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Hurricane Florence To Test FEMA, Trump Administration

President Trump holds a briefing on Hurricane Florence in the Oval Office on Tuesday with FEMA Administrator Brock Long and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Zach Gibson
AFP/Getty Images
President Trump holds a briefing on Hurricane Florence in the Oval Office on Tuesday with FEMA Administrator Brock Long and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

As Hurricane Florence makes landfall in the Carolinas, in Washington the focus is how the Trump administration will respond to the storm's aftermath, and the inevitable property damage, power outages and potential loss of life.

The federal response is coordinated by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The agency's reputation suffered last year following its lagging response to Hurricane Maria. And while President Trump and FEMA officials insist they're ready this time, there have already been missteps that have some believing the agency's confidence may be misplaced.

Trump has tried to assure people in the Carolinas that the government is "totally prepared. We're ready. We're as ready as anybody has ever been."

On Wednesday, he posted a video on his Twitter account, declaring: "We're fully prepared — food medical, everything you can imagine — we are ready. But despite that, bad things can happen when you're talking about a storm this size. It's called Mother Nature, you never know, but we know."

But while the president urged people in the region to follow instructions to evacuate, he obscured that message Thursday, when he tweeted that he didn't believe a study that determined nearly 3,000 people died after hurricanes Maria and Irma swept across Puerto Rico a year ago.

In the meantime, Politico reported that FEMA Administrator Brock Long is under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general for allegedly using government cars to drive home to North Carolina from Washington, D.C., on the weekends. At a Thursday briefing on Florence, Long said he was working with the IG's office "to make improvements to make sure we are running programs and policies according to regulation."

"Bottom line is, we'll continue to fully cooperate with any investigation that goes on and own up to any mistakes and push forward and keep going," he said.

Long added, "Doing something unethical is not part of my DNA, and it is not part of my track record in my whole entire career. We will work with the OIG."

Despite the distractions, FEMA officials say they are prepared to lead the government's response to Florence.

FEMA Associate Administrator Jeffrey Byard told All Things Considered host Audie Cornish that Florence "presents a lot of challenges," citing the expected storm surge of 9 to 13 feet in some areas in particular. But he said the agency is in close coordination with the states and was "well positioned and ready to respond to the needs of our citizens."

But the agency's track record during the Trump administration has been uneven. FEMA conducted its own after-action report this summer, which determined, among many other findings, that "FEMA needs to simplify the process of applying for assistance to make our programs easier to navigate."

Earlier this month, a Government Accountability Office report found that FEMA's "available workforce was overwhelmed by the response needs," following a string of disasters last year, including hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, as well as wildfires in California.

Barry Scanlon, a former FEMA official now with DCMC Partners, a disaster crisis consulting firm, says the agency is "probably still short of people, because we have literally dozens of ongoing disasters going on right now." Scanlon said he's been told that FEMA "closed a lot of the smaller disaster offices around the country to prepare to send people to the Carolinas."

In addition, one of the top posts at FEMA, that of deputy administrator, remains unfilled. And the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA's parent agency, admits it moved $10 million from FEMA to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but insisted that the money came from administrative accounts and couldn't have been used for hurricane preparations.

FEMA officials say they have the resources they need to deal with Florence. The agency's Disaster Relief Fund contains $23.4 billion, and Byard said on Wednesday that FEMA has "plenty of resources to respond, we have plenty of resources to recover," and that the transfer "has not impacted our situation whatsoever."

In some ways, Hurricane Florence should be an easier disaster to manage than Maria was in Puerto Rico. It is on the mainland for one, and local officials have been diligent in warning people to evacuate and setting up shelters. Utility crews have already arrived in the area from other states to work on restoring power, a contingency that took weeks, if not longer, to set up in Puerto Rico.

"It will be much easier since it's on the mainland," Scanlon said, "so you hopefully won't see some of the problems that we had with Maria last year."

Scanlon said he believes FEMA is ready. "These preparations are all based on partnerships between the federal, state and local governments," Scanlon said, "and Brock has strong relationships with these states."

FEMA says it has positioned millions of bottles of water and meals, along with blankets, cots and other supplies. Urban search and rescue teams are in place, along with what the agency calls incident management assistance teams to "ensure there are no unmet needs."

More than a dozen other federal agencies are involved in the preparation efforts, underscoring what's at stake for the region's residents and the Trump administration. With the president already facing low approval ratings, how he's judged in the response to Florence may well affect Republican performance on the ballot in the midterm elections in less than two months.

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NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.