The Washington Post

Napolitano: Federal storm response sensitive to state budget crunch

(Alabama residents search through what is left of their homes. / AP)

It’s not clear if Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano knew of the impending military operations to kill bin Laden, but she appeared singularly focused on the federal government’s growing disaster response in southern states as she walked neighborhood streets Sunday and met local residents and their political leaders.

As she wrapped up her tour of the Pratt City neighborhood of Birmingham, The Federal Eye asked Napolitano how she plans to track the disaster response in the coming days. Our brief Q&A appears below:

Question: You said earlier that you can’t really describe this destruction, but give us a sense of what’s on your mind as you look around?

Napolitano: Obviously sympathy for survivors. The first two women we met lost their mother. They were a block away trying to find things that had blown out of her house. You know, that’s the number one thing, the sympathy that goes with that. In terms of response, I think debris removal, power restoration, which is going pretty well. The power companies do that and we had 600,000+ without power yesterday, now that’s down to 400,000. We’re told that by Wednesday, 95 percent of the power will be restored.

Debris removal, the landfills are not going to be able to take all of this, I don’t think, so we have to find some place to haul all this and deal with that. That’s going to be tough, because you can’t start on the reconstruction of a house until you get all of this out. And also on some of the power restoration requires debris removal.

What will you be watching for in the next few days in regards to FEMA’s progress?

I’ll be talking to FEMA and will be getting regular updates from Craig Fugate and all the states. Remember there’s flooding in Missouri and the Dakotas and we’ve got a lot of disaster activity in the country right now. Texas, with the fires there, New Mexico. But our focus here will be dealing with disaster declarations as they come in, making sure disaster assessments are done as quickly as possible. And focusing on those declarations so we can focus on that part of the process.

Also keeping people in their houses and getting them repaired or getting them into rentals as soon as possible.

This administration has been particularly sensitive to getting disaster response done quickly after Katrina. Is there something you’re particularly sensitive to in the coming days? You’ve been a governor, for example, so you’ve seen this from both sides.

We have to be very sensitive to what resources these states and counties can bring to bear. We’re many years into a recession. State and city budgets are stretched, so we’re going to have to be sensitive to that and their capabilities.

Are you prepared in those situation to give a little more money if you need to?

That will surely be case-by-case, but I think that the overall goal is to get recovery as quickly as possible. When you have something this big, I would just caution again that it’s not going to be overnight. The people are going to be part of the team. The people who are here just will stay with it and keep moving.

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.


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