Energy & Environment

FEMA prepares for 'dangerous storm' Florence

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is warning residents on the eastern seaboard ahead of Hurricane Florence, calling it a "dangerous" and life-threatening storm.

Those in states where the Category 4 hurricane is expected to make direct landfall may have to wait weeks before power is restored, FEMA Associate Administrator Jeff Byard said in a call Tuesday with reporters. 

"If you are currently under an evacuation order, we strongly urge you to be cognizant, heed the warning and evacuate," Byard said. "The storm will definitely knock out power, days into weeks. It will destroy infrastructure, homes."

Approximately 1.7 million people are under mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders across North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, the three states that will be most affected, according to the latest numbers Tuesday afternoon from Byard.  

Officials are also predicting major flooding in places "well away" from the storm's landfall, such as West Virginia, Maryland, southern Pennsylvania and northern Georgia, Steve Goldstein, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration liaison to FEMA, said on the call.

FEMA is under close scrutiny this year after the agency admitted it was "underprepared" Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico last year.

Critics slammed the response to Maria compared to FEMA's response to Hurricane Harvey, which hit the mainland U.S. around the same time. Some questioned if the agency treated Puerto Ricans displaced by the hurricane differently than other Americans.

Byard deflected a reporter's question about Maria, saying FEMA is focused on the incoming storm, which is set to make landfall Thursday evening.

"I need to make sure we are focused on Hurricane Florence," Byard said when asked about Maria. "2017 was 2017. I want to reiterate that we are looking at a dangerous storm now, we have citizens that will be in need, and I want to use this opportunity to get this voice out to those citizens that are an evacuation areas to please heed the evacuation." 

He said the agency has implemented changes since 2017, improving their partnerships with the private sector, in particular fuel, transportation and electrical companies, to better meet needs on the ground after a disaster.

He said FEMA is "highly engaged at a national level with major corporations," though declined to identify specific companies.

He also said the priority will be "deploying the right staff at the right time to meet the need." He said there will be fewer operations staff on the ground in certain locations, as FEMA will only be deploying people according to demonstrated need. 

"You may see a smaller footprint from the operations staff, but ... that is what is needed at the time, at this time in the state," Byard said. "We are going to push heavy on the disaster survival assistance teams. They're the ones they get out into the areas when it is safe to do so, to start working with our survivors."

Byard expressed confidence in the agency's preparedness.

"The target is to meet the need," he said. "With the storm of this magnitude, the planning factors, and everything, we will meet the needs." 

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