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Natural disasters aren't going anywhere. FEMA is stepping up to tackle them


Americans across the country have been hit with one natural disaster after another this year. And as the climate crisis worsens, the work of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, which is tasked with responding to these events, will grow. To understand the scope of the challenge FEMA is facing, we called Craig Fugate. He served as FEMA administrator under President Obama, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.

CRAIG FUGATE: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: The Biden administration recently asked Congress for an additional $12 billion for FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund. In your experience, how unusual is a request like this?

FUGATE: Not unusual at all. The Disaster Relief Fund is the tool that FEMA uses to fund all of these disasters. And while Congress provides annual appropriations, when you've had a lot of disasters that exceed that, it's not uncommon for an administration to go back and ask for more money. This happened in the Trump administration, the Obama administration, the Bush administration, the Clinton administration. So this isn't anything that's new.

RASCOE: Tell me about what FEMA's role is. It's quite expansive, right?

FUGATE: It's quite expansive. But let's focus on what we call the Disaster Relief Fund. This is the funding that Congress provides that - when the president declares a disaster, those are the tax dollars that FEMA then uses to help support the response and recovery of that event. This is, I think, one of the big misunderstandings - that FEMA pays for everything. And the answer is no. It's primarily for uninsured losses. So things like your response costs, calling out the National Guard, opening shelters, picking up debris, the supplies FEMA sends to generators, all those costs - those are kind of the response costs.

And then you get into the second part of that, which is the rebuilding cost. An example - if your community had a fire station that got destroyed in a tornado, you didn't have insurance on that fire station, and the president had declared your area part of a disaster declaration. Then FEMA would reimburse through the state, local government 75% of the cost to replace that fire station.

For individuals and families, that program is also based upon uninsured losses. That's why, you know, a lot of times in wildfires and tornadoes, where there tends to be more insurance, you may not see as much payouts to families even though there was tremendous damage. But in a flood, we tend to see more paid out because fewer people have flood insurance. And that tends to be a greater uninsured loss.

RASCOE: Well, I got a question about that because we are seeing more news of insurance companies pulling out of major states. So what type of impact does that put on FEMA when you have insurance companies now balking at insuring some of these places that continue to be hit by natural disasters?

FUGATE: As taxpayers, we're going to be paying more in disasters. And this is one of the things - the legislation that designed all of this is called the Stafford Act. And part of the Stafford Act was based upon the idea that insurance would be the primary way of managing risk and that the federal government would step in when there wasn't insurance, it wasn't available or it wasn't affordable. And as we continue to see more and more people either being underinsured or not insured, it means that the cost to the taxpayers will be going up.

But the other thing is that for a lot of people, their ability to recover is going to be significantly reduced because FEMA does not make somebody whole - where if I have replacement costs for my home - my home gets destroyed - my insurance company is supposed to pay to replace my home. If I don't have that insurance and I'm turning to FEMA, it's very unlikely that what FEMA can provide would even do basic repairs, much less return my home back to something that was livable.

And that, I think, for a lot of reasons, now starts becoming very scary when you start talking about available affordable workforce housing because when these housing units don't get repaired and rebuilt, people are often forced out of their communities 'cause when you start rebuilding brand-new property, they can't afford - it's a new property. They can't afford to repair their old homes, and they get displaced. And this is exactly what you're hearing people in Maui extremely concerned about.

RASCOE: Ultimately, do you think that FEMA will need to change or need to make any adaptations because of the challenges posed by climate change?

FUGATE: The challenge is not, I think, FEMA. I think the challenge is Congress having to rethink our disaster programs that were literally built for the past and go, what are we going to do differently as a nation if we're moving away from an insurance model of managing risks to increasing the role of the federal government and the taxpayer? And not having a good program for housing that addresses these needs where - you're seeing that the public servants in the communities can no longer afford to live there - the police officers, the firefighters, the doctors, the nurses - I mean, they're getting priced out of communities, and they're having to move away from where they work. And this isn't just once or twice. We see this repeatedly, especially in coastal areas or in areas that are very desirable - that people will spend a lot of money - in many cases, are building second- and third-order homes at the expense of the primary homeowners and residents.

RASCOE: That's Craig Fugate. He served as FEMA administrator under President Obama. Thank you so much for joining us.

FUGATE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.