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FEMA says it is “working to mobilize teams and supplies”

Published: Aug. 27, 2020 at 5:33 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) -- Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane -- one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the U.S.

While it did not live up to the most dire forecasts, major devastation was left behind, including roofs ripped off of buildings, downed trees, and power outrages. As of Thursday evening, six people were killed by the storm.

Late Thursday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided an update with officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Red Cross.

“The damage is substantial, and I think, in the next day or so, we’re going to get a really good picture of what that looks like,” said FEMA Regional Administrator MaryAnn Tierney about the storm’s impacts on Louisiana.

Tierney said assessing the full scale of Laura’s wrath on the Gulf Coast will take some time. But, Lake Charles and southwestern Louisiana were largely spared from the initial, grave predictions of “unsurvivable” flooding.

NOAA meteorologist Steve Goldstein said a slight shift east of the center of the storm made all the difference.

“Had it been ten miles further west, Lake Charles would’ve had extremely serious inundation. Ten miles here or there can make a big difference,” said Goldstein.

Goldstein said wind gusts clocked at Lake Charles Regional Airport topped 128 miles per hour when the hurricane first hit the community.

“They were fortunate when it came to surge, however, less fortunate when it came to wind, because they received some of the strongest winds around that eye wall,” explained Goldstein.

FEMA Acting Associate Administrator David Bibo says the federal government is heavily involved in assisting efforts on the ground.

“After a harrowing night, many Louisianans awoke to devastating damages. And FEMA, along with our state partners, local officials, and non-governmental organizations, are working to mobilize teams and supplies to support relief efforts,” said Bibo.

President Donald Trump also said the administration will be “very aggressive” in helping communities get back on track. A number of FEMA and Coast Guard teams were deployed to communities affected by the storm for search-and-rescue operations. Other federal personnel were assisting with surveying storm damage and distributing resources to storm victims.

FEMA confirmed that Administrator Pete Gaynor and President Trump may be making a trip this weekend to visit storm victims in Louisiana and Texas.

As of Thursday evening, the American Red Cross said more than 10,000 people sought refuge in their emergency shelters, with the vast majority sheltering in non-congregate shelters to reduce risk of spreading coronavirus. Evacuees are staying in places like college dorms, hotel rooms, and other unconventional types of sheltering spaces.

Five hundred volunteers were on hand in the hardest-hit places, and additional volunteers may be heading for West Virginia and Arkansas as the storm keeps moving east.

Heading into this summer, FEMA and the Trump administration hosted numerous media events to warn emergency managers – and the public – to be prepared for a very active hurricane season.

Forecasters are predicting the storm will make it into the Atlantic Ocean come this weekend. Flash flooding, isolated risk of tornadoes, and other storm impacts could soon be felt across the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys as the storm will move through those states before reaching Virginia and Delmarva.

Even though Hurricane Laura has been downgraded to a tropical depression, FEMA and NOAA officials on the call emphasized that residents across numerous states, including Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia need to brace for potential impacts of this system. Officials recommend residents keep a close eye on their local forecasts and obey any orders from local leaders who will be closely following the path of the storm.

Responding to a multi-state monster storm is further complicated by the pressures of responding amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Critical for us is that we aren’t any good to anybody if we get sick, and so, we’ve got to make sure that we are practicing excellent social distancing, making use of cloth face coverings or masks, and washing hands -- all of the steps that are consistent with CDC guidance,” said Bibo.

Bibo said, while changes have been made to the mission FEMA carries out, the human connection is still critical to the work they do.

“We have made it an imperative for the mission to be reminding and communicating with our personnel constantly about that to try and keep the team healthy and keep us, frankly, from getting others sick. It’s a special responsibility when you’re interacting with people who have been through the worst day of their lives,” explained Bibo.

Modern technology has made such adaptations to FEMA’s work more of a possibility. But there are limitations, according to Bibo.

“There are certain things that we can’t do remotely. I can’t hand a disaster survivor a bottle of water through Zoom. However, I can talk through with a disaster survivor over the phone the damage that their home has been subject to by the disaster, and I can gather photographs, rather than sending an inspector in person to somebody’s home.”

FEMA said that hundreds of thousands of people are currently without power, and there are concerns about access to water and other critical supplies. Officials said crews had been strategically deployed across impacted regions before the storm hit to ensure emergency response would be as fast as possible to storm victims.

In anticipation of the storm, FEMA said half a million meals and 800,000 liters of water were ready to be deployed to neighborhoods walloped by Laura.

FEMA officials emphasized that funding was not an issue in assisting state and local governments respond to the storm, as the Congress and Trump administration beefed up emergency reserve funding months before hurricane season began. But, Louisiana, Texas, and other states that will see large-scale damage are expected to request additional relief funding down the road.

Copyright 2020 Gray DC. All rights reserved.

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