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THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary


For Immediate Release January 12, 1995
                            PRESS BRIEFING
                                  BY

JAMES LEE WITT, DIRECTOR OF FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY

The Briefing Room

3:15 P.M. EST

MR. WITT: Good afternoon. I'm James Lee Witt, Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And I just got in this morning about 5:00 a.m. from California, and just got through briefing the President on the flooding situation in California.

The President declared 24 counties in California for federal aid. The State Office of Emergency Services of California and FEMA staff are reviewing 10 other counties that the state has requested to be declared. I do not have a list of those counties yet because they have not faxed them to me.

The situation out there -- there has been a lot of rain. There have been thousands of people evacuated. There are 47 shelters still open, about 1,700 people in those shelters, and it's falling each day as far as people in the shelters. As of 12:00 noon today, we have taken 2,200 applications for individual assistance by the 1- 800 teleregistration number. And that's -- 1-800-462-9029 is where the victims call.

There's four cities that are under boilable water at this time. No major water problems as far as drinking water. We're watching that very closely with the State Office of Emergency Services. We have one major highway still closed, one mile section of I-880. There also is -- the Santa Barbara airport is closed to fixed-wing operation, due to flooding of the taxi ways and access roads.

We also have a concern about the Russian River that's starting to rise again and the potential rainfall that is expected over the weekend. But between FEMA, the state OES and Secretary Pena from the Department of Transportation, Secretary Cisneros, Secretary Shalala of HHS, we're making sure that we're monitoring everything in the support of the state and local communities and make sure that we meet their needs.

And so if you have any questions --

Q What will President Clinton be able to see if he goes around the area on Tuesday?

MR. WITT: Well, there probably would still be some flooding in some of the areas that he would be able to look at.

Q Does he plan to do that?

MR. WITT: I think it's been discussed.

Q I understand there's some problems with residents in Orange County and Los Angeles who called the 800 number yesterday and I believe early today and were told they were not eligible for assistance because the declaration covered everything from January 6th forward, and a lot of the flooding was on the 4th. Can you tell me what's being done to rectify that? Has the problem been fixed yet, or if not, when will it be fixed?

MR. WITT: Yes. They can go ahead and call and apply, and we'll take their application and we will look at -- with the National Weather Service to see if the incident period should be scooted back to the 4th, from the day of the declaration. And we're looking at that now.

Q You haven't decided to put it back to the 4th yet?

MR. WITT: No, but we're going ahead and taking their applications.

Q When would a decision be made on the 4th?

MR. WITT: Probably today.

Q Do you have any idea yet of a dollar figure on damage here?

MR. WITT: We started Monday and Tuesday doing damage assessment with the State Office of Emergency Services in California. The preliminary damage assessments were cut short by all of the rainfall that we were having out there. The two days that we assessed the damages -- and this is just an estimate based on those two days of assessments -- was about $50 million.

Q Does FEMA need some kind of emergency supplemental appropriation to cover this?

MR. WITT: There is a possibility. We are looking at that very closely. We still have $1.8 billion unobligated from the supplemental in Northridge. We also had $320 million appropriated in the disaster fund for the 1995 budget as well. So we're okay for now, but we are looking at the possibility for some more funds in the President's budget.

Q One of the reasons for the President's trip next week is to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the earthquake. Can you give some sort of accounting for where FEMA stands now a year after that earthquake?

MR. WITT: I was in California Monday and Tuesday for the preparation of the conference we're having next week on the anniversary day. I had the opportunity to visit the Joe Kennedy School, one of the schools that I had visited when I was out there in during the disaster itself, and it was really interesting.

The school is basically almost completely rebuilt. The students are there. There's only two buildings there that are not finished, and there were 5,600 buildings of the L.A. unified school district that had been damaged -- out of 11,000 buildings. And out of those 5,600 buildings, all of them are in use except 40, and that's within one year. And that's a major accomplishment because they have 800,000 students in those schools. And they were back in school in two weeks.

So far, out of $11.1 billion that was appropriated for their supplemental, there has been $7.4 billion obligated, and that's from SBA, Department of Transportation, FEMA and other agencies.

Q Back to this question about the 4th and the 5th, and not being included in the declaration. I understand from people in California that was some kind of a mistake by the White House. Was this a mistake? Are those two days -- those two days were specifically left out or intentionally --

MR. WITT: I was in Los Angeles, and the Governor's request, the letter to the President was faxed to me at the hotel. And at that point, I reviewed the letter and was in contact with the White House, Leon Panetta and the President -- faxed it to the White House. It was approved within one hour after I had received it in California by the President.

Q Did the Governor ask for it back to the 4th or to the 6th?

MR. WITT: I would have to go back and look at the letter. The declaration was made on the day of the request, and that's why it was that day. So we did not look at the incident period that night. It was very late at night and we were trying to get this processed and done very quickly so that the people of California could get assistance. And that's why the President was concerned about --

Q Was it an inadvertent omission?

MR. WITT: If it was omitted, that's probably the reason, yes. We're looking at it. Probably have a decision today.

Q What type of a precedent is there for the agency rolling back the time of a disaster incident?

MR. WITT: We've done that before because incident periods can -- a declaration can be made and the incident period can start a day or two before, even though it was made on that day, or an incident period can be extended, as well. So that happens sometimes.

Q Mr. Witt, is there going to be any attempt by FEMA to discourage people from rebuilding on some of these vulnerable sites along the Russian River, or any other locations?

MR. WITT: I think a good indication of what we've been able to do, because of what President Clinton -- the bill that he signed during the midwest flood on mitigation, was the Volkmer bill, where it increased the amount of dollars that was available for mitigation efforts in a state during a presidential disaster declaration.

In the midwest flood, we have been able to relocate 7,700 pieces of property out of the floodplain that will never be built back in that floodplain again. There will be mitigation dollars available in California, under the California State Hazard Mitigation Plan. If it's a priority for them to look at either elevating or relocating homes that have been devastated by this flood, then we will work very closely with them to make that happen. But this is a voluntary type program, it's not a mandated program.

Q Has anybody requested such aid?

MR. WITT: Well, it's a little early yet, you know we're just now in recovery of the flood. So we'll be working with them to see.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END3:23 P.M. EST