FEMA Braces For Post-Hurricane Sandy Mess

Official Washington shut down today for Hurricane Sandy, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was on the job. It's mission: preparedness. Among other things, the agency is stockpiling water, meals, blankets and cots.

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While most workers in the federal government stayed home today and will do so again tomorrow, one agency remains open: FEMA. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is tracking the storm and getting ready to respond once it passes. NPR's Brian Naylor has more.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Right now, the federal response mode for Sandy is preparedness. FEMA says it has stockpiled over 600,000 liters of water and almost half a million meals, as well as blankets and cots. Large industrial-sized generators are being moved to help institutions such as hospitals and water treatment plants to keep operating once the power goes out. President Obama, at a midday briefing at the White House, says the government has done about all it can to prepare.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm confident that we're ready, but I think the public needs to prepare for the fact that this is going to take a long time for us to clean up. The good news is we will clean up, and we will get through this.

NAYLOR: Once the storm passes, FEMA will move from preparing to responding. FEMA administrator Craig Fugate says the government is partnering with big-box stores to make sure relief supplies are available in the communities that need them. At a conference call with reporters today, Fugate was asked what most worries him about the massive storm.

CRAIG FUGATE: ...people who didn't evacuate and Coast Guard and other responders having to go out in harm's way to rescue them and, two, the overall impacts of the storm surge, particularly in the more populated areas, you know, monitoring very closely New York City and the subway system and then the overall impacts from the power outages and how widespread that is.

NAYLOR: Utilities in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast have been bringing in crews from outside the region to help get the lights back on. One thing no one can answer is how the huge storm will affect next week's election. Before coming to the Obama administration, Fugate was director of emergency preparedness in Florida. In 2004, he dealt with four major storms before that year's election. Hurricane Charley damaged polling stations. Fugate says FEMA's lawyers have been working on the question, but that it will largely be up to the states to take the lead.

FUGATE: From the experience in 2004 and other disasters that have occurred during federal elections, we are providing the information to the team to make sure we're responsive to states' requests.

NAYLOR: The president has already signed disaster declarations for states along Sandy's path. Such declarations entitle them to federal money up to 75 percent of their costs. Fugate says FEMA has $1 billion in its disaster relief fund and more coming from Congress. So for now, he says, money should not be an issue.

FUGATE: So we see no limiting factors for response activities, nor do we see any limiting factors for the existing disasters we're responding to. The concern will be the impact of the storm and recovery rebuilding efforts if that would require any additional funding.

NAYLOR: And down the road, there could be funding problems. If the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration take effect as scheduled at the end of the year, FEMA could face nearly a billion dollars in cuts. That could affect rebuilding efforts, but that's a problem for another day. For now, FEMA officials are most concerned with dealing with this storm. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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