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What it'll take to come back from hurricane Ian, according to FEMA


And, of course, the agency at the heart of what will be a massive recovery is FEMA. We spoke with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell yesterday while she was on the ground in Florida, touring damaged areas with Governor Ron DeSantis. I started by asking her about FEMA's top priorities during this latest natural disaster.

DEANNE CRISWELL: So yesterday, I had the opportunity to survey and assess the damages with the governor. And we are here to support his priorities. And one is making sure that they are supporting their ongoing search and rescue efforts for those areas that have had the greatest impact, and two, that we're working to help them with the restoration of the water situation in Lee County as well as the power. And then beyond that, though, Ayesha, we're already beginning our planning processes for what the recovery is going to look like. So while we're still saving lives and stabilizing this incident, we know that we're going to have a long and complex recovery. So we're putting the measures in place right now to make sure we've got the right people on the ground to do that in the days to come.

RASCOE: Can you give us an example of how FEMA right now is stabilizing the situation or some specific examples of, you know, power restoration or something like that?

CRISWELL: Absolutely. What we have done is we have provided personnel in each of the different branches that the state has divided into. And so we've got our team of leadership that's embedded with the local leaders to understand what their needs are. But we're also still making sure that we've accounted for everybody. So we have urban search and rescue teams on the ground. We've actually brought in more so they can do this primary search that's going on right now to make sure that all of these homes have been checked and that everybody has been accounted for that was in the path of this storm.

RASCOE: You talked about still doing rescue efforts and also doing just basic discovery. A lot of deaths have been from drowning. Are you expecting to find more deaths as the water recedes and these searches continue?

CRISWELL: Well, we really want to make sure that we've got enough people out there that are supporting the state in their efforts to do search and rescue to get as many people that need help as possible and hopefully not find any more impact or loss of life. Whether we're going to find any more in a storm of this magnitude - there's always that potential. And so we're going to continue to send people out there to try to find the people that need our help. And we're going to provide that support until we know that everybody's been accounted for.

RASCOE: Have you been talking to people directly impacted by the storm? And is there any person or story that has stuck with you?

CRISWELL: You know, when I was in Lee County - I believe it was in the Pine Island area - you know, there was a family there that had five businesses, and all of them have had some level of damage or destroyed, right? And so we know that they're recovering, well, not just their personal losses for their homes; their livelihood and their businesses have been destroyed. You know, when I was in the Orlando and the Saint Augustine area yesterday, what was really encouraging to me is I went and talked to one very young family. And, you know, they were talking about how they evacuated. And by the time they came back, their neighbors were already in there helping them clean up their home.

RASCOE: You know, I understand you're in disaster mode right now, but how are you planning on supporting these communities in the long term after the flood waters recede?

CRISWELL: This has been a catastrophic disaster. So we know that this is going to be a very long recovery, and it's going to be a complicated one. We have already assigned a federal disaster recovery coordinator to help lead the recovery planning efforts and where we bring in all of our federal partners to support the long-term needs to help these communities rebuild. And I had an opportunity to talk with the state person leading this. And they already have a plan in place in how they want to approach this.

RASCOE: FEMA has been criticized in the past for being slow and bureaucratic. And when you look at the recovery after other major storms, there has been criticism, whether it's Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Katrina. What are the lessons learned and being applied when it comes to Hurricane Ian?

CRISWELL: I can tell you that I think it starts at the top. And President Biden had given me his direction when I first took this position that we would be aggressive, that we would be leaning in and we would make sure that our states and our communities had everything that they needed to respond to these disasters and help them recover. And that's exactly what we have been doing, and that's what we'll continue to do.

RASCOE: Just for homeowners out there who may be listening, what advice or guidance are you giving them?

CRISWELL: First thing that they need to know is that they need to contact their insurance companies, right? Insurance company is the first line that they need to go to see what's going to be eligible. And then they need to take photos and document the damages that they've had, especially as we see places where the water has receded and they start to do repairs. And if you're in one of the eligible counties, they can register for assistance. They can go to disasterassistance.gov. They can use the FEMA app, or they can call 1-800-621-FEMA - that's 1-800-621-3362 - and begin the registration process with us.

RASCOE: And what about those who don't have insurance?

CRISWELL: That's where FEMA's programs will help jump-start their recovery. We certainly can't meet all of their needs. But we will be bringing in our federal partners. We're going to be bringing in our nonprofit partners, nongovernmental associations, to help meet some of the unmet needs through either if they are underinsured or not insured or what FEMA programs can cover.

RASCOE: That's FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell speaking to us from Florida.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

CRISWELL: Thank you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.