Former FEMA Director: 'We've Got to Stop Looking at FEMA as 911'

Susan Jones | September 3, 2019 | 5:33am EDT
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Former FEMA Administrator Brock Long (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

( - As Hurricane Dorian leaves devastation in the Bahamas and now threatens the Southeast coast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency says its team of 4,000 people is ready to respond.

But former FEMA Director Brock Long, who dealt with hundreds of emergency events, including the record flooding in Houston and the hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico in 2017, told CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday, "I think FEMA faces unrealistic expectations by Congress and the American public."

Long said FEMA's emergency managers "bust their rear ends to serve other people." But he also said the criteria for what constitutes a major disaster needs to change, along with people's expectations about what FEMA can do:

You know, if you look at 50 percent of the disasters that FEMA has historically declared, they're less than $7.5 million. And, in some cases, you know, we've got to stop looking at FEMA as 911. This is a partnership.

You know, if we want to get better and become more resilient and respond better, then we have to refocus the training upon how we ask citizens to be prepared, not just going out and having supplies for five to seven days, but be -- you know, teaching them how to become more financially resilient, teaching them that insurance is the first line of defense, not FEMA, teaching them tangible skills like CPR, that when they face active shooter events.

But we also have to bolster state -- state and local capabilities. But, more importantly, until Congress starts to incentivize putting building codes in place, land-use planning in place, incentivizing states and locals for insuring their public infrastructure, FEMA's job is impossible.

So it wasn't a knock on FEMA, it's just we have to set realistic expectations for the agency and really bolster the capability from neighbor helping neighbor, all the way to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Host Margaret Brennan asked Long if he was speaking about lessons learned after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico:

Well, the problem -- what made Puerto Rico really difficult is because a lot of the infrastructure rotted and decayed over a period -- you know, a long period of time. No doubt about it. And if Americans may not remember, but I had to ask for special authority to actually put funding forward on behalf of FEMA to fix Puerto Rico because of that.

FEMA doesn't have the authority to fix infrastructure that's not well maintained. And so when -- when -- when infrastructure is not maintained, the impacts of a hurricane are going to be exponentially worse than what they should be.

So, you know, putting Puerto Rico and that issue aside, going forward, here again, we've got to start electing officials based on building codes and land use planning and those who advocate that and building incentives. You know, start providing more funding to the communities that implement, you know, and implement and uphold stronger building codes, because they work.

Long said if American taxpayers are going to invest billions of dollars into rebuilding Puerto Rico and other places, they should expect that investment to be maintained:

"Congress really needs to focus on making sure that once that infrastructure is rebuilt, that it's maintained for years to come. And I think that's the greatest concern that Congress needs to be focused on.

"And here, again, you know, Hurricane Maria was far greater of an issue than just FEMA's response. And, quite frankly, a lot of people inside FEMA, including myself, believe that we kept Puerto Rico from complete and total collapse," Long said.


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