THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT IN CONFERENCE CALL WITH SECRETARY OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT HENRY CISNEROS, SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION FEDERICO PENA, AND
DIRECTOR OF THE FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY JAMES LEE WITT
The Oval Office
11:59 A.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Hello.
Q Hello, Mr. President.
Q Good morning, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: It's good to hear your voice. I've got Federico, Henry and James Lee on the phone?
Q Yes, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: That's great. Well, I know you've all been working very hard. I know there was a problem with the overcrowding at the disaster assistance centers at first, but I'm really pleased by the work you've done; and I was glad to note in this morning's Los Angeles Times an acknowledgement that we'd gotten those centers up more quickly than in previous disasters and that things seem to be going better.
But why don't you all give me a briefing. James Lee, why don't you start and just give me an overall briefing about where we are.
MR. WITT: Okay, Mr. President. As you know, we were all overwhelmed in the beginning of this disaster at the size of it. It was a tremendous disaster. It was very large, and without any warning at all, and it was totally impossible to go into full operation immediately. But in the LA Times today in an editorial, it gives high praises to you, sir, for sending the emergency response team in the short time that you did and meet this challenge. And it also gives credit for our conscious effort to open these disaster application centers as soon as possible and to start the process of addressing the needs of the victims.
Our top three priorities right now are to meet the immediate needs of victims -- and that is food, water and a dry place to sleep, medical attention and crisis counseling -- and taking these applications for assistance as quick as possible and processing these applications. And right now we're getting on with the recovery process. For example, Secretary Riley was out here yesterday. You sent him out, and we met with the school districts. And we have 97 schools that have major damage. And we are working with Secretary Riley to get the children back into schools by providing assistance for school repairs and also providing modular classrooms until those repairs are finished.
And, Mr. President, as of 8:00 a.m. this morning, FEMA and the state have registered 63,927 applicants. And we are in the
process of getting those checks out to them to meet their immediate needs very quickly, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: How long will it take to get the checks out?
DIRECTOR WITT: We had checks coming out yesterday and we will have thousands of checks coming out each day, and will be more each day coming out. We're processing them very quick.
THE PRESIDENT: What about the language barriers?
DIRECTOR WITT: We have worked with Secretary Cisneros and Secretary Pena and other Cabinet secretaries and the state and local emergency management people in all of the language barriers, in printing every type of information in every language of that community.
THE PRESIDENT: That's good. You mentioned Secretary Riley. I have -- I know he's on the way back, but we got a report from him and I've already directed the Department of Education to send $7 million to the school district there to provide emergency services for the students. That may not be enough, but it will get them started anyway. And I'm glad to hear that.
Henry, where are we on the housing situation?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: Mr. President, as you know, the number of people who were in the parks in the beginning and completely out in the open was massive. And so we imposed a strategy of moving people from those open park settings to tents. It took a little doing to get there, but the people are in those National Guard tents and they're much better than being out in the open, especially with rain due this afternoon. We're looking out the window and seeing overcast sky that will probably make those forecasts come to pass.
Additionally, people are in the shelters, the hard shelters of the Red Cross and the Salvation Army and others -- and all of that puts them in a position where we can help them both through the disaster assistance centers and through the excellent work that James Lee has done in making mobile disaster assistance teams possible to go to the people. That is our top priority right now, is to make the match between the resources we have and the people who remain in the shelters or in the tents.
One of the innovations this time was the use of the certificate, or voucher program, and we now have over 2,500 people, as of this morning, who are out looking for apartments with that voucher, which is being used this way for the first time. I think it's going to prove to be a very, very positive thing. We actually have families now completing the process and moving in, and they will increase by the thousands over the next days.
The tough news is that the number of people who are vacating structures is increasing. The city of Los Angeles alone now indicates that they have asked people to vacate 11,000 uninhabitable structures. That's a fair-sized small town that would have -- the housing of which needs to be replaced immediately. That's just the city of Los Angeles, not out in the county or some of the smaller towns, and it's just what they've gotten to with their inspectors so far. With aftershocks, those numbers can actually increase.
So this ends up being the largest emergency mass action of its kind in U.S. history, and we're going to be working on this for some time.
THE PRESIDENT: You know, there were a lot of other communities affected. What about their housing? I mean, what kind of system do we have to make sure we get out there to the other communities, too?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: We've been working closely with the housing authorities in Ventura County and Santa Monica, in Glendale and Burbank and San Fernando, Santa Clarita. That's the largest of the places that are covered. Also, with Los Angeles County, which covers a lot of the unincorporated areas.
So that's a priority for us, to make sure we don't -- even though the city of Los Angeles is by far and away the largest impacted area, that these other communities know that we're on top of it as well. I'm going to go physically over to Santa Monica today and meet with the Mayor there and the housing authority people just to make sure they know that we're attentive there as well.
THE PRESIDENT: Now, I know that only a minority of the houses had earthquake insurance, but what about those that had insurance? Are the insurance companies there? Are they speeding up payment? What's going to happen there?
MR. WITT: Yes, sir, they are there. They're in there speeding up the payments as quick as possible.
SECRETARY CISNEROS: Part of the problem, Mr. President, a practical problem is that that insurance is very expensive and has a high deductible -- easily, usually $15,000 deductible, sometimes $10,000 deductible. So for middle-income families, getting enough money to have the deductible is itself a problem. And we're trying to find ways that funds can be used to help them get a loan for the deductible so that then that triggers the rest of their insurance, because for some of them, if you don't have $10,000 or $15,000 on hand -- and they don't -- they might as well not have an insurance policy.
THE PRESIDENT: Is the voucher system the preferred way of dealing with this? I mean, are you going to come back and -- will that be part of the supplemental that Leon Panetta sends up to Congress?
SECRETARY CISNEROS: We asked -- we've extended in this first effort 10,000 vouchers. I believe we probably will need to be on the safe side and ask for more. So the answer is, yes, it will be in the supplemental.
THE PRESIDENT: Federico, what about the transportation situation? How are we doing with cleaning up the debris and at least preparing to go to work?
SECRETARY PENA: Mr. President, good news there. First of all, let me emphasize, we have put together a very effective team between CalTrans and the Governor's Office, the Mayor, other governmental entities, local agencies, and of course Rodney Slater from Federal Highways is out here. In fact, in the room with me right now is Dean Dunphy who is a member of the Governor's Cabinet and Jim Van Loben Sels from highway. So the team is working very well.
Of the nine major overpasses that were destroyed, seven have been completely cleared. Detours have already been established. People have been working 24 hours a day since Monday; they have made dramatic progress in clearing the debris. They have already hired engineers to begin the design work for reconstruction of the freeways. But as we know, that will take anywhere from six months and beyond.
So our immediate challenge is to offer people options to get out of their cars and to avoid massive gridlock. In that area, I think we have done a good job in giving people options. Number one, Metrolink, the rail system here, has added more cars. I rode it this morning and yesterday. They're having record numbers of people who are taking it. We now have a ride share program that is quite professional. The Mayor and I and representatives of the state had a press conference yesterday encouraging people to ride share, to van pool, to get out of their cars, to use the bus. A number of companies are cooperating and providing van pools for their employees. So that's working fairly well.
But the bad news is that it will take us many months to repair these freeways and there will continue to be congestion on some of these major freeways. But I have to tell you that people are looking for other options, and we are working very hard. We're cutting the red tape, Mr. President, so that contracts can be let very quickly. CalTrans is being very creative in using new techniques. For example, looking at HOV lanes. In fact, some of them are being painted right now as we speak to encourage people to ride their cars two or three in each vehicle. We're working very closely with MTA, the transit agency here, to offer better buses. So all that's in operation.
THE PRESIDENT: What about getting -- if we had more rail cars, would they be full?
SECRETARY PENA: Yes. We have --
THE PRESIDENT: What do we have to do to get more cars? And what about the buses? How many buses are out there? How many more can we get?
SECRETARY PENA: We've worked with FTA in Washington. The Metrolink has acquired another seven rail cars. They're trying to get another 25, and more locomotives. And we are helping them do that. Amtrak provided a locomotive here. Some of them may come from Canada, but I think we can get those here very quickly. MTA has added a number of buses already. That will also be addressed in the supplemental, which, as you know, we've been talking to Leon about. So we are expanding the service, we're providing through MTA better bus service at Union Station so that when people come on the train, they'll have options on smaller buses to be driven to their work site. So we're adding to that capacity.
THE PRESIDENT: On the contracting work, we heard from the labor council out here, even here at the White House; they said they really wanted to help and do whatever they could to make sure that all the work was speeded up and as much was done as possible. So I know you're getting good cooperation from the labor people out there, too.
SECRETARY PENA: Absolutely. And, also, many of the contractors have been quite helpful. And again, I want to commend the state and the city and -- last night we met with about 20 mayors from the metro area outside of Los Angeles who gave us very good suggestions on how we can respond to their needs. They are also willing to look at their own resources to help contribute. So we've got a very good team operation here in the Los Angeles area.
THE PRESIDENT: The Labor Department, we were in contact with them, and I know they've already committed another $3 million just to pay people to do the emergency and clean-up work. But I think the fact that we're ahead of schedule on that is important. And I know you're going to follow up on the question of how quickly then highway construction can be done, because, obviously, if you could do longer work weeks or 24-hour days in some of those places, it would make a big difference.
SECRETARY PENA: Absolutely, Mr. President. In fact, that is going on now. We're working with companies to have four-days work weeks, staggered working hours. All of those activities we're pursuing very strongly. Fortunately, this community did that during the Olympics and were quite successful. So people know how to respond. And as the Mayor said yesterday, "Los Angeles did it for the world during the Olympics; it's now time to do it for ourselves." And I think that message is getting out to the broader community here.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, that's great. I was informed right before I came out to talk to you that Leon Panetta will be in a position to give me a report today, as I had asked last week, on the supplemental. And all of you and the -- obviously, the Mayor and all the folks, the local leadership in the Los Angeles area and the state folks have been very good about helping us to get the loss figures. So I think we'll be in pretty good shape today to know a little more than we have known for the last few days on what we can ask for from Congress when they come back. So I will follow up on that end.
I'm very encouraged that the lines have gone down some at the disaster assistance centers. And I just hope that we can just keep on top of all this. I appreciate the fact that all of you have stayed out there. I think that has been very good. And again, I want to compliment all the local folks. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who have hardly slept since I was there a few days ago. So you all just keep your chins up and keep working at it. And we'll do what we can here to get the supplemental passed in a hurry.
SECRETARY CISNEROS: Mr. President, this is Henry. Just a quick point out of your philosophy of going beyond governmental approaches -- I'll be meeting later today with Cardinal Mahoney as the first of a number of meetings with church leaders to talk to them about how they can help us both with volunteer services in the parks, at these shelters, but very importantly, to help us talk people who are still afraid and who need somebody other than a government official; somebody that can really, sort of touch them, look them in the eye and persuade them, give them encouragement of a spiritual nature even to go back to homes that are solid and safe, but they're afraid -- really afraid. I mean, people who every time another aftershock occurs break down and cry, and women who say, I think I could save myself, but I'm panicked at the idea that I couldn't collect my children and get them out the door in time.
So the church is going to come into this -- churches I should say -- Evangelicals, Adventists, Salvation Army, the Catholic Church -- and community-based organizations. It's really the only way we're going to get out at something this massive. So I wanted to let you know we're reaching out in the way you always have.
THE PRESIDENT: That's terrific. I think they can do an enormous amount of good. Cardinal Mahoney obviously is very concerned about these things and he's got an awful lot of able leaders there among the priests and the nuns who can, I think, make a real difference. I've been in a lot of their schools, their community organizations. And there's also a very large Evangelical community there and other religious groups. So I'm glad you're involving them; they can make a huge difference.
If there's anything else we need to know back here, let us know. But we'll be able to give you a report back about what we think the supplemental will look like probably before the end of the day. And then we'll just have to keep working together closely over the next few days as the situation unfolds. And if you know more -- because it will take a few days for Congress to act on this, obviously, so we'll have some time. But I hope we can nail down the broad outlines this afternoon.
Thank you very much, and give my regards to the Mayor and everybody else out there.
SECRETARY CISNEROS: Thank you, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: Thanks.
END12:06 P.M. EST