Coordinating The Hurricane Relief Effort Harvey Johnson, the deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, talks about the effort that goes into coordinating all of the different agencies involved in the relief effort.

Coordinating The Hurricane Relief Effort

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The many people waiting for Hurricane Gustav to strike today include the deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. His name is Harvey Johnson, and he's one of the senior officials in an agency that was brutally criticized for its response to Hurricane Katrina. Now they try again.

Admiral Johnson is on the line. Welcome to the program.

Admiral HARVEY JOHNSON (FEMA): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are you most worried about at this moment?

Adm. JOHNSON: I'm like you, watching TV to get a sense for what the total impact of Gustav it as it crosses the coast of Louisiana.

INSKEEP: We have been using the figure two million for the number of people who have evacuated. Do you have any sense of how many people have not evacuated and may be in danger from this storm?

Adm. JOHNSON: Well, I think the reports I have seen, or much as you have as well, is that maybe as many as 10,000 people stayed behind. But I'm really pleased to see that two million have evacuated.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the next few hours and days if we can. Once the storm hits, what are the first things that you and your agency have to do?

Adm. JOHNSON: We're focused on life saving. You're going to see right after landfall, as soon as those winds get down in about 30 knots or less, you're going to see Coast Guard helicopters, National Guard helicopters, people in boats, all headed out to get a sense for any people who may still need to be rescued.

So life saving is our number one priority, and then of course looking for damage assessment to get a sense of just what Gustav has done to the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana.

SIEGEL: You must be hour to hour or even minute to minute trying to guess or estimate based on your best information where the worst damage is going to be.

Adm. JOHNSON: It's almost second to second. We're as pensive as most people in America are to get a good sense of how strong Gustav is and just what it's going to do to the coast. But we're also optimistic. We've done a great job of planning. And when I say we, it's not just federal government. It's the state of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, it's their counties and parishes, and it's the individuals who you saw evacuate - they're all very well prepared for Gustav.

INSKEEP: Are you prepared to say that the preparations are better, that the response can be stronger than was the response to Katrina?

Adm. JOHNSON: I don't think your adjectives were quite strong enough to depict the difference between the preparedness, lower level for Katrina, and what were able to do here over the last several days - actually the culmination of weeks and months and years worth of training since Katrina.

INSKEEP: Admiral, NPR's Pam Fessler, who covers homeland security, is in the studio with us, and she's got a question for you.

PAM FESSLER: Yes, good morning, Admiral. One of the things that FEMA has not yet planned for is how you're going to house thousands and thousands of potential victims of the storm. What will you do if it turns out that there is a huge number of people that need housing? Are you going to bring back the travel trailers?

Adm. JOHNSON: Well, what we're going to do is go by the plan that we put in place. In fact, we have thought about this. We have planned for it, so we're ready. If in fact we get the devastation of a Katrina, which we think could happen, we have people in shelters all around the country. We're going to ask those people to stay where they are. We'll probably put them in hotels and motels and take advantage of all the infrastructure that remains - hotels, motels, rental units. And if need be, we'll bring manufactured housing back into the state and use it as a last resort.

INSKEEP: Manufactured housing meaning - could go back to the trailers which seemed to have been a big failure in the last storm?

Adm. JOHNSON: Our preference is to use mobile homes, which we have many thousands of, and contract for some of those Katina cottages that we have tried out since - and you've seen them Mississippi in the days since Katrina. And if we have to go to travel trailers - there's the possibility of doing that, but that's clearly our last resort, and we don't think we're going to get there.

INSKEEP: Harvey Johnson of FEMA, I want to play you a piece of tape, if my might. We were speaking today with Mark Schleifstein, and he's a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He's covered the levee system in New Orleans, and he advices that some of the most vulnerable levees from this storm happen to be the ones that have gotten the least attention.

Mr. MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN (New Orleans Times-Picayune): There's been a heck of a lot of work that's been done on the levee system over the last three years. But in the direction that this storm is coming, the portion of the levee system that has had the least work done is actually at the most danger.

INSKEEP: And he's talking about the west bank, which are some near-end suburbs of New Orleans. And I grant the levees are not your responsibility, but cleaning up afterward would be. Do you have a situation where some areas have been left vulnerable?

Adm. JOHNSON: Well, I think what we have is a levee system that's been tremendously impacted and repaired, but it's not finished. And that reporter is correct, that there are about two or three areas that we're cautiously watching today, and certainly the west bank is one of them.

INSKEEP: So what do you do next?

Adm. JOHNSON: Well, I think the levees are far more strengthened than they were before. We don't expect the levees to fail. But given the strength of the storm and the tidal surge that could come with it, there is a chance that some of those levees could be topped. And by topping, that means water could flow in, but it'll be pumped right back out.

INSKEEP: When you say topped - we should define that. You're talking about a levee not breaking but just the water is a little bit too high. That can be a terrible thing, but not as bad as if the levee breaks.

Adm. JOHNSON: That's correct. The levee will hold - it won't all go to the level of Lake Pontchartrain and be one big lake. There could very well be some water that just overflows inside the levee.

INSKEEP: Harvey Johnson is a Coast Guard vice admiral and deputy administrator of FEMA. Admiral Johnson, thanks very much.

Adm. JOHNSON: Thank you, Steve.

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