Disaster Was His Routine: An Interview With Craig Fugate About FEMA And Louisiana

Mar 30, 2017

As Louisiana recovers from the floods last August, it does so without Craig Fugate. The longtime chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency stepped down - as planned - at the end of the Obama Administration. The Trump Administration hasn't yet chosen Fugate's successor – but it has begun establishing new budget priorities that could matter to Louisiana. 

Reporter Molly Peterson asked Fugate about budgets, disaster mitigation, and how FEMA could have responded better for Baton Rouge and other flood-impacted zones.

[On the President’s budget] President Trump is wanting to “plus-up” defense, and to do that and stay within some sort of budget caps, is looking to offset other discretionary spending. That’s not unusual. In the case of the Obama Administration they were looking to “plus-up” climate change initiatives and had plenty of priorities for funding there. They did not necessarily look to do offsets in other parts of the budget. Ultimately Congress made their own decisions and produced a budget that in most cases did not really acknowledge those requests.

[On the prospect of cuts to FEMA] I don’t get too excited about Presidential budgets anymore having been through enough of them. And in many cases, I find budgets to be more about communicating a President’s intent and desires, but Congress is the only entity that can appropriate funds and pass a budget.

[Among the President’s proposed cuts to FEMA is the Flood Hazard Mapping Program, a tool for figuring out how vulnerable homes, cities and parishes are to floods:] Well, for the National Flood Insurance Program, it is a big deal. Quite honestly, I think the reason it got proposed cutting is, somebody tied it to the word climate change. Which is kind of bizarre to me. If we’re gonna be an insurance company, we need the best data to ensure we’re making the best investment on behalf of the taxpayers and not growing the taxpayers’ risk.

They’re cutting it maybe because it’s visible, and it’s easy to cut and it would not affect response. But think about it, the federal government runs the National Flood Insurance Program. “I’m not going to do updated maps,” is like saying “I’m not going to get an updated physical, ‘cause I don’t want to know how bad it could be.” I mean, that’s kind of a ludicrous way to run an insurance company. I know nobody in the private sector who running an insurance company would say, I don’t want the best information to make my decisions, I’m just gonna guess.

[On FEMA’s biggest stride since Katrina, and how it was visible in the agency’s flood response in Louisiana last year:] We don’t wait to know it’s bad. We want to be as close to the area of impact with the state as possible. And in the case of Louisiana, where this was an event that was not a named storm, but was already occurring, in many cases historically, we would wait till we had done assessments. Well, in the Louisiana Floods [of 2016] it was quite obvious this was a big response operation, so we didn’t have to wait for those assessments. Because Governor Edwards and the team in Louisiana were managing the response quite well with their resources, we went pretty much right into the biggest challenge which was the housing that would be required in the aftermath of that flood.

[On what he wished had worked better in Louisiana flood response:] Because we lost so much housing, our traditional tools of renter’s assistance, putting people in hotels and motels, there just wasn’t enough. Many people ended up in shelters far longer than we would have wanted people in shelters. But the bottom line that you run into is if you lose the homes, there’s no quick way to replace them. It’s really gotta go longer term of, how are we building and where are we building and how will we build better, so that the next flood, the next wind event, the next earthquake doesn’t destroy so many homes that we’re now left with little or no options for the people who have been impacted.

This report was made possible by the Louisiana Public Radio Partnership, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.