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FEMA head talks about storm recovery efforts


People across California are cleaning up wreckage and debris after nine atmospheric rivers drenched the state in just three weeks. President Biden surveyed some of that damage outside Santa Cruz yesterday.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We know some of the destruction is going to take years to fully recover and rebuild. But we got to - not just rebuild. We got to rebuild better. We got to rebuild better.

SHAPIRO: Deanne Criswell heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency and was with the president yesterday. Thanks for joining us.

DEANNE CRISWELL: Hi, Ari. Thanks for having me on today.

SHAPIRO: Will you just begin by describing what you saw with the president?

CRISWELL: Yeah, absolutely. I had the opportunity, actually, to go visit the area the weekend before, and I visited Merced County as well as Santa Cruz County. And really, there's just a wide variety of different impacts across the state of California, from agricultural impacts to small businesses that have been destroyed, homeowners and schools that have been closed. And so we're really seeing, you know, quite a diversity in the types of people that have been impacted and the types of damage as a result of these, as you said, nine atmospheric rivers that have gone through California.

SHAPIRO: When the damage is that geographically spread out and takes so many different forms - from hitting agriculture to homes to businesses to schools - how do you even begin to mobilize a response?

CRISWELL: Yeah, we work really closely with the state of California. California has a lot of capability, and we'd been working side-by-side with them even before the president made the disaster declaration. We've had teams that have been embedded in the state operations center so we could understand what their potential needs would be, which allowed us to pre-stage some of our commodities as well as some of our other resources. And now, we're working with them to assess the damage and just going county by county to see what those impacts are. You know, there's been a lot of even landslides, and so some parts of the state are not even accessible yet.

SHAPIRO: The president said 500 FEMA employees are in the state right now, with food, water, tens of thousands of blankets and cots. Do you have a sense of how much aid has been distributed so far?

CRISWELL: Yeah. So as of yesterday, we have just over $500,000 that has gone out to individuals to help them start their repair process. That number is going to continue to go up, especially as we added more counties and we continue to do assessments. That's just for the individuals themselves. I expect the numbers to be in the hundreds of millions for the public infrastructure damage that we're seeing, as well as some of the agricultural damage.

SHAPIRO: As we are talking about California, parts of Alabama and Georgia are also recovering from major storms that battered communities in the south. How is FEMA helping out there?

CRISWELL: Yeah, I mean, it was really quite the weekend, where the president had three major disaster declarations within two days - right? - California, Alabama and Georgia. We have staff on the ground in both of those areas - in Alabama and Georgia - over 100 personnel in each of the states. We already have people that are registering for assistance, and we're going to continue to do the same thing that we're doing in California. We're going to work with our state officials, our state partners to assess the total impact of the damages and then make sure that we're working together, bringing in the right federal partners to get them on the road to recovery.

SHAPIRO: Three major disaster declarations in two days. As disasters like this become more frequent and more intense, do you think the FEMA model still works, or does the system of emergency relief need to adapt to a warming planet - to a change in climate?

CRISWELL: You know, I think that, where we are at, we are going to continue to respond. But we have to break away from this emergency management model that's really focused on response and then recover and then repeat. And we have to put a lot of our efforts in the mitigation side, right? It's part of the Emergency Management Foundation. It's what we do. And that's, you know, looking at the future - not just the historical impacts from the types of weather events we've seen in the past - because we can see from this they're changing.

SHAPIRO: You talk about mitigation. What exactly does that mean?

CRISWELL: Mitigation are those measures that we can put in place to reduce the impacts from weather events, right? So it could be as simple as putting in and increasing the resiliency of levee systems to protect communities. And we want to work with those communities so they better understand what they can do - what threats they're facing - to put the measures in place to reduce those impacts.

SHAPIRO: FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell, thank you so much.

CRISWELL: Oh, my pleasure, Ari. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.