FEMA Chief Craig Fugate Tours Louisiana Flooding
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There's more rain predicted today for Baton Rouge. And floodwaters continue to rise in some surrounding parishes. At least 13 people have died since last week. Janeek Branch (ph) is one of the evacuees. She saw the water come up to her second-story apartment.
JANEEK BRANCH: People are rushing out of the apartment. It's already too deep. Some people can't even get their cars out. Within that split-second decision of going back to go get my dog, we were trapped. After that, it was strictly accessible by boat.
MONTAGNE: Branch was with her elderly mother that night. She says all they could do was wait.
BRANCH: The water was - may have been, like, three feet away from the second floor. So it was getting to be a dire situation. I had already taken out some of my hammers and took out some heavy items that I thought could help me chop through the roof if I had to.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, luckily, she did not have to chop through the roof. Around midnight, along came the Cajun Navy. That is an unofficial group of neighbors and friends with fishing boats and skiffs who have volunteered to help. Chad Schenover (ph) says that he and some buddies launched their boats in East Baton Rouge Parish.
CHAD SCHENOVER: There was a man on his roof, and he was yelling. We pulled right up to his house. And he was standing on his roof, and he told us that his wife and daughter were in the attic.
GREENE: Schenover says, he climbed out and made his way into the house.
SCHENOVER: Water was up to - I don't know - maybe six feet in there. The sofa is just floating by, and you just push it out the way as you wade to the attic. And he managed to get his wife and his daughter. And we got them into the boat, and we got them off. And they were on their way.
MONTAGNE: There are many Louisianans who have lost nearly everything. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said yesterday that more than 86,000 people have already applied for federal aid. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, said this week that up to $33,000 will be made available for flooded homeowners without flood insurance, provided they're in a parish that has been declared a disaster by the federal government.
GREENE: Now, of course, for many Louisianans, another natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, is hardly a distant memory. Peter Kovacs is editor of the largest newspaper in Louisiana, The Advocate, which ran an editorial this week titled "Vacation Or Not, A Hurting Louisiana Needs You Now, President Obama." Some are reporting that Donald Trump will travel to Baton Rouge later today to tour the flooding. But President Obama is currently on vacation on Martha's Vineyard. And Peter Kovacs says he hasn't heard of a change in his plans.
PETER KOVACS: In fact, I think, he said he isn't coming to Louisiana. But, you know, we have a lot of people in Louisiana who survived Katrina and who remember the problems with the leadership under President Bush and, I think, don't want to see that repeated.
MONTAGNE: So there are many questions for FEMA. And we have its administrator, Craig Fugate, on the line now. He just left Baton Rouge after several days overseeing operations there. Good morning.
CRAIG FUGATE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Now, you know, just firstly and briefly, you were listening there, and I'm wondering what goes through your mind when you hear these really kind of scary stories from flood victims like Janeek Branch.
FUGATE: Well, one of the challenges we have is with, you know, if you had a hurricane forecast and you had a named storm, I think, we'd - you know, more people would have been aware of what the risk was. But the weather service opened up a fairly high risk of serious flooding. It's just was hard to say how deep it was going to be. And nobody, I think, was prepared for that much rain in that short a time.
So I have to give credit, though, to the folks of Louisiana, the survivors and, most importantly, Governor Edwards, his team and the local parish officials for doing a tremendous job in the rescue operations, which, in some cases, has been ongoing most of this week. So there's been a lot of resources committed to still response. We have just now begun recovery. But this was a very challenging large-scale flood event that Governor Edwards and his team were managing. We're in that supporting role, and we're focused on recovery.
MONTAGNE: Well, as you just heard, also this specter of Katrina hovers over flooding in Louisiana. And one of - in our reporting, we've been hearing people who've applied for FEMA support who are now in shelters - and 6,000 people, approximately, are in temporary shelters. What they're asking us is, you know, when can they expect to see the money they'll need?
FUGATE: Well, there's already money going out the door. As quickly as we can get people registered and we can get out and do partial investigations of - you know, making sure the home and everything was in the area of impact, we're getting money out the door. In some cases, we're up to about 90,000. But there's money going out now. Part of the problem's going to be - however, is one of the tools that we would use a lot of times would be rental assistance. There's not that much that wasn't damaged in some of these parishes. So we're having to look at other types of needy assistance, including, as water comes down, how quickly can we get these homes mucked out and get people back in them?
MONTAGNE: Well, something like 40,000 dwellings have been affected so far by these floods. Only about 20 percent of homeowners in Louisiana have flood insurance. FEMA payouts are likely to be significantly lower than the maximum $33,000, so, you know, is that - how much - how helpful is that? And what is your long-term plan for those whose homes are severely impacted by the floods?
FUGATE: Well, you know, we've been through this with Hurricane Isaac. We went through it in floods in the spring. This is one of the things Governor Edwards knows. The FEMA assistance for people that didn't have insurance doesn't make them whole. It's the way we start. And part of our focus is going to be on how much can we do to get people back in their homes. It may not be 100 percent repairs. But the big thing is some of these homes - they had damage - but if we can get in there quickly, we can get people back in. So Governor Edwards is working on getting volunteers to help muck out. So we're working with the team, but we know this is going to be a challenge for a lot of people.
MONTAGNE: All right, well, Craig Fugate is the administrator of FEMA. He's just been in Baton Rouge. We appreciate your joining us.
FUGATE: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.