. Do you feel that the various levels of government are working together any better this time around?

FUGATE: Well, the lesson we learned is we couldn't wait for the storms to hit to show up. So we've had our teams here in Louisiana and the other states - Florida, Mississippi and Alabama - since before the weekend. But our goal is to work as one team, and you know, people want to talk what worked, what didn't work - we'll do that later. Our big goal right now is to make sure we're moving as quickly as we can to support survivors.

INSKEEP: Well, that's your goal, but I'm just curious how you feel that people are working together?

FUGATE: Well again, from Governor Scott in Florida, and Governor Bentley yesterday, they were both pleased with our response. And again, I'll be meeting with Governor Jindal this morning. And that's part of the reason I'm here, is to make sure we're doing what we need to do to support him and his team. We work for them in these disasters.

INSKEEP: Well Mr. Fugate, thanks very much.

FUGATE: All right. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Craig Fugate is the FEMA Administrator. He is in Baton Rouge Louisiana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.