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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
July 31, 2006

Press Briefing by FEMA Director David Paulison
Filing Center
Coral Gables, Florida

11:15 A.M. EDT

DIRECTOR PAULISON: Good afternoon. Hot enough for you? It's my home, and even living here my whole life, it's still sometimes tough to get used to the heat. And without that ocean breeze, it would be kind of unbearable.

Let me just do a couple things. Let me walk through how we got where we are and what we've been doing inside of FEMA ,and then just open up the questions. And you can't hurt my feelings, you can't embarrass me, I'm way beyond that. So you can ask whatever you think you need to ask.

When I was asked by the President to come in and step in and take over FEMA, first as an acting and then as a permanent position, I needed a couple things. Probably the most important thing I needed was the full support of the President, and I've gotten that. Not only have I gotten the support of the President, but also Fran Townsend, the Homeland Security Advisor to the President, and not just support, but their personal involvement. And that has helped me tremendously in getting things moving and getting things on the road. So I need to say that right up front.

First thing I did was to step back and look at what didn't work in Katrina, what things went wrong, what things worked okay but we could have done a lot better. And there were several significant things that I saw, based on my experience of handling disasters, what I saw simply didn't work.

The first and foremost was communications. There was a major breakdown in communications between the local government and the state government, a breakdown between the state government and the federal government, and then, quite frankly, a breakdown of communication inside the federal government itself between agencies. If you're going to run an operation, that type of communication system simply will not work.

So we went back and looked at how we're going to put this together. We based it primarily on the National Response Plan -- we're going to focus on having a unified command system. And that will go through our joint field office that you guys are familiar with. And everybody has bought into it. We've had exercises at the Assistant Secretary level, the Deputy Secretary, and even with the Secretaries in the White House. And everyone understands that have to be on the same page. As we do our 12R planning blocks, we all have to be there together doing it, sharing information and making sure that we're all -- have the same information and are responding in the same way.

The second piece of that was not having the right equipment. Didn't have the enough satellite equipment, didn't have video capability, didn't have those communication things that, quite frankly, you have at your fingertips that we didn't have. So we purchased a lot of that equipment. But the most important piece of it is a process we're going to use to share information.

The second thing I looked at was logistics, and that's having the right things at the right place at the right time. We didn't do that. We didn't have enough equipment, didn't have the ability to get it where it needed to be. So what we've -- what we've gone out and done is purchased a tremendous amount of supplies that we normally carry -- the food, water, ice, blue tarps, medicine, all those types of things that we normally give out during a storm. And in some cases, we've quadrupled them. And I can give you all the exact figures, but just one example I would use, we had 160 tractor trailer loads of MREs prior to Hurricane Katrina, and now we have almost 800 tractor trailer loads.

And on top of that, we've signed a memorandum of understanding with the Defense Logistics Agency, which is the military's arm for logistics and support. They are going to be our backup. They'll be moving supplies into our warehouses as we are moving stuff out. Now, it's not a bottomless pit. But at the same time, we have enough stuff in stock already to feed a million people for a week. And with a back-up of that with the Defense Logistics Agency, that's going to give us support behind us we never had before.

The other thing is the ability to track our tractor trailers. Once they left the warehouse, we didn't really know where they were. We've had instances where truck drivers just went home and spent the weekend at home instead of going down to the disaster site. We had drivers who got lost. We had drivers who went to the wrong place, and we didn't know where they were.

I purchased 20,000 GPS units. We're putting one on every tractor trailer that comes out of our warehouses so we know exactly where it is at any given minute of the day. We get pinged every 15 minutes. And it's accurate right down to the very street corner where that trailer is going to sit. So we can give the states a very good heads-up of where their supplies are, how soon before they get there, and we can tell them exactly where it is at that time. And we can tell when it arrives. We had a couple instances during Rita, actually, where our supplies had arrived at a staging point, but the local mayor didn't know they were there, and he was on the television complaining he had no supplies, and they were around the corner behind the building. So now we know exactly where they are. That's going to help us. That's a tremendous business tool for us to use.

The other piece was the situation awareness. A lot of things were going on. We were dependent on the media to get a lot of our information, which is not bad, but we should be able to get a lot of information on our own. So we purchased satellite equipment where we can do video streaming, live video streaming back, so we'll have a better handle on what's happening if you have another Super Dome, or another Convention Center, or another levee issue where you can see real-time exactly what's happening. Those are some of the things that we're putting in place to make the system work a lot better.

The other was victim registration. We ended up with people pretty much -- not pretty much -- we ended up with people in every state in this country. All 50 states had people that came out of Katrina. We didn't know where they were, we didn't know who they were, and we didn't know what their needs were. What we are going to do for this coming year is we're going to preposition people in the congregate shelters -- we're working with the Red Cross and with states to identify those ahead of time -- put people in those shelters so we can register people as they come into those congregate shelters. So we know where they are, we know who they are, and we know what their needs are, based on how they register with us. That's going to help us significantly being able to track people and making sure they get the support that they need before they can get back in their homes.

We also saw that a lot of people could not come to where we were registering people, simply did not have the capability of getting from point A to point B. I've taken five of our command posts, mobile command posts, which are like big motor homes. We've staffed those and we put 20 laptop computers and 20 cell phones on those things to actually go where people are. And we can either give them a cell phone and say, here, call the 1-800 621-FEMA number and register, or we can sit down with them on the laptop and do it over the website to be able to do that.

We've also increased the capacity to be able to register people. I think during hurricane -- four hurricanes in Florida, we ended up registering, like, 25,000 people a day, which was a new record. During Katrina, we ended up registering 100,000 people a day, which was a new record. And we've put the capability, and we can register up to 200,000 people a day, so people won't get that busy signal every time they call. They'll be able to talk to somebody to get registered. And that's going to help them a lot.

So that's going to help us locating people, getting them registered, making sure we find out what needs are, have enough supplies in place and have the communications in place to be able to do what we need to do.

The other thing that I came across is the debris removal. In the debris removal piece, which is one of the biggest things we have to do -- we work with the local communities -- is we were reimbursing communities differently if they used the Corps as opposed to if they used their own private contractors, and that didn't make sense to me. So we've changed that. So regardless of who you use, whether you used the Corps or a private contractor, we will reimburse you at the same rate.

And also, we want to give them much more flexibility, want to give the local communities the opportunity to put those debris contracts in ahead of time, or encourage them to do that. We've put a debris registry in our website, and right now we have 250 debris contractors listed on there. We have the size of the contractor, how many trucks they have, what work they've done before, who they've worked for. So the communities can choose one of those 250, or they can do their own. And we're going to continually add more as we go through there. We want to give the local communities as much flexibility as possible as we go through the next storm.

I guess the last piece I want to talk about before we do questions is accountability, waste, abuse, and fraud. We had a lot of people abuse the system. When we did our expedited assistance program, we were giving out $2,000 to people, and for the most part, they were people who were plucked off the rooftops, simply didn't have a shirt on their back, had no identification, had no access to their bank records, and we passed those dollars out. But a lot of people took advantage of that, and now you've seen all the reports, like I have, where some people have applied dozens of times, some people did not live in the affected area. And so we want to stop that.

We've hired an identity verification company to check IDs so we can identify are you who you say you are, and did you live where you said you lived. That's going to stop a tremendous amount of the fraud. We've also cut back the amount of money we're going to give out initially. The expedited assistance program is something that FEMA very rarely uses. I think in the last 30 years we've probably only used it less than half-a-dozen times. But every time we've used it it's been a significant issue.

We're going to do the initial tranche of money, it will be $500 to families. And hopefully, they can get back in their homes within a couple days of getting over that hump, if we have to do that. And if we have to go back and do more, then we can go back and do more. But instead of putting $2,000 in somebody's hands, we found out a lot of the times the dollars were not spent where they needed to be spent, or where they should have been spent. So we're trying to put some controls on it.

We don't want to -- I think you need to hear this very carefully. This is still going to be a very, very compassionate organization, but we have to put some financial controls in to make sure we don't have the waste, fraud and abuse that we had last time.

Those are the things we're doing for this hurricane season. We have a lot of long-term things we have to work on. It took FEMA 30 years to get in this shape and it's not something you're going to fix in a few months. But what we can do, what we can very clearly do is put the things in place that we saw that did not work in Hurricane Katrina, and put those in place so we'll be in better shape this next hurricane season, to respond much more quickly. FEMA has got to be a more agile, a more flexible organization than it has been in the past, and that's what we want it to be.

That's kind of where we're at. Any questions? Yes, sir.

Q Do you plan on watching Spike Lee's documentary about Katrina, and do you know if the President plans on watching it?

DIRECTOR PAULISON: I don't know. I haven't seen it and --

Q It hasn't been released yet --

DIRECTOR PAULISON: I have not seen it.

Q I was asking if you plan on watching it.

DIRECTOR PAULISON: I probably would, yes, if I'm not doing hurricane stuff. (Laughter.) If we get too deep into hurricane season, sometimes your days just go away. But anything -- first, I'm taking this very seriously and I'm not taking it personally. We're taking all the reports that come out of Congress, out of the House, out of Senate side, out of the White House, from the GAO -- they've done I don't know how many -- we've got IG reports, and we're taking all this very seriously, and just going through them line by line by line.

It is a pretty consistent theme through them, and it's pretty much the things that I talked about. And so anything that -- anybody does a report like that I want to have access to -- you know, did we miss anything, is there something we can do better. We want to make -- I want to make this country proud of FEMA again. I think we can do that. We've got good people. You need to hear that. These people are working literally seven days a week for the last, almost two years, and they want to make this organization better also. My job is to give them the right tools so they can do it. They're willing to do it; I just have to give them the right tools.

Q You said at the outset that you had the personal commitment of the President. Can you talk to us about the last time prior to today that you spoke with the President about this issue, and what was the --


Q Were you in Washington?

DIRECTOR PAULISON: I was in Washington. We brief the President on a regular basis on what we're doing, not only briefing on FEMA, but particularly what we're doing in New Orleans and Louisiana. And the entire Cabinet was there, and we had the -- my Deputy and I had the opportunity, along with Secretary Chertoff to brief the President. And we do this on a regular basis. He gets very personally involved, asks a lot of questions and really holds us to task to make sure we're headed in the right direction. So I'm very pleased with --

Q What did he ask you at that briefing?

DIRECTOR PAULISON: Pardon? Well, anytime we bring something up -- like one of the things I talked about was the chain of command and how we're going to share information. And he wants to make sure that that information flow is going to move like it should move and not end up like we did with Katrina last year, with some people knowing something and others not, and not being able to get on the same page.

He asked a lot of questions about that, how that system is going to work. He's asked a lot of questions about the evacuation planning, about sheltering, about transportation of people who don't have the capability of moving themselves, about special needs. He is very engaged in this and very knowledgeable. I was, frankly, very pleasantly surprised -- or pleased with the amount of knowledge he has on how this system works and how it should work.

Q And presumably, that was in preparation for this visit. When was the last time before that?

DIRECTOR PAULISON: That was not in preparation for this visit. That's our -- we have a regular meeting we have set up. And they happen sometimes every two weeks, sometimes every four weeks where we keep him up to speed. We get tasked to connect

-- we come out of there with what we're supposed to report on next week and what he expects us to have accomplished by the time we come back to report to him. So what I'm saying it's a regularly scheduled meeting that we do to keep him up to speed on what we're doing.

Q Can you explain then why the President didn't seem to know today when the hurricane season was?

DIRECTOR PAULISON: I didn't get that. I'm sure he knows it's from June to December.

Q He said it ends in September when we were at the hurricane center, and he had to be corrected that it goes until mid-October, they said.

DIRECTOR PAULISON: I think you may not have heard the whole conversation. What Max Mayfield was showing is that between this particular date and the end of September is when we have 80 percent of our hurricanes. Hurricane season runs from June 1 until November 31st (sic). But last year, remember, we had hurricanes all the way into January. So, although hurricane season is six months, 80 percent of our hurricanes come within that three-month block between now and probably the middle of October, I guess, if I saw that chart right. Yes, that's what Max was trying to show him, that it's been pretty slow this year so far, but this is the very beginning of our busy season traditionally with hurricanes. And I'm born and raised in Miami so I'm kind of used to that, when we start ducking.

Q Have you looked at diminishing the use of no-bid contracts? There's been a few cases where you had some reports at least of corruption around that or mishandling of funds. Do they really save that much time that they're worth sticking with?

DIRECTOR PAULISON: Well, if you're talking about the four contracts that I took over that were no-bid, my understanding was they're in the process of bidding. I'm not a fan of no-bid contracts. There are occasions when you either truly have a sole source, which is seldom, or you didn't put a contract in place that you didn't think about -- something you need in a disaster. Those are the only two times I think we should be using no-bid contracts.

What we're doing -- and maybe I should have covered it sooner -- is we are doing contracts ahead of time so we've got them on the shelf, so if we need something we've already got a contract in place. And you don't have to go out for a no-bid contract. And when you do that -- because you oftentimes don't get a contract written to where you want it, you may not get the product you want, and you may not get the accountability you want. So I like to do those things ahead of time.

Q Could you talk about how the states responded to you guys saying that you were only going to pick up 25 percent of the cost this time around?

DIRECTOR PAULISON: Are you talking with the expedited assistance?

Q Yes, correct.

DIRECTOR PAULISON: The issue with that is that the only place that we have to -- we have legally at our disposal for this type of assistance comes out of what we call other needs assistance. And the state is required to pick up 25 percent of it.

These are their residents. So, I mean, it's not something I'm imposing on the state, it's something I don't have any flexibility with. That's where these dollars -- and that's congressionally mandated that under that particular piece of it, the state picks up 25 percent of it. Again, it's something we don't normally use unless it's something that's catastrophic, like we saw in Katrina.

Q Is that what you say is being reduced, though, from $2,000 to $500?

DIRECTOR PAULISON: Right. And normally, over the history of FEMA, it's been $300 to $500 we've given out. Katrina was an exception; we gave out $2,000. And that proved to have some issues with it. We think we can -- by doing better identity verification, and by just putting the money out in smaller chunks that we can deal with.

Q So you're scaling it back to $500?

DIRECTOR PAULISON; That's correct, yes. And again, we can go back -- if it's going to be -- if they're going to be in a congregate shelter longer than we expect, we can go back and give them another $500 if we want to.

Q And that money is supposed to be used for --

DIRECTOR PAULISON: That money is used for if they need clothes or food or anything like that, personal items. It's for people who end up in a shelter.

Let me talk about personal preparedness after I answer this question, too, it's one of my bugs. If something happened, like you have a no-notice event and you go to a shelter and you don't take stuff with you that you normally would have, and you've got to get -- in Katrina, for instance, it was right at the beginning of school and people got moved to shelters, the kids didn't have shoes, they didn't have clothes, and that's what that money was for. And the Katrina piece was for housing. We have another housing piece that's taking that place, so that piece is going to be taken care of.

One of my big issues is personal preparedness, getting ready for any type of disaster. It doesn't have to be a hurricane, but hurricanes, since we're talking about that, is making sure -- knowing you can take care of yourself for that first 72 hours with food, with water, with your medicines, flashlight batteries, portable radios, all those things you need to survive for two or three days.

Right here in Florida -- and I'll pick on Miami since it's my hometown -- after Hurricane Wilma, which was not a devastating hurricane, we had people, tens of thousands of people, lined up for food and water and ice, and they should have been able to do that. My home is still here; my wife and daughter rode out the hurricane, and they went out ahead of time and purchased all the stuff so they didn't have to stand in line for food and water.

I spent Memorial Day down here getting my house ready, because I'm never home. But we went out and we went to Wal-Mart, we went to Home Depot, we bought our flashlights, we bought our batteries, and bought our -- all the things that we needed to refresh ourselves for the hurricane season. Bought our canned goods, we had a can opener -- to make sure that if my wife has to ride out a storm by herself again, that she'll have all of the things she needs.

Some people can't do that. Some people either physically or financially can't do that. Those are the ones that the local, state, and the federal government should be helping. People that are able-bodied and have time and their homes withstand a hurricane, they should be able to take care of themselves without depending on the federal government to come and take care of themselves. And those that can't, those are the ones that we should be helping.

Q Can you just share with us briefly what the President actually was looking at today? It was difficult for those of us in the room to know. What exactly Mr. Mayfield --

DIRECTOR PAULISON: Yes, Max was showing him a couple different computer programs that they have on how they track hurricanes and a couple of the charts. One of the charts that he showed him was how their prediction, as far as where the hurricane goes, the tracking of it, has improved over the last 30 years -- and it's significant improvement with their five-day forecast, the three-day forecast and their 24-hour forecast -- pretty darn accurate.

Also what he showed him was the predictions of how big the storm is going to be has not improved at all. It's pretty much steady over the last 30 years. They have not been able to predict the size of storms, or how big a storm is going to get, and what it's going to be when it hits landfall as accurately as they've been able to produce the actual track of the storm. They've been doing very well.

But even with that, there's still pretty much a 70-mile -- if they do their average, they're pretty -- there's about a 70-mile gap, if they miss it by 70 miles one way or the other, over the average of the last few years. So even with -- so what he was trying to tell the President was, when you see that chart on TV where you've got a black line that goes right to where a city is and you've got a cone, he says, don't look at the black line, look at the cone because that's where that hurricane could be one way or the other. So just because you're not in the middle of that black line doesn't mean you shouldn't prepare. That's the message he was trying to get across.

Q And also can you explain the scientist -- who said he had studied the relationship between hurricane patterns, and he was looking to see if there was a link to global warming. Was he suggesting that there was no consensus that there's a link?

DIRECTOR PAULISON: Right, he was -- that's what he was saying. That's what I heard anyway, is that there was not a consensus that global warming has anything to do with the size of the hurricanes because we didn't know back years ago -- we may not have been able to predict the number of -- or even seen them. If a hurricane came up and went up through the Atlantic, we may not even have known there was a hurricane --

Q -- he was saying that that's doubling over the past decade is maybe due to just better reporting?

DIRECTOR PAULISON: It could -- that's what he was suggesting, yes. That was my understanding of it.

Anything else, folks? Good question, by the way. Anything else? All right, thank you very much. I appreciate it, and try to stay cool.

Q Thank you.

END 11:36 A.M. EDT