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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release September 29, 1998
                             PRESS BRIEFING
                      FEMA DIRECTOR JAMES LEE WITT

The Briefing Room

11:34 A.M. EDT

MR. TOIV: Good morning everybody. I know you're all interested in being updated on Hurricane Georges, and here to do that, to talk about the federal government's preparation for and response to Hurricane Georges is the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, James Lee Witt.

MR. WITT: Good morning. Good to see you, too. First, let me say that we've been dealing with Hurricane Georges since a week ago Sunday. We've been working 24 hours a day at FEMA with 26 federal agencies and making sure the response went well and trying to meet the people's needs. There's been an awful lot of devastation.

The entire infrastructure in Puerto Rico was destroyed; over 80,000 homes damaged, 37,000 homes destroyed and others with major damage and minor. It's very unusual for a hurricane to come across that much landmass without just dissipating. And then the Florida Keys, we've had over 1,500 homes affected. Some 100 and something homes destroyed, either with major damage or minor damage. And so this is an ongoing response action at the present time.

With Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, it's still raining. They've gotten up to 30 inches of rain, and over 30 inches of rain in some areas. The rivers are cresting and it's still flooding in a lot of the areas. I visited with all of the governors and the congressional delegations and the people are still in shelters. So now the President has asked me to go down to meet with the state and the local officials -- the governor's local officials -- to see what else we may need to do to help them as the water recedes and goes down and we start the rebuilding process. And I will probably be going down tomorrow or Thursday.

Q When will President Clinton visit the area?

MR. WITT: He's very concerned about this. I briefed President Clinton just a few minutes ago from the Virgin Islands all the way through the track of Hurricane Georges. He asked me to go down to look at this. He doesn't want to -- and he's very interested in going down and meeting with the people in the communities, but he doesn't want to go down to take anything away from the emergency response that is ongoing at the present time. So after I go down and assess it and see how far along we are, then we will make a decision.

Q Do you have an estimate on the damage from the beginning of the hurricane in our territories so far?

MR. WITT: It's still just a little early to give an estimate of the damages. Someone gave me a figure this morning, the economic loss just in Puerto Rico is a little over $200 million. One of the figures I saw was over $2 billion just in Puerto Rico, but that was just an estimate.

The insurance losses in just the Panhandle is over $200 million -- just insurance losses. And the infrastructure losses, we're still doing damage assessments, and we'll continue to do that through this week to make sure we get a good estimate. And hopefully by the end of the week, we'll have some figures coming out.

Q Are you looking at possibly any contingency plans for years to come, especially with cities like New Orleans, that are below sea level and that are between rivers?

MR. WITT: I'm so glad you asked that question. It's very important because -- I want to tell you the success stories that we have had. In the Virgin Islands, after Hurricane Marilyn, we did a lot of prevention and rebuilding. And the reason the Virgin Islands had less damage is because we did prevention, we did mitigation.

But what's important now as we rebuild in high-risk areas is that you look at those high-risk areas and you look at how to rebuild or not rebuild in those areas, because when you look at the repetitive loss areas and the high-risk areas it's -- should people have to continue to go through this type of a situation. So we are looking at this and we are absolutely moving forward with what we call Project Impact, a prevention program where now we have 57 communities across the country where we go in, identify the risk with the state and work with the community, bring in a corporate partnership to minimize that risk.

Pascagoula, Mississippi is a Project Impact community. Wilmington, North Carolina, that was hit by Hurricane Bonnie, was a Project Impact community. And the prevention they had already put in place saved a lot of money before the storm came through.

Q -- of that prevention, if you could list some of them?

MR. WITT: We work with the community and they identify their highest risk. It may be a high flood risk; it may be a prevention of hurricane shutters and tie down roofs, anchoring homes down to foundations. Freeport, New York, we just signed the agreement for their project Impact Community. They're doing a buyout relocation of about 40 homes to get them out of a flood risk because it continues to flood there.

Q Could you describe our efforts in areas beyond our territory, in Haiti and the Dominican Republic -- what have we done to help those countries?

MR. WITT: Of course, OFTA has the responsibility for -- the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance -- working in the other countries. And AID is there working with them as well. President Clinton asked me to call the President of the Dominican Republic and visit with him to see what else we might be able to do to help in some way. I did talk to the President yesterday and I asked him what was his most pressing problems, and of course, building materials, lumber, nails, food, water -- all the necessities to rebuild. And so our liaison with the donations program is working now to identify those things that might be able to help through foundations and volunteer organizations.

Q According to predictions, projections, this may be one of the worst hurricane seasons in a long, long time. Does FEMA have the infrastructure, personnel, and the resources if we keep getting these types of hurricanes?

MR. WITT: Well, we could always use more personnel, there's no doubt about that. But I think we're okay for now. What we've tried to do is set the agency up -- because it is much smaller now than it used to be -- set this agency up now where we can pull off of different regions and different parts of the country to bring in, to help. And it's working very well. So we're okay for now.

The resources -- the President had asked for funds in our '98 budget as well as '99. Congress very wisely gave us more money to be ready for this type of storms, and so we're okay for now as far as dollars.

Q Are you still getting positive feedback on the type of job you all are doing, because before you took over the agency was ridiculed?

DIRECTOR WITT: It's been very positive so far. Of course, we have our negatives every once in a while, which all of us do. We're not perfect, you know, we make mistakes. But we still --it's very positive.

The First Lady, of course, is in Puerto Rico. She's going to Puerto Rico today and she will be flying over the damaged area of Puerto Rico, as well as visiting one of the shelters there, because we still have 18,000 people in shelters, and will be meeting with the Governor and other elected officials and getting a briefing other the distribution of food and water and everything that we're doing there, and just showing the support to that country -- it's been totally devastated.

Thank you.

END 11:44 A.M. EDT