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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
October 25, 2007

Press Gaggle by Dana Perino
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Miramar, California

10:14 A.M. EDT

MS. PERINO: The President is on his way to Southern California. I have brought Fran Townsend, who is the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. She will give you a quick update as to where we are, answer some of your questions, and then I'll take any of the other questions at the end.

MS. TOWNSEND: I'm going to go through a quick statement, and then I'll take questions. Over the past few days we've seen a disaster response operating exactly the way it should be, with federal, state and local partners working hand-in-hand as partners, to make sure that these fires are put out and that we provide the immediate assistance to those in need.

As in all disasters, disasters are, in essence, a local event. State and local officials have done a great job, and have been coordinating the response effort. The role of the federal government is to support state and local response, which is exactly what we've been doing since these fires started.

When these fires first flared up, the federal government acted quickly, issuing a total of eight fire management assistance grants between Sunday afternoon and Monday evening. These grants provided immediate federal firefighting support to California. FEMA stayed in constant contact with California officials, asking what they could do to help. This really is a good example of what we consider a strengthened, rebuilt, new FEMA, leaning forward, proactive, and ready to respond to what state and local officials need.

Late Monday night, Governor Schwarzenegger sent a request through FEMA to the President for an emergency declaration under the Stafford Act, seeking additional federal assistance. Within an hour, this request was in the West Wing and approved by the President. The emergency declaration gave the President the authority to direct all federal agencies, not just FEMA, to provide additional support to meet California's emergency response needs, and give Californians the peace of mind to know that we'd pay for most of those emergency response costs.

On Tuesday evening the Governor asked FEMA to provide assistance to individuals affected by the fires, and FEMA launched its Individual Assistance program before the sun came up on Wednesday. This includes housing assistance, and helping to pay for personal property losses. People needing help can register by calling FEMA at 1-800-621-FEMA, or by going to FEMA's website, or by visiting one of the mobile disaster recovery centers that FEMA has deployed in California. People can also get small, low-cost loans from the Small Business Administration.

On Wednesday morning, the President issued a major disaster declaration, which provided even more assistance to California, including help in removing debris and providing individuals long-term assistance, such as counseling, food coupons, and unemployment assistance.

This is really -- this is not the end of federal assistance, it's just the beginning. This morning USDA, who already -- as you know, has got about 2,500 firefighters deployed to help fight the fire, approved California's request to initiate the Disaster Food Stamp Program in San Diego, which will operate from October 21st through November 19th.

I've been asked a bunch of questions about a comparison to the 2003 fire. So let me walk you through just a couple of data points. The 2003 fire lasted over 10 days, with a loss of life of 22 people, 730,000 acres burned, and 5,000 structures destroyed. So far -- now understand you're comparing to a fire that's so far only been going a little over four days -- we've had -- there's one confirmed fatality, we've had reports of as many as three fatalities, 38 injured. Approximately 427,000 acres burned, 70 percent of which is in San Diego County. As of this morning, 2,205 structures are lost.

In terms of evacuation, according to California state officials, the evacuation involved 321,000 people, which makes it the largest evacuation in state history. FBI and ATF are currently assisting Orange County officials in the arson investigation. State and local officials advise that one-stop centers have been set up that allow burned-out residents to meet with city, county, state and federal program assistance providers, along with insurance companies and charities. As you've heard, wind and humidity and temperature conditions have moved in our favor, and so it suggests to us that we'll -- that firefighters will have an opportunity to turn the corner and get it under control.

There are enormous DOD assets that are deployed, and if folks are interested, I can get you some more of the specific details on that.

Q Please.

MS. TOWNSEND: You want that. Okay. DOD -- approximately 214 active duty personnel deployed; 72 civilian personnel; 2,492 National Guard personnel engaged in ground and airborne firefighting, security and relief operations, which leaves in the state of California, another 17,295 National Guard members available if they should be needed.

In terms of aviation support, out of USTRANSCOM, 18 helicopters, 14 fixed wing. U.S. Navy is supporting firefighting efforts with a total of seven helicopters. U.S. Marine Corps are supporting firefighting efforts, a total of three helicopters, and 11 additional helicopters are prepared to assist. C-130s flew five sorties, dropping 131,996 pounds of retardant on the Poomacha, California fire. And five of the firefighting aircrafts are currently operational. DOD is providing 18 fire engines, 17 personnel, and supporting equipment and incident management team support.

In the San Diego area, three facilities: the Naval Base San Diego; Naval Amphibious Base Coronado; and Naval air station El Centro are billeting 2,670 DOD evacuees who have been affected in the region. Okay, DOD has got a fact sheet that can give you additional details. Let me take -- let me go to questions.

Q Are you prepared to say the firefighters have turned the corner?

MS. TOWNSEND: No, I think it's too soon to say that; what I said was weather conditions are turning, which should give us the advantage. Today is going to be a very important day. They've been working very hard, but understand before the weather conditions turned, using air assets isn't effective in the old weather conditions. And so you didn't see as many air sorties flying early on because it's not effective. What we're told is if the winds are blowing the way they were, it either evaporates or doesn't fall in an effective way, and so now that those weather conditions are changing, we have got -- especially the winds coming from west to east now off the water, they bring moisture with it, it's a more effective condition, and you're seeing lots more air assets deployed, beginning yesterday.

Q Two-thousand-and-three sounds like it was worse, from the numbers you gave me. How is the federal response different this time and why?

MS. TOWNSEND: I actually think it's hard to compare directly, but let me make a couple of points to you because I think by and large what you're seeing is the benefit of experience at all levels of government. You know, California -- I hesitate to tell you how great we are, how much better we are -- I think we are better, but I think it's important to note the effectiveness of the state and local response. They've got a -- they were very effective at anticipating what they were going to need, setting up evacuation points and evacuation centers.

Did we support that? Yes we did, and we were better and faster at doing it, but fundamentally the state and locals have had a phenomenal response. Their reverse 9-1-1 system, where they were able to get word out, all of this results in less property damage, more lives saved, and so it's not just -- the federal government has done better and faster, absolutely, but this all rides on the effectiveness and preparedness of the state and locals, who have done a phenomenal job.

Q Fran, would you say that this is the most challenging natural disaster for the federal government since Katrina? Is that a fair statement?

MS. TOWNSEND: Yes. I mean, I'm running through my mind, Sheryl. I'll wind up forgetting one; you know I think about the tornado in Greensburg, Kansas. These are all devastating to the people who are affected and so when I hesitate, I hesitate because if you were in Greensburg, Kansas, that seemed a lot worse to you. This is over a wider swath of area and certainly there's a larger body of people affected and -- but it's hard to compare natural disasters. Floods are very different in terms of the scale of damage than tornados. Tornados are different from fires. And so it's hard to compare. All natural disasters are not equal.

Q And also, is there an estimate of the cost of the federal commitment, what it's cost already and what it might cost?

MS. TOWNSEND: Too early to say. We're going to need more time.

Q Fran, the metrics you gave us, how current are they? Can we say as of this morning or --

MS. TOWNSEND: They're -- I get -- we get updates every 12 hours. This is as of very early this morning East Coast time, and I'm sure that they'll change during the course of the day.

Q Did I hear you say an evacuation figure of 321,000? That's obviously an enormous figure, but less by some degree than what we've heard --

MS. TOWNSEND: Right, and that's why I used it. But as I said to you, that's the number that we had confirmed by California state officials. But even if that's -- even if that number, which is on the low end of what you've heard is accurate, it still makes it the largest single evacuation effort in the history of the state.

Q And what does the President want to achieve by coming out today? What is his main goal for making the personal trip?

MS. TOWNSEND: You know, in all of these natural disasters, when we go -- whether it's Greensburg, Kansas or it's Southern California -- part of it is to ensure that the federal response is working the way it should, that we're supporting state and local efforts adequately. It's also to talk to the firefighters and those first responders who are on the ground, and to thank them, to listen to them, to make sure they've got what they need, and then, you know, probably most important is he provides an awful lot of comfort. People are going through a very difficult time. This is chaotic, it's anxiety-producing, and just having him there where he walks the neighborhoods that have been devastated and listens to the people who have been affected is very important.

Q In terms of a initial damage assessments, have -- do you guys have a number in how many homes have been lost so far?

MS. TOWNSEND: Yes, I got -- wait a sec, I had the number for you; this number, by the way, changes hourly. I think it's 22 --

Q Twenty-two hundred, I think.

MS. TOWNSEND: -- 2,205 structures destroyed. That's not affected though; just remember, the number affected will be much larger.

Q On the evacuees, the 321,000, are these -- some of them have gone home, right?

MS. TOWNSEND: That's right. I'm glad you mentioned that. Some of the evacuation orders have already begun to be lifted, so people can begin returning home and start to recover their lives, that's right.

Q We don't know a number, correct?

MS. TOWNSEND: No, we don't.

Q Fran, these figures of the structures and the evacuees, you're getting this based from the state -- from the state, right? This isn't, I mean, collected directly by federal officials? I'm assuming that --

MS. TOWNSEND: It's a combination --

Q -- the half-million -- the half-million figure of evacuees very well might be correct.

MS. TOWNSEND: It could be. I mean, we do this in concert with the state officials. You know, we have a joint field office at which we gather data, but some of the data, as you can imagine, is also federal data. But we also work with state and local officials to get stuff that they're going to be uniquely positioned to have that we don't.

Q Are you guys the authority on these numbers, do you think? Are you the final authority on --

MS. TOWNSEND: I wish I could tell you there was a final authority. I'm giving you the best numbers we have, based on our people on the ground, who are working with the state officials. And they -- to be fair now, I could have not given you any statistics and played it safe, because they'll change. Literally, by the time I got them and the time we land, these numbers will begin to change.

Q Fran, were you in on the conversation in the conference room here? We saw the President sitting in there, having a pretty animated conversation. I was just wondering what the gist of that was.

MS. TOWNSEND: I'm not going to talk about it. Yes, I was in there. Anything else?

Q The decision to put FEMA under Homeland Security -- I mean, this -- since doing that, this is the first disaster of this scope. How is that structure working, and some of the questions that were raised about whether that was a good place for FEMA to be me -- I mean, have some of those been answered now?

MS. TOWNSEND: Well, let me go back for a minute. It is not the first disaster since FEMA was put under DHS.

Q Of this scope --

MS. TOWNSEND: Well, no, no. Katrina is -- was the first major one, but there were many hurricanes and those types of natural disasters in '04 and going back that were handled just fine. I don't know that this informs us any differently. That was a good decision, because what it does is, under the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA has got the ability to coordinate across the federal government and pull on the all resources, not only of DHS but across the federal government.

We believed it was the right decision when we did it. We believed that they're working effectively and that their response in this particular disaster is good evidence that those critics, who suggested in the wake of Katrina that it should be pulled out, were wrong. It doesn't need to be pulled out to be effective. You can see how effective they're being in the context of this disaster.

Q I guess I meant the first disaster of this scope since the criticism after Katrina; I mean, whether these -- how some of those questions have been answered in this disaster.

MS. TOWNSEND: No, I think what you're seeing is an effective management structure, effective funding of FEMA, and effective relationships with state and locals are the critical enablers, and they're doing that just fine in -- under the Department.

Q Fran, Democrats on Capitol Hill and, I think maybe in California, have complained that the administration hasn't devoted enough money to fire protection. How do you respond to that -- or prevention, rather?

MS. TOWNSEND: Well, I mean, we work through USDA, who's got the firefighting capability. We work through the Department of Interior. There's a number of different ways we work on fire prevention. I didn't bring the -- I haven't brought the statistics back on that, but we can get it for you.

MS. PERINO: Let me just add couple points on that. We'll try to get the numbers. First and foremost, it was only after years of Democratic opposition that we finally had the fires in 2003, which led to the passage of the President's Healthy Forest Initiative, which is precisely for this problem.

These problems of wildfires don't occur overnight. They build up over time, and it takes time to take out those fuels. It takes time to -- fuels, meaning, dry timber; when a bug infests a whole area of wood and kills those trees, the most important thing you can do is go in there and clean that out. And over the years, we have -- we, as a federal government, either suppressed wildfires or forest fires, or we weren't allowed to go in and clean out that basically, kindling, that fuels all of these fires.

The other thing that you have to keep in mind is that you have a lot more -- there are many more people today living near fire-prone areas, and they're -- within the Healthy Forest Initiative, part of that was providing people the information that they needed and how to protect themselves, and creating those barriers so that the fuels don't come all the way up to the home. That's different in a situation where you have these high winds and everything is different.

We can try to get you the numbers, but as of last year, last spring, USDA, I believe, had over $800 million roughly that they hadn't spent yet. So I think that the effort has been well funded. But keep in mind, you can't spend all that money at once. It takes a little bit of time to do this work, so extra money isn't necessarily going to help. You have to have the time and the resources to be able to actually get the work done.

Anything else for Fran?

Q Real quickly, I know that different parts of Southern California have been hit with different levels of severity. Could you give us a quick sense of what we're going to see, in terms of the sites that were chosen for the President to see: San Diego and Escondido?

MS. PERINO: We're not commenting on the locations. We'll get them -- we'll be able to talk more about them when we get closer.

Q But he's going to get a, fair to say, representative sense of the type of damage?

MS. TOWNSEND: He'll get -- without going into the specifics of it, he will speak with firefighters, he'll walk -- he'll get an opportunity to be in a damaged area, so he'll -- he should get a pretty representative feel of what the -- what the conditions on the ground are.

MS. PERINO: In addition to the aerial tour.

Q Thank you.

Q Dana, who -- can you tell us who's all flying with him today?

MS. PERINO: Do you have a list of who else is flying with him today? Can you get that for me?

MR. CARROLL: Yes, I'll get it to you.

MS. PERINO: Yes, we'll bring it back. We have several members of Congress. I saw Senator Feinstein and Congressman Filner. I know there are others, so let us get you the list.

Q Calvert --

MS. PERINO: I think there's a lot.

Q Calvert, Gallegly --

MS. PERINO: The President spent a significant amount of time with them for the first while on the plane, and so I didn't go back and bug them. Okay?

Q Thank you.

END 10:32 A.M. EDT