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FEMA coordinator describes catastrophic flooding in Kentucky

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hundreds of people are still unaccounted for in eastern Kentucky. The death toll of 37 is expected to rise after some of the worst floods in the region's history. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear spoke at a news conference this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

ANDY BESHEAR: It is absolutely devastating out there. It's going to take years to rebuild. People left with absolutely nothing, homes that we don't know where they are - just entirely gone. And we continue to find bodies of our brothers and sisters that we have lost.

SHAPIRO: Brett Howard at FEMA is overseeing federal recovery operations in the area, and he joins us now from Kentucky. Thanks for taking the time.

BRETT HOWARD: Hey. Good afternoon. You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: Begin by just telling us what you're seeing on the ground as you move around there.

HOWARD: I think Governor Beshear put it very well. It's devastation. Houses are gone. And it's pretty tremendous that the level of impact this flood had on the citizens of eastern Kentucky.

SHAPIRO: Some of the citizens have told us they wish FEMA had responded more aggressively sooner. Yesterday we spoke to the owner of Kentucky Mist Distillery in Whitesburg, Colin Fultz. Here's what he said.

COLIN FULTZ: People's out cleaning up their roads with their own personal equipment and stuff, trying so we can get out to get to where we need. And then last night, it flooded again on top of what we already had. So some of it had been cleaned up, and then it washed right back out again yesterday.

SHAPIRO: So, Brett Howard, what do you say to people who are frustrated with the pace and the scale of the federal response to these floods?

HOWARD: The federal response began early with - as we became aware of the governor's request and the Kentucky Emergency Management Agency standing up their emergency operations center, we - FEMA - immediately deployed a liaison officer to begin working with the commonwealth. Then on Friday, the president declared a major declaration, and we became heavily involved in it Friday and have - to this point have sent for four - excuse me - five urban search and rescue teams to the area to help with the swift water rescue, to provide technical expertise to the local responders to respond to and help with the search and the rescue. We brought in a...

SHAPIRO: And so are you still primarily in search and rescue mode? Or is it rebuilding mode, clean-up? Like, what is the operation at this point?

HOWARD: The operation at this point is still a little bit of search and rescue and recovery. We are making - we are transitioning from search and rescue now. We're not getting any more reports of stranded individuals. And we're trying to - are transitioning into recovery. We brought in 18 truckloads of water, so we're making - we're trying to get to people, make sure they're safe, sanitary, secure. We have shelters open. We have mobile registration centers available for - to assist survivors in registering for FEMA assistance.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I was going to ask about that because so many people have lost internet and phone access. It must be hard for them to actually sign up and register their needs.

HOWARD: Absolutely. We recognize that. We have deployed survivor assistance teams that are working at the shelters and are going to be going out into the community. And these teams will register the survivors. They'll have the capabilities right there to help the survivors register and register for them. Even if they don't have internet or phone capability, we can go and meet them where they are and get them registered.

SHAPIRO: Now, the heat index tomorrow is supposed to get up above 100 degrees. And so when thousands of households are without power, is that creating added challenges for the federal response?

HOWARD: It does create added challenges, but we seem to be meeting that very well. We're working with the commonwealth. They've established cooling stations in several of the hardest hit areas. We are supporting those so that individuals that do not have power can come to the cooling station. We're making sure that we're - we have stepped up efforts to get more water into these areas and get the water systems back online.

SHAPIRO: This area is prone to flooding, but old-timers say they have never seen anything this bad. They say houses that have stood for centuries were washed away by these floods. What's it going to take to come back from this?

HOWARD: I think the governor said it best - it's going to take years. We've - the federal government, the FEMA is here. We've been here since the tornadoes in western Kentucky last year. I've been on the ground since March. It's going to take some time to rebuild this. What Mother Nature can do in minutes will take mankind years to rebuild. It's going to be - it's going to take some time. We're here through the process. We're going to be here to the end with the governor, with the commonwealth to make sure this happens. But it's going to take some time to get it rebuilt.

SHAPIRO: That is Brett Howard, who is coordinating FEMA's response to the floods in eastern Kentucky. Thank you very much.

HOWARD: Thank you, sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.