Congress

FEMA ready for devastation in Alabama, despite administrator’s recent resignation

“We stand ready to assist as needed and requested,” a FEMA spokesman said.

Residents and volunteers clean up tornado damage on March 4, 2019 in Beauregard, Alabama. At least 23 people are confirmed dead following Sunday's tornado outbreak of violent storms across southern Alabama and Georgia. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it is ready to assist Alabama residents recovering from devastating tornadoes, even though the agency’s administrator resigned less than a month ago. 

A cluster of tornadoes ripped through the Southeast Sunday. The most vicious storms upturned Lee County in Alabama with 170 mph winds, leaving a trail of destruction nearly a mile wide. Twenty-three people died. 

“I have not seen this level of destruction ever in Lee County, and that covers a span back, I know, for about 50 years,” Sheriff Jay Jones told NPR.

Just three weeks ago FEMA Administrator Brock Long resigned from his post at the agency. Peter Gaynor, was named to serve as acting administrator upon Long’s departure. 

Long faced scrutiny for using taxpayer resources for commutes from Washington, D.C., to his home in North Carolina and anger for the agency’s flat-footed response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. 

Long deflected culpability for the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in Puerto Rico after Maria in a television interview last year, saying “the numbers are all over the place.”

Asked how the FEMA would respond to the aftermath of this week’s tornadoes adequately, so soon after the departure of its chief, a spokesman replied that it is “in close coordination with state emergency management officials in Alabama and we stand ready to assist as needed and requested.”

“We have deployed a FEMA liaison and an Incident Management Assistance Team to the Alabama Emergency Operations Center as the state continues to gather information and assess the impacts from the recent tornadoes,” the spokesman continued.

The spokesman also pointed to a statement made by Long following his resignation in which he expressed confidence in acting administrator Gaynor.

When the tornadoes hit, lawmakers had already been discussing a disaster relief package for past emergencies, including in some of the same parts to the country.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, who is a Republican from Alabama, said Monday evening that he had just spoken with the Senate leaders, as well as the senators from Georgia, about the next steps.

“There’s a lot of meritorious stuff in it,” Shelby said of the potential package.“Of course, if the train’s moving, a lot of people want to ride, we all understand that.”

Shelby said he needed to see what the House wanted to include in the package, as well.

Earlier in the day, Shelby told reporters that ideally, something could move before senators leave for a recess the week of St. Patrick’s Day.

“Sometimes you have to create a disaster fund, just like for the hurricanes. We’ve been talking about that. For wildfires and all the fires and losses in California. We’re working on that right now. We’ll see what happens in my state of Alabama, but it’s bad, it’s a tragedy. A lot of people lost their lives, lost their property,” Shelby said.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said at a press conference Monday that she is “working with FEMA to craft a request for an expedited disaster recovery declaration,” and that President Donald Trump had vowed to support the request.

Lee recounted Trump saying in a phone call, “of course you’ve got my support to Alabama to the state I love. You folks in Alabama are wonderful people. And surely in your time of need, I will support you.”

Trump’s wholehearted pledge of support to recovery efforts in Alabama, a state he won by 28 points, contrasts starkly with his defensive posture during Hurricane Maria and the California wildfires last year.

“Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money,” Trump said of California officials, threatening to withdraw funds away from the response to the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. 

Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico Sept. 20, 2017 and was still largely without power and basic services when Trump tweeted Oct. 12 that the island wouldn’t be getting federal aid forever.   

“...We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever,” Trump tweeted in October of 2017.

The president did not make similar statements about FEMA response in Texas and Florida. Those states also were hit with large-scale hurricanes around the same time but went for Trump in the 2016 election.

“The president has politicized recovery efforts in a way we’ve never seen before,” Rafael Lemaitre, who was FEMA’s director of public affairs under President Barack Obama, told the Washington Post.  “FEMA needs to be as much of an apolitical agency as possible. It shouldn’t matter whether you live in a red state or a blue state.”

FEMA is asking that news organizations share the following safety information:

  • Visit www.safeandwell.org to report yourself safe or look for missing loved ones.
  • Do not drive around barricades. Limit travel in affected areas to allow local crews to assess damage.
  • If your neighborhood was damaged, do not return home until local officials tell you it’s safe to do so.
  • You are the help until help arrives. Check on your neighbors if it’s safe to do so.
  • Text, don’t call. During times of disaster response, cell towers may be damaged or busy.
  • Stay tuned to official social media channels for trusted information about your area.
  • Do not touch downed power lines. Assume all downed power lines are energized.

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