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FEMA Administrator Discusses Ida Preparations 16 Years After Katrina

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we've been reporting, Hurricane Ida made landfall this afternoon in southeast Louisiana as a Category 4 storm. And it continues to lash the area with strong winds, heavy rains and dangerous storm surges. Earlier, President Biden visited the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, for a briefing on the situation. And here's a little of what he said after that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And to the people of the Gulf Coast, I want you to know that we're praying for the best and planning - prepared for the worst. As soon as the storm passes, we're going to put this - we're going to put the country's full might behind the rescue and recovery.

MARTIN: FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell is with us now to tell us more. Administrator Criswell, thank you so much for talking to us on such a busy day for you.

DEANNE CRISWELL: Thank you, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well, today is 16 years to the day when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. And as I'm sure you know, the agency was heavily criticized for being caught flat-footed. So first, I wanted to ask, how has FEMA prepared this time to, quote, "put the country's full might behind the rescue and recovery," as the president said today?

CRISWELL: Yes. I mean, it's quite amazing that it's 16 years to the day that we have another major hurricane hitting that part of Louisiana. You know, we got a heads up on this when we talked with the National Hurricane Center on Tuesday, when it was still just a wave, to let us know that, hey, there was the potential for a significant storm. And we started to move resources into the area on Tuesday and knew that this was going to intensify very rapidly, which it has done. And so we continued to move resources until it wasn't - was no longer safe. We've got three staging areas set up across Louisiana and Alabama and over 2,000 personnel that are ready to respond and support the needs that the states may have.

MARTIN: And Ida has been called an extremely life-threatening storm. What - where do you think is the most danger? What are you most worried about today?

CRISWELL: This is going to have widespread catastrophic impacts. We are not only just having Category 4 winds - which, by the way, made landfall as a Category 4 and is still a Category 4 as it's moving up towards Baton Rouge. So it has not reduced in its strength yet. It's going to have intense rainfall that's going to cause life-threatening flash flooding in several parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, perhaps even Tennessee and West Virginia later in the week.

And we have the storm surge - right? - up to 15 feet, 16 feet of storm surge in some spots. And so I don't want people to think just because you're not on the coast, that you're in the clear, that - you may have impacts. And so it's really important that people know where they are in the - in relationship to the storm, what their risks can be. And they need to take precautions to make sure they're keeping themselves and their families safe.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of safe, as the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 health crisis, New Orleans isn't seeing the worst of the storm at the moment. But it's being affected just as a city is in the midst of a COVID-19 surge. Officials decided not to evacuate local hospitals for a variety of reasons. But, I mean, how is FEMA prepared to help local hospitals, given that some may already be overwhelmed with COVID patients?

CRISWELL: Yeah. The hospital system is certainly stressed. And we have been working with Louisiana to help relieve some of the stress that they were experiencing in the hospitals as a result of COVID. You know, so what that means is we do have some additional personnel that are in the area, supporting these hospitals right now. But we are also surging in - and what's in the staging area is additional ambulances, both ground ambulances and air ambulances, so we can move patients from one hospital to another within the state. But we're also making plans to evacuate patients out of state if needed.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, and obviously this is a bigger conversation which I hope we'll have at some point, but scientists tell us to expect more intense and more frequent storms as a result of warmer temperatures and climate change. FEMA is on the front lines of responding to these disasters. What do you think is needed to better handle this new reality?

CRISWELL: This is definitely our new reality, right? The climate change, climate crisis is the crisis of our generation. And even though we're seeing more frequent and more severe storms, what worries me, too, is this rapid intensification. This is something that we haven't seen in the past. But last year and this year, we've seen these storms go from nothing to a Category 4 in a matter of days, which is really limiting the amount of time that state and local officials have to prepare and warn people. And so that's one of my biggest concerns. You know, what we need to do is we need to be able to invest in mitigation to help reduce the impacts from these storms. We need to anticipate what we think these storms might be 10 years from now, 20 years from now, not just here on the coast, but you're seeing it with the wildfires in the West...

MARTIN: OK.

CRISWELL: ...Also intensifying. So...

MARTIN: All right. I hope we'll talk more about that in the future. So good luck today. That's FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell. Administrator, thank you so much for talking to us.

CRISWELL: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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