As Hurricane Florence churns toward the Carolinas, bearing a potentially lethal ocean surge and winds and torrential rains, the federal government is marshaling its forces to help communities prepare and recover.
President Donald Trump said Thursday afternoon that he was briefed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, first responders and law enforcement officials, who are ready for the storm to make landfall Friday. “We are with you!” Trump tweeted, along with a satellite map showing the swirling mass heading toward the U.S. coast.
The government’s preparation wasn’t without controversy as Trump earlier disputed the death toll in Puerto Rico due to 2017’s Hurricane Maria, saying on Twitter that “3,000 people did not die.” The administration has been criticized for its response to Maria and Trump was lambasted by Puerto Rico’s leaders and congressional Democrats for seeking to discredit an assessment commissioned by the island territory and conducted by researchers at top U.S. universities. Several key Republican lawmakers said they were confident in the accuracy of Maria’s death toll despite Trump’s claims.
Here’s a look at what the federal government, which has 4,000 employees involved in the effort, is doing to prepare as the winds and rain start bearing down on the Carolinas.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Homeland Security Department arm that was criticized for its poor response to Hurricane Maria and other disasters last year, has been the centerpiece of the Trump administration’s preparations for the storm.
More than 1,000 FEMA workers are preparing to respond to Florence and other storms with teams deployed to North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia ahead of landfall to assist with evacuations, conduct search and rescue, and help distribute food, water and other needed items after the storm. Among the “prepositioned resources” are more than 11 million meals, 18 million liters of water, 60 thousand cots and 1 million blankets, according to the White House.
The agency is also helping the Trump administration manage expectations. “We call them disasters because they break things,” FEMA administrator Brock Long said during a briefing Thursday. “The power is going to go out.”
The Environmental Protection Agency, which is the lead agency for spills of oil and other toxic substances on land, is monitoring more than three-dozen Superfund, oil production facilities, and chemical storage sites that may be in the path of the hurricane. The agency is also monitoring drinking and waste water sites that could be in harms way.
“We have teams of on scene coordinators and equipment ready to deploy,” said Reggie Cheatham, director of the EPA’s Office of Emergency Management.
Duke Energy Corp. was ordered two years ago to clean up coal-ash ponds in North Carolina that posed risks to the environment and public health. The company won’t be done in time for the storm, leaving the sites vulnerable to spills that can unleash the waste. The state is also a major producer of poultry and hogs, and man-made lagoons that hold manure also could be at risk of overflowing into fields and nearby waterways.
The Energy Department is monitoring the storm’s impact to millions of utility customers as well as the status of refineries, nuclear power plants and other sites in Florence’s path. The agency says it has deployed employees to emergency operations centers in the Carolinas to help.
Additionally, more than 40,000 utility workers from at least 17 states stand ready to assist with turning the power back on, the department said.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent agency, is sending inspectors to nuclear plants that could be damaged by the hurricane, including Duke Energy’s Brunswick plant on North Carolina’s southern coast — directly in Florence’s projected path.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has more than 200 employees on Florence duty and has already received $6 million “mission assignment” dollars from FEMA, according to the Corps’ Ray Alexander. The agency is also monitoring five of their dams in Virginia and dams they own in Virginia and North Carolina.
The Coast Guard has shallow water rescue boats as well as rescue aircraft at the ready.
The Navy has sent about 30 vessels out to sea from bases in the Norfolk, Virginia area, to protect them and the docks from the storm.
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