Natural Disasters and Government Relief Efforts

MS. DIANE REHM

10:06:55
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. This spring, American communities have been hit by one natural disaster after another. Major flooding of the Mississippi, tornadoes in the Midwest and South, and hurricane season is almost upon us. We'll talk about the relief efforts underway, how the nation's emergency management systems are working. Joining me here in the studio, Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post, Barry Scanlon, he's a crisis management consultant and former FEMA adviser.

MS. DIANE REHM

10:07:42
And, of course, throughout the hour, we'll take your calls, your questions, your email. Do join us. I look forward to hearing from you. First, on with us, by phone, from Joplin, Mo., is FEMA administrator Craig Fugate. Good morning, sir. Thanks for joining us.

MR. CRAIG FUGATE

10:08:06
Good morning. Thanks for having me.

REHM

10:08:08
Tell us what you're seeing today in Joplin.

FUGATE

10:08:14
Well, you know, I think the images of the tornado damages that everybody has seen are starting to be replaced by the images of the grieving process, but also the healing process. A lot of volunteers, a lot of churches and faith-based groups, a community that is pulling together and starting to -- the painful process of recovery is occurring now in Joplin. And it's something we've seen time after time this spring from the tornadoes and the floods that have impacted so many places this year.

REHM

10:08:47
And hundreds of people are reported to be still missing. How long are rescue workers going to continue looking for missing persons?

FUGATE

10:09:01
Well, I talked with the governor last night, and one of his goals -- he's brought in additional investigators to help with local officials to get a better determination of how many people are still actually missing versus those that maybe haven't checked in. And then they'll continue to work and look and get into some of the areas that have been heavily damaged that -- most of the areas have already been searched.

FUGATE

10:09:28
This is really, now, trying to get into some of the areas that -- where the buildings had collapsed and check to make sure they are not leaving anybody behind, and then, also, beginning the process of the recovery. So the search is still on, but it's more and more now turning to the grim task of the recovery.

REHM

10:09:49
You know, you mentioned the different figures between those who may still be missing and those who simply haven't checked in. There were reports last night of people who were really upset because they hadn't been able to get enough information about their loved ones. Why aren't people getting the information they want?

FUGATE

10:10:19
Well, I think part of it, too -- and this is something that Gov. Nixon was working on yesterday with his team -- is because there were such a heavy devastation, and people weren't at home -- many people were traveling, they were on the road, they were in different businesses -- and as the tornadoes hit, people lost their communications and haven't been able to reach other. It's become very frustrating.

FUGATE

10:10:43
And one of the things that happened, as people were reporting missing family members, different groups were collecting those numbers, and it gave the appearance of a much bigger number that what was actually missing. So his goal is to really work with local officials and try to determine how many people are still unaccounted for.

FUGATE

10:11:00
And then, also, with the coroner's office, they're working with Health and Human Services teams to help do positive identifications. Again, in these types of disasters, oftentimes people are very, very badly injured. And it's sometimes difficult to do positive identification without DNA.

REHM

10:11:19
So how are people getting the information they want if they say, my loved one is missing, I have not seen any information? Where do I go? What do I do?

FUGATE

10:11:36
Well, the local officials have numbers for people to call into the coroner's office, as well as the Red Cross is working their Safe and Well registry. And, again, they're encouraging people that were in the area to register with Safe and Well to let people know they're okay. And, again, as the governor stated to me last night is he is putting a lot more emphasis to help get these numbers to where we know who is still actually missing versus who has not reported in.

FUGATE

10:12:07
But, now, we can confirm they're okay or we can confirm that they have been -- unfortunately, they're at the medical examiner's office or coroner's office as they go through that process of the identification.

REHM

10:12:20
Craig Fugate, he is FEMA administrator. And, sir, you know as well as I that FEMA has come under a great deal of criticism in past disasters. Does FEMA currently have the resources it needs to do its job now, considering the horrendous number of storms, tornadoes, disasters that have already taken place?

FUGATE

10:12:55
Well, the short answer is yes. And the reason for that is, after Katrina, Congress passed a law, the -- what they call the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, which fundamentally changed a lot of things about how FEMA operated in the resources and tools we had. But the other part of this is we're not the team. We're part of a team.

FUGATE

10:13:16
I think we underestimate how much state and local governments do, plus the volunteer and faith-based community and, now, increasingly more, the business community as part of this team. If this was just FEMA, we would've been overwhelmed. We're not -- it's part of a team, that we are in support of governors. We're leveraging lots of resources across the spectrum.

FUGATE

10:13:35
And so, yes. We have been able to respond to these disasters as well as be prepared for the next disasters, which we don't get a forecast or warning for earthquakes. But we do know this hurricane season is coming up, and so we always keep in the back of our mind, no matter how bad the current disasters are, we have to be ready for the next one as well. And we're doing it as a part of the team.

REHM

10:13:56
So with all the tornadoes, the Mississippi River flooding and the hurricane season coming, even with that government-business community partnership, is FEMA going to be able to do its job?

FUGATE

10:14:16
Well, that's what we're -- I'm mean, we're doing it. And the only real test, I think, that can answer that question is, is do we have another large-scale disaster and how do we perform. I don't think we'll be able to answer the critics until that happens. But we're doing what we're supposed to be doing now. We continue to support a variety of disasters in various stages, from the most immediate here in Joplin and yesterday.

FUGATE

10:14:40
The day before, tornadoes had struck again in Arkansas and Oklahoma and other states. And, again, we continue to respond to these storms. We continue to prepare for the next disasters. But you ask us about FEMA, and I got to turn this around for all your listeners and ask this question. Are they prepared? This is not something that government can solve everybody's problems if people aren't taking responsibility to prepare to the best of your abilities.

FUGATE

10:15:04
And it's not about you're on your own. It's about not competing with the most vulnerable members of our communities. For those of us that can and should have been prepared, who don't, we're stronger and better able to cut in line and get supplies. And we're cutting in front of our most vulnerable citizens. So we really ask people to think about taking time to get your family plan together.

FUGATE

10:15:23
Get your supplies and be ready for disaster so that when disaster strikes, you can take care of yourself and your family, maybe even help your neighbors and allow the team to focus on the most vulnerable parts of the community: our children, our infants, frail and elderly people that just don't have the resources to get ready before a disaster strikes.

REHM

10:15:41
Do you think that most people know how to get ready for a disaster of the likes of which have been almost beyond our imagination?

FUGATE

10:15:55
I think that people that take the steps to get ready do better. I mean, you cannot prevent all of the damages or loss of life. But, particularly those people that had a plan, that knew what to do, had backups for communication if they were separated or travel, certainly do better. And history tells us that oftentimes, the first response is a neighbor helping neighbor. And it's not complicated, but it does take a commitment to prepare yourselves.

FUGATE

10:16:20
And if you want to know where to start, we have a website that starts that process to help you. It's ready.gov. And, again, you know, a lot of these disasters occur sometimes with no warning, sometimes with a lot of warning, such as a hurricane. But it's always important that you need to know what you and your family are going to do to protect yourselves and then how to, you know, take care of yourselves in the immediate aftermath of disaster.

FUGATE

10:16:47
And, again, this is something that it's part of, you know, our ability to respond effectively as a nation is to avoid, you know, this tendency to go, well, somebody else is going to take care of me. That somebody else may be your neighbor, so...

REHM

10:17:02
But we'll certainly put the ready.gov link on our own website as well. But give me just one or two things which you think -- basic things that families need to do to prepare for these kinds of things. You know, you said have a flashlight ready, have a plan in place. But, you know, with the magnitude of these kinds of disasters, it would seem that planning -- except for maybe jumping in the bathtub with a helmet on, how do you plan?

FUGATE

10:17:47
Well, again, that goes back to, you know, if you live in areas where you have tornadoes is to know where the safe locations are in your home or where to get to one and what to do. And, again, even the best plans can't prevent all the tragedies. But I'll give you one example...

REHM

10:18:00
Sure.

FUGATE

10:18:01
...of something that occurs every time we have these is, in the immediate aftermath, communications is very difficult. People oftentimes are not at home, and they haven't thought about how they would get hold of each other or where you would go if you couldn't communicate. So everybody would have a check-in plan or a backup communication plan. And we saw this in Washington, D.C. in the subway accident where people in rush hour -- there was fatalities.

FUGATE

10:18:25
But the cell system overloaded, and people couldn't get through. We saw this in the Tuscaloosa tornadoes. We saw it here, where a lot of times, as much as the tragedy of loss of life, it was the fact that people couldn't communicate and didn't know. And it turns out people were okay. But they hadn't just thought through, if something happens, what are our backup plans, what if we can't get hold of each other...

REHM

10:18:44
All right.

FUGATE

10:18:44
...where are we going to go and meet up after the disaster?

REHM

10:18:47
Craig Fugate, he is administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Many thanks.

REHM

10:20:03
Welcome back. We're talking about the numerous disasters that have occurred over the past few months -- tornadoes, flooding, hurricanes to come. Here in the studio, Ed O'Keefe, he's author of The Federal Eye blog and federal government reporter for The Washington Post. Barry Scanlon is here. He's president of Witt Associates. He's a former adviser to FEMA. The phones are open if you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850.

REHM

10:20:46
Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Barry, as someone who used to work for FEMA, when a disaster like this happens, what's the first thing that FEMA has to do?

MR. BARRY SCANLON

10:21:10
Well, the first thing, Diane, is they work very closely with the governor and the local officials to see what are their immediate needs, especially in a case like this where a tornado -- where there's not a three- or four- or five-day warning like with a hurricane. It's something that they activate the regional offices, try to get people on the ground as soon as possible and do a quick assessment of what are the needs to protect public health and safety.

MR. BARRY SCANLON

10:21:33
So if that local government or state government doesn't have those resources, they're able to bring it to bear as soon as possible.

REHM

10:21:39
I thought it was interesting that Craig Fugate, with whom we talked in the past few moments, the FEMA administrator, kept stressing, number one, what you can do for yourself, number two, something about breaking in lines and trying to best your neighbor. What's going on there?

SCANLON

10:22:04
Well, Craig's done a wonderful job since he's taken over FEMA. And he talks a lot about the whole of community and community resilience, and everybody has a responsibility. When he talks about breaking those chains, if you're an emergency manager, a fire chief or others who are trying to deal with one of these situations, the fewer amount of people that you have to try and help, the better job you'll do, the quicker you'll get to them.

SCANLON

10:22:26
You, obviously, are going to focus on hospitals, children, the elderly, nursing homes and other facilities that desperately need the help of public safety officials. So if families are doing what they need to do, if businesses have prepared all of their employees, the sphere where you have to help people is lessened, and you're able to do a better job.

REHM

10:22:47
Ed O'Keefe, given the numerous disasters we've seen this spring, what's all this going to cost the federal government?

MR. ED O'KEEFE

10:22:57
That is a big unknown, and it's really -- I think an answer won't be known, probably, for years. You know, you can dole out millions of dollars on what they call individual assistance to homeowners who have lost everything or need to rebuild. And, currently, that runs -- I think it's about a few hundred million dollars so far.

MR. ED O'KEEFE

10:23:15
But the big aid, that won't be known for a few more years, is what's called public assistance -- towns, cities, states who ask the federal government to help them pay for school rebuilding, libraries, rebuilding highways, you know, water treatment plants, things like that that were destroyed. In Tuscaloosa, more recently in Joplin, there's been a lot of that, you know, whether it's homes, whether it's schools.

MR. ED O'KEEFE

10:23:36
Tuscaloosa's big problem a few weeks ago in Alabama was that the firehouses and the police stations were destroyed, in addition to schools and libraries and things of that nature. You know, the city can first go to themselves, they'll go to the state and, eventually, they go to the federal government and say, we need X million or billions of dollars to help rebuild ourselves. And that's a process that takes many years.

REHM

10:23:56
How is Hurricane Katrina an example of what not to do?

O'KEEFE

10:24:02
Well, how much time do we have? I mean, I guess -- first of all, the big lesson learned is the thought of planning ahead, of being preemptive. One of the things that Fugate has stressed since he took over is putting a lot more control in the hands of his regional administrators across the country that are stationed in, you know, various cities and have responsibility for about three or four states each, depending on the area.

O'KEEFE

10:24:26
And when, you know, word of bad weather comes, whether it's, you know, we know that there's a large rain system moving through that might provoke tornadoes, we know that hurricanes are coming, those regional administrators and their staffs are told, start coordinating with the city and county and state emergency management offices. Put people in those offices to sort of be their lifeline to Washington and to us to start determining what they need.

O'KEEFE

10:24:47
And let's start deploying commodities that might be needed, water, you know, maybe body bags, things like that, of that nature so that it's there or on its way instead of having to wait three or four days for it to show up after the storm happens.

REHM

10:25:01
But here we are, several years after Katrina, confronting these tornadoes, floods and the like. We heard, during Katrina, President Bush promised everything was going to be rebuilt. We've heard President Obama speaking from Great Britain, talking about how everything was going to be put back in order. How is that possible?

SCANLON

10:25:34
Well, with a catastrophic disaster, of course, it takes a longer time. As Ed mentioned, unlike most tornado seasons, just devastation and the severity of these have been much bigger than most tornadoes. And they've affected far more public infrastructure than normally happens. But to your point, you know, there's two sides of a disaster -- there's the response and the recovery.

REHM

10:25:55
Right.

SCANLON

10:25:56
And they're getting, you know, high grades and doing a good job, working with mayors, working with Gov. Nixon...

REHM

10:26:00
On response.

SCANLON

10:26:01
...on response and Gov. Bentley. But then you have this long chain of, at times, bureaucracy and paperwork and other things that go into the rebuilding of public infrastructure. So it goes back to what Craig Fugate talked about, about being prepared. It's not just a family. It's not just a business.

SCANLON

10:26:18
What we advise governors when we sit down with them or mayors or large university systems is they should have pre-event contracts for the ice and the water that Ed talked about, consultant services, engineering firms, all sorts of things. Have a long-term recovery plan long before disaster happens so that you know -- because in areas of the country, you know you're going to be hit by a disaster.

REHM

10:26:39
But that hole costs money. And where is all that money going to come from? We know about this $1 billion aid package for FEMA. But isn't that primarily for response?

O'KEEFE

10:26:54
It is short-term response, and it's to start paying out individual assistance to homeowners. And this happens pretty regularly in years with bad weather. Congress essentially puts aside its budget cutting appetite and says, look, when there are disasters, we do everything we can. We spare no expense, and we'll pay it out. So this -- the ball started rolling this week on the most recent one. Whether or not it gets passed before the end of the fiscal year so that they can spend the money this year remains to be seen. But, you know...

REHM

10:27:19
And what do homeowners, business owners do in the meantime?

O'KEEFE

10:27:24
They'll start to get money, but, you know, it might not come as quickly towards the end of the fiscal year in September if the money isn't necessarily all there. Nobody is suggesting that it won't be. But if, for some reason, it got held up, you know, certainly checks might not arrive as quickly.

REHM

10:27:39
And in this time of narrowing financial resources, where does that $1 billion aid package come from?

O'KEEFE

10:27:49
Well, they're cutting it out of a loan program for alternative fuel vehicles at the Energy Department. It's like a $9 billion loan program that House Republicans said, you know, is just essentially sitting there, not being spent. And their argument is if we can take it for something that's needed right now and spend it there, better than to have it just sit there.

O'KEEFE

10:28:06
And this is just a House Republican rule, that if you're going to propose new spending, you have to come up with a cut. And in this case, they're proposing that it should come from this Energy Department program.

REHM

10:28:15
Barry, how long does it take a town or a city to recover from something as devastating as what we've seen in Joplin?

SCANLON

10:28:27
It can take five or 10 years.

REHM

10:28:28
Yeah.

SCANLON

10:28:29
Sometimes it's longer. And, you know, we'll hear from the mayor later. But it all depends, of course, on the severity. But when you're talking about a catastrophic event, it's not just helping the individuals because, as mentioned, they will get assistance from FEMA, and they can rebuild their homes. They'll have insurance money and what have you. But it's really about the long-term recovery. How quickly are you rebuilding those schools?

SCANLON

10:28:51
Is it taking you two years or a year? You know, we worked for five years trying to get the money from FEMA with the State of Louisiana for Charity Hospital. So that whole area went without a hospital for years and years, and that's not going to help the economic recovery of that area. So if they can move forward efficiently and effectively, you know, you can lessen that time, make it four years instead of seven years or what have you.

REHM

10:29:14
Ed, you said, in hearing Craig Fugate, he sounded tired.

O'KEEFE

10:29:20
Yeah, I've spoken to him probably about a dozen times in the last, oh, three months or so, and he definitely sounds exhausted after this one. And think of -- I figured this out earlier this week. Him and his deputy, a guy named Rich Serino who used to run emergency management in Boston, have basically hopscotched between these tornadic disasters over the last six weeks, whether it was Mississippi or Alabama or, now, in Missouri.

O'KEEFE

10:29:44
You know, they've been there, or they've returned to make sure that things are going well, all while trying to run an agency that, of course, is still rebuilding and is thinking ahead. Two interesting things that have happened in the last few weeks, that sort of show you that forward-thinking mentality that they now have, the day that the tornado struck Tuscaloosa and Mississippi, there was a 11-state Midwest -- 11 Midwest states were participating in an earthquake drill for the possibility that, once again, there would be tornadoes along the New Madrid Fault Line, which is where there were tornadoes back in the late -- or, I guess, the early 1800s, killed thousands of people, caused, you know, a lot of damage.

O'KEEFE

10:30:22
And they're worried that you know, someday, it might happen again. So these earthquake drills are held all the time in California. They helped organize one this time in the Midwest just to think ahead. Last week, there was a big national level exercise, which is designed to sort of, again, take a bunch of states and cities and game out what might happen if, say, there was some kind of nuclear disaster, terrorist disaster of some kind.

O'KEEFE

10:30:44
Where was Fugate during this? But he was actually in Missouri consulting with Missouri officials about this. And then he headed to Hawaii for meetings there with state officials and had to fly back from Hawaii on Monday to head to Missouri to take a look at the damage. So they're hopscotching all over the country...

REHM

10:30:57
Yeah.

O'KEEFE

10:30:58
...not only dealing with current disasters and previous disasters, but thinking ahead.

REHM

10:31:03
Barry, how do you think Fugate is doing compared with his predecessors?

SCANLON

10:31:09
I think he's doing a much better job. I think -- you know, I worked for James Lee Witt when he ran FEMA for President Clinton. And what James Lee and Craig have in common is they were both emergency managers, the only two to take over, other than Dave Paulison who ran FEMA at the end of the Bush administration.

SCANLON

10:31:25
And you need to have been in the shoes as a local official, as a state official, that when you're going in to assist and support Gov. Nixon or the mayor of Joplin, if you haven't been in that position, you're -- it's very difficult to know how to help them. And they know how to do that. The other thing that -- you asked about the long-term resiliency and how long it takes. You know, Ed was talking about all the different things that FEMA are doing.

SCANLON

10:31:49
Well, imagine if you're a governor or a mayor or a business owner. You have your full-time job. They now have two full-time jobs, and which of us could do that? One, they're running their city or their county. At the same time, they've got to rebuild their city or county. That's two full-time jobs that, you know, is very difficult.

REHM

10:32:06
All right. You mentioned Alabama and Tuscaloosa, Ed. We have a call from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Helena, you're on the air.

HELENA

10:32:19
Yes, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.

REHM

10:32:21
Surely.

HELENA

10:32:22
I have good news and bad news. The bad news is the devastation that is horrific that everyone has seen who's been watching television and reading the newspaper. The tornado came from south end of town and ripped through public housing, a part of Johnson Interstate, lovely, old middle class home areas and neighborhoods, which faculties in the University of Alabama live in, through -- destroyed two elementary schools, fortuitously missed the hospital, and then created a terrible widespread of destruction in low income neighborhoods.

HELENA

10:33:06
We have had many, many issues. We've also experienced the tremendous number of missing, which gradually declined incredibly, so that there were very few missing. At the very end, it was down to seven, but which also took a long, long time to get through. The good news is that our mayor and city council were wise enough to attend a training session in how to manage emergencies in which they took, I don't know, 60 to 70 of the local officials to attend this several-day workshop on how to deal with them.

HELENA

10:33:45
The tornado took down the emergency management building. It took down fire stations, and yet, somehow, our young mayor has been able to pull together. And most of us really are quite amazed at the progress we've made.

REHM

10:34:00
I'm so glad you called, Helena. You probably, Ed, have heard much of the same thing.

O'KEEFE

10:34:08
Yeah, and I saw that devastation firsthand and know that it really was quite indiscriminate, you know, whether it was a fast food joint or a public housing unit close behind it or, you know, beautiful suburban neighborhoods. It definitely hit everything.

REHM

10:34:21
Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Rochester, N.Y. Good morning, Jim.

JIM

10:34:34
Hey, good morning. I just wanted to say, you know, I am a member of the local Monroe County Amateur Radio Emergency Services. There's one thing that everybody, I don't think, realizes is the government expects you in an emergency to be able to be self-sufficient for 72 hours. I very much encourage put together a bag with supplies, water, medical supplies, anything that you can put in a bag and grab and go.

JIM

10:35:05
Preparedness is something everybody should be interested in. You know, I have those things myself. I've got a disabled child, so I've got medical packs ready to go. I've got my radio, of course, and I've got power supplies, batteries for the flashlights. It's something that's simple, that everybody can do it for themselves, and...

REHM

10:35:23
And should.

JIM

10:35:24
…I just wanted to make that comment.

REHM

10:35:25
I'm glad you did. Barry?

SCANLON

10:35:27
Yeah, he's exactly right. And the other thing that Craig Fugate mentioned was a sort of a family notification plan. The only thing I would add to the list, and, again, there's a longer list on ready.gov as was mentioned, but it's having all your pertinent family information, whether it's your Social Security numbers, your bank accounts, your insurance forms.

SCANLON

10:35:49
And they even say to, you know, do a little video of your house just once so you know what all the contents of it are. I mean, there's little things that you can do to make sure that you're prepared to deal with this when it happens as a family.

REHM

10:36:01
Tell me about the Stafford Act, Barry, and why you think it falls short. First of all, what is it?

SCANLON

10:36:11
Well, the Stafford Act was passed by Congress 20, 30 years ago, and it governs all of the money that FEMA distributes, and at times other federal agencies distribute, after the president declares a federal disaster. So when the governor asks for assistance and the president signs that declaration, FEMA's spigots, if you will, are turned on to help with the individual assistance programs that Ed mentioned, which are for families, as well the public assistance, which is the rebuilding of all the infrastructure.

SCANLON

10:36:40
So those programs go on. They're run well by FEMA. They're run in partnership with the state. But what gets lost in some of this is there's a host of other federal programs, whether it's the small business administration, housing and urban development -- a host of other federal agencies that have programs. But when a mayor is dealing with such an issue as this, they have no resources from a federal level or direction from a federal level.

SCANLON

10:37:05
And Craig Fugate has made some changes in this in the last couple of years. But they really have a long term recovery plan that helps them get small businesses reopened, get, you know, a lot of critical infrastructure, whether it's energy resources, hospitals, others -- 85 percent of that's in private hands in the United States.

REHM

10:37:25
Barry Scanlon, he's president of Witt Associates, former adviser at FEMA. When we come back, we'll hear from Keith in Gainesville, Fla., and Phillip in Louisville, Ky.

REHM

10:40:03
And joining us now from Greensburg, Kansas, is the town's Mayor Bob Dixson. Greensburg, Kan., was hit by a tornado in 2007. Good morning to you, Mr. Mayor.

MAYOR BOB DIXSON

10:40:19
Good morning, Diane. Thanks for having me on your show.

REHM

10:40:22
Surely. Tell me how much of Greensburg was destroyed in the 2007 tornado.

DIXSON

10:40:31
Ninety-five percent of our town was leveled to the ground by an EF5 tornado with sustained winds of over 210 mile an hour. So we basically lost everything: schools, hospitals, residence, businesses, everything.

REHM

10:40:47
And that includes you?

DIXSON

10:40:50
Yes. I, along with all of our other citizens, lost my home, all my property.

REHM

10:40:57
In the aftermath of that tornado, what was your experience with FEMA?

DIXSON

10:41:04
We had a great experience with FEMA. And I would like to just say what the administrator Fugate said, is it's -- FEMA doesn't come to do everything for you. We -- you have to, after disaster, understand that you're not entitled -- as citizens of the United States, we're not entitled to have the government take care of us. This entitlement thinking has got to go away. It has to be about partnerships and relationships.

DIXSON

10:41:36
FEMA is there to support you through state, local and individual entities, public-private partnerships within the community for that recovery and then rebuilding, so their integral part -- FEMA, EPA, HUD -- all those agencies are just partners in the process. They're not the answer to everything. They can't come in and do everything for you. They come alongside and walk with you and partner with you, but you have to be an active part of it.

REHM

10:42:13
So tell me what Greensburg is like today.

DIXSON

10:42:18
Well, four years later -- and your previous guest I was just listening to, and I really appreciated what they say, that it's a process. It does take time. It takes five, 10 years to get (word?) things done. But when you talk about schools and hospitals -- in 2010, we opened a new hospital, and we started students in our brand-new school. So we were in temporary facilities for three years before we started that.

DIXSON

10:42:50
Our downtown is starting to take shape. We have 65 percent of the homes built back, tremendous progress in four years. It's been a lot of hard work. It's been a lot of working together with public-private partnerships. We still have a ways to go. We're still in the process of cleaning up, as far as properties that people have just walked away from. And there's basements that need dug out and driveways and -- to get them to a clear lot. So...

REHM

10:43:28
And what about your population compared to back then?

DIXSON

10:43:34
Well, we're back to about 65 -- 60 to 65 percent of the population we were prior to the storm.

REHM

10:43:42
So the rest of those people simply moved away.

DIXSON

10:43:49
Yes. A lot of our older population moved to be closer to their children...

REHM

10:43:55
Sure.

DIXSON

10:43:55
...and grandchildren. Some of the younger families that -- their employment was lost because the business was totally wiped out and hasn't built back yet. We lost those. Those people that rented homes that couldn't afford to, in their budgets, to build a new home, moved to neighboring communities.

REHM

10:44:15
I see. So, Mayor Dixson, what kind of advice would you give to the people of Joplin, Mo.?

DIXSON

10:44:27
The number one thing is be there for each other. It's about the human spirit and about taking care of each other. Take time to get through the grieving process before you get to the recovery process. You have to deal with your own emotions and the community emotions. And that's why I always caution people, don't make life decisions rapidly.

DIXSON

10:44:57
Allow yourself the time to be assisted and -- by FEMA, by state agencies, by the governor's office there in Missouri, by the church community. Allow that all to happen, and then you can make those life decisions.

REHM

10:45:19
Bob Dixson, he is the mayor of Greensburg, Kan., which was destroyed in a 2007 tornado. Thank you so much for joining us, Mayor Dixson.

DIXSON

10:45:33
Thank you, Diane.

REHM

10:45:34
All right. And let's turn now to Moore, Okla. Good morning, Jim. You're on the air.

JIM

10:45:43
Good morning, Diane. I just had two examples that -- like the FEMA director had mentioned, personal responsibility before a storm. Like, I spent money to buy a storm shelter. I got neighbors that don't. And then when a tornado is coming through, they're scrambling, wanting to, you know, find other people that have one to go in their shelters. And that really aggravates me.

JIM

10:46:09
Instead of choosing to be prepared, they'll spend their money on recreational vehicles or something like that. And the other example that aggravates me is homeowners insurance. Now, our home is paid for, but homeowners insurance is a priority every year. And it -- I just don't understand when a disaster strikes and someone says they didn't have homeowners insurance.

REHM

10:46:32
Barry, how much of a difference can insurance make in a devastating event, like a tornado?

SCANLON

10:46:42
Well, it can make a huge difference. You know, the big insurance companies, Allstate and others, have done a fabulous job over the last 10 or 15 years having their own catastrophe response teams, getting in the area, helping those families recover as soon as possible. So, as the gentleman stated, making sure that you've got, you know, an appropriate financial safety net for your family, should something like this occur, is very important.

REHM

10:47:05
But you know, I mean, one thing Jim said, he took the time to build that shelter. His friends didn't. But isn't helping each other part of what we're there to do?

O'KEEFE

10:47:23
I suppose. And, you know, I hope Jim might invite one or two neighbors in, at least, with him if there's nobody else around. But, you know, it doesn't have to be a storm shelter. I think every expert I talk to says, you know, as long as you and your family understand, tornado is coming, get into this room or head to the basement, or make sure we grab the certain things if we can, or if we're not home here's where we meet.

O'KEEFE

10:47:47
Having those simple discussions and remembering it when it happens, you know, has a potential to really make things that much easier. But the mayor made a very good point, too, I think, is, you know, you can prepare. But you also have to realize it's going to take a long time for these things to happen.

REHM

10:48:02
And what makes the difference between recovering quickly and never fully recovering?

O'KEEFE

10:48:10
Gosh, that might be more of a question for Barry. But I suppose, you know, I think having a lot of organization done up front and having a lot of, you know, coordination, whether you're a mayor working with your governor and working with the federal government and your lawmakers in Washington to make sure that you're very quickly doing the necessary things that make the process easier down the line.

O'KEEFE

10:48:30
And we've seen some pretty good examples in recent years of state governments that very quickly were able to get Washington to act on their behalf because they had done their homework in advance and knew when this happens, we have to do X, Y, and Z and then help them out.

REHM

10:48:42
And do it quickly.

O'KEEFE

10:48:43
And do it quickly. Absolutely.

REHM

10:48:44
And isn't that what has Fugate has said?

O'KEEFE

10:48:47
Yes, yes. That, you know, he encourages people, if you're impacted by a storm, you know, start applying for assistance immediately. You know, get on to fema.gov or call the phone numbers that are being passed out and get yourself in the system because the sooner you're in the system, the faster you're going to get money and assistance.

REHM

10:49:05
All right. To Dana in Eastham, Mass. Good morning.

DANA

10:49:12
Yes. Yes. My point is I would like to take issue with the gentleman who was calling earlier. I mean, I feel bad that he lost everything. But it seems like the whole program, actually, seems geared to getting the government off the hook when -- and not holding the government accountable during these disasters, from Katrina to current. Government has an important role to play. Yes, we should help each other.

DANA

10:49:38
But, you know, when government is not being accountable and not responding quickly, like Katrina -- that was a real fiasco, and not only that, according to Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, FEMA was not allowing the people who were sheltering after Katrina to talk to reporters. My point is that government has a role to play, and government also has to be accountable. You can't just push this off on community, you know, like people holding hands and bonding.

REHM

10:50:13
Ed.

O'KEEFE

10:50:14
Well, not to defend Fugate, but I did talk to him at great length last fall about what happened after Katrina. At the time, he was a state emergency management director in Florida and had very ably handled the situation in Florida and was sending assistance to Mississippi soon after. But he said he was kicking the walls in Florida watching what happened in Louisiana, and he was very upset by it.

O'KEEFE

10:50:37
And he understood very well that FEMA had dropped the ball. And right after Katrina, before they hired the head of emergency management in Miami, they came to Fugate and said, would you want to run FEMA? He said, no, because you're not going to let me run it the way I want to run it. And the way he wants to run it is the way he's doing it now, which is, you coordinate with the local folks.

O'KEEFE

10:50:54
You get equipment and, you know, assets and your people in place if you can, ahead of disasters. And you tell people to prepare, prepare, prepare.

REHM

10:51:02
Thanks for calling, Dana. Here's an email from Leslie, who says, "What about the disconnect between the ideological stance of politicians and the voters who elect them, especially in the South and Midwest who demonize government and demand spending cuts, tax cuts, program cuts? But in an emergency, the first place people look is the government to coordinate relief efforts and, of course, to make people whole financially." Ed.

O'KEEFE

10:51:37
I will point out the -- the most recent example of this, I think, is Gov. Perry in Texas, who was very upset that he didn't get a full-blown disaster declaration for dozens of wildfires across the state, said that, you know, Washington wasn't doing its part to help the people of Texas. The White House very quickly pointed out that it had provided wildfire grants to help firefighters in the state fight those fires.

O'KEEFE

10:52:00
And they said, look, compared to the other disasters going on in the country right now, Texas has this under control and doesn't need the full-blown federal assistance. Two of the biggest conservative critics of Washington, generally, Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, the Republican there -- both of them have been raving about the response from Washington.

O'KEEFE

10:52:18
And they're two governors who do their homework in these situations. You know, they know, having dealt with Katrina and Rita and other disasters, you have to get the paperwork processed quickly. You have to coordinate with Washington. And, yes, they may be the type of Republican who wants to cut spending in Washington, but they understand that if you're going to make requests to Washington and you need to work with Washington, they have an obligation to do their homework and make sure they're doing everything they can as state governors before coming to Washington as well.

REHM

10:52:43
And here's an email from Patty in Falls Church, who says, "Speaking as a former Oklahoman, I'm appalled by the huge loss of life in these tornadoes and frustrated by how preventable most of it was. Why don't the states campaign to get everyone to build storm shelters? Why are developers allowed to build housing developments and apartment buildings without storm shelters? The problem is compounded by FEMA guidance to get in the bathtub in the event of a tornado that leads folks to think a bathtub is a reasonable alternative to a storm shelter, and it's not." Barry?

SCANLON

10:53:32
Well, you know, that comes to local decision-making, as the email writer stated, that it's up to local mayors and building officials or even a state official to decide to put that out there. Of course, the reason is cost, but it's not too great a cost. In the '90s, we have a disaster-resistant community program at FEMA called Project Impact. One of our initiatives was the safe room initiative, which put out designs for how people could have a tornado safe room in their house that was impenetrable.

SCANLON

10:54:01
We had one situation that someone built one and, literally, the picture was the whole house is gone except for the bathroom or the bedroom that they had reinforced properly. So if you're talking about $100,000 house, it may only cost an extra $1,000, $2,000. Not everyone can afford that. But with new construction and other incentives, people can and should do this.

REHM

10:54:22
But it's also a matter of where you build, isn't it? And risky areas -- some areas are more risky than others, Ed.

O'KEEFE

10:54:32
Absolutely. And that's why, you know, in flood-prone areas, you know, they're requiring people, that you have to be registered with the National Flood Insurance Program. You know, if you're taking the risk in building in Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, you know that, you know, a hurricane is likely to come at some point. You've got to take precautions. And, you know, I think the fact that the government is starting to say to people, you know, you should be preparing as much as possible. Yes, we will provide assistance.

O'KEEFE

10:54:57
But I think what alarmed you at the beginning was the idea of people jumping in line. I think what Fugate means there is, if you have the means and you are perfectly capable of preparing, you should because there are going to be people who can't -- the elderly, the disabled, the poor. Those are the people, the most vulnerable, that the government really needs to work with first. If you have the money and the time and the resources, do something to prepare yourself.

REHM

10:55:19
And here's an email from Laurie, who says, "My mother has Parkinson's disease. I've tried from time to time to obtain an extra week or two of medications for her in case of emergency. I have found it impossible to be prepared in this way due to the fact that the drug insurance companies do not allow anyone to have extra medications on hand." I think that's a really important point. What do you do about that?

SCANLON

10:56:02
You know, I don't know exactly. I haven't heard of that issue before, but I think...

REHM

10:56:05
Well, somebody ought to think about it.

SCANLON

10:56:07
Yeah, I think that...

O'KEEFE

10:56:08
Absolutely.

SCANLON

10:56:08
...they could talk to their local health official. But, also, you know, there's -- a lot of the volunteer agencies, whether it's the Red Cross, Feeding America, others who do so much work in the midst of disaster response and recovery that also help with the pharmaceutical and other issues, I would think that that's something they might be able to assist with.

REHM

10:56:27
But that's after the fact.

SCANLON

10:56:30
Well, they have pre-disaster programs as well...

REHM

10:56:32
Okay.

SCANLON

10:56:32
...preparedness programs.

REHM

10:56:33
All right.

O'KEEFE

10:56:33
Laurie, this is Washington. Find the lawmakers of the states that have been hit by this, talk to them and see if they can work this in the legislation. I guarantee you there's someone out there looking for these practical solutions, and that would be something that's worth doing.

REHM

10:56:44
Ed O'Keefe, he is author of The Federal Eye blog and federal government reporter for The Washington Post. Barry Scanlon, he is former advisor at FEMA and president of Witt Associates. Thank you both so much.

O'KEEFE

10:57:03
Thanks for having us.

SCANLON

10:57:03
Thank you, Diane.

REHM

10:57:04
Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

ANNOUNCER

10:57:07
"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Toby Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is drshow@wamu.org. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.

Our address has changed!

The Diane Rehm Show is produced by member-supported WAMU 88.5 in Washington DC.