Obama's Brazil Visit Overshadowed By Libya

President Obama is in Brazil this weekend, discussing trade and political issues with the Brazilian leadership. However, events in Libya are overtaking his talks with Brazil's leaders about trade and forging a new relationship between the U.S. and Brazil. Host Liane Hansen talks with NPR's Ari Shapiro, who is traveling with the president.

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

Before last year, Haiti wasn't prepared at all for an earthquake. It hadn't experienced a major one since the 18th century, and its poverty stricken citizens were more concerned about basic needs.

The devastation in Haiti and the widespread destruction following Japan's earthquake and tsunami, raise questions about America's readiness for catastrophe. The federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina back in 2005 exposed major shortcomings in the country's ability to respond quickly and effectively to major disasters. So where do we stand now?

Craig Fugate is the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. And he's in our Washington studios.

Welcome to the program.

CRAIG FUGATE: Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: I'll start with the big question: Is FEMA prepared for the next disaster?

FUGATE: Well, you know, when everybody says what's the next disaster - let's put it in the backdrop or the context of what we're seeing in Japan. And the answer is we're much better prepared than we were from Hurricane Katrina. But one of the lessons that we learned is we have to look at not just what government is going to do but the whole team, including the private sector, volunteer and the faith-based. But also recognizing that many of us need to prepare to the best of our abilities.

HANSEN: One of the lessons from Katrina I think is the idea of coordination. And it didn't seem to be then enough coordination between agencies. You testified before a Senate committee this past week and your written statement said: FEMA is not the nation's emergency management team; FEMA is only a part of the team.

So, be specific. How does your agency coordinate with the response teams at the state and local level?

FUGATE: If you think about you want to have one person in charge or one agency in charge of disaster, you create the single point of failure. And not all disasters require a federal response.

So our role is FEMA, on behalf of the president and the secretary of Homeland security, provide the full coordination of the federal team at a governor's request. The governor is responsible for coordinating the entire state range of their resources at the request of a mayor.

So when people ask who's in charge? Why isn't somebody in charge of this? It's a very simple answer: It's the elected leadership at that level of government that's managing that disaster. So it is the mayor, the governor, and ultimately the president in supporting them but not in charge of that disaster. That's our job to facilitate and coordinate that.

HANSEN: You know, it's often the surprise event that that catches people unawares and can turn into catastrophes. How vivid is your imagination when you are plotting out certain disaster scenarios?

FUGATE: It's not so much a vivid imagination. As we look at a lot of our historical events, and we put it in the context of what it would look like today? And then we take some of the theoretical things, such as what happens if a terrorist attack occurs?

What we learn is you can not plan to what you're capable of doing. You have to plan against the events that could happen and build systems that start with that and can scale down; versus that you going to scale up from small disasters and be successful in a catastrophic event.

HANSEN: But wasn't failure of imagination part of the explanation for the Katrina effort?

FUGATE: Well, again, there is, you know, I think there was systemic failures across government. One of which Congress addressed was the idea that FEMA would have to wait for a governor to request assistance to begin moving stuff. And also the fact that FEMA was accused of, you know, for a variety of reasons, not having supplies quickly and having to do all this stuff to get ready.

We've actually got authorities that Congress has given us, which we exercise when the tsunami warnings were issued for the Hawaiian Islands and the West Coast of the United States. We weren't waiting for a governor's request. We were sending supplies and moving supplies out of warehouses to start that response. Just like we're doing right now with the Midwest floods, we know that we're going to have a significant flood spring because of what the weather service is saying. So we've set up what we call an ISB, or initial staging base.

WE'RE moving stuff out of these warehouses up closer to where it may be needed this flood season, without actually having a formal request yet.

HANSEN: Considering the fears in Japan now about uncontrolled radiation from the failed nuclear power station, is your agency prepared to handle a nuclear emergency?

FUGATE: Well, this is one of the responsibilities that FEMA has in our preparedness program for nuclear power plants. Every commercial nuclear power plant in the United States has emergency plans that surround that plant that are built upon local and state response with federal support. So while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the primary responsibility of working with the plant operator if something was to happen in the plant, part of those regulations that we wrote after Three-Mile Island required that FEMA work with state and locals to develop plans based upon having to evacuate; having to take all the protective measures, including monitoring and decontamination; and making sure the food supply is safe.

So these are the things that are around every commercial nuclear power plant in this country. There are exercises and drills held every year to ensure that we can execute plans if something happens.

HANSEN: Do you think the average American is adequately prepared for a disaster?

M: No. But I also recognize that for most people, even seeing what's seeing happening in Japan is it won't happen here. And given everything we're dealing with, I think sometimes we tell people you need to get prepared because of that. And they go: Well, that won't happen here; that such a low probability of an event.

HANSEN: do you have the ability to let your family know you're okay when you're at work, when you're at school, when you're at home?

Work on a family communications plan and then start from there. Go to our website Ready.gov and take those steps. But start first with a family communication plan. It pays off with everyday events.

HANSEN: FEMA administrator Craig Fugate. Thank you for coming in to our Washington, D.C. studio.

FUGATE: It was an honor. Thank you.

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