Transcript: Former FEMA Administrator Brock Long on "Face the Nation," September 1, 2019

Former FEMA Admin on hurricane prep

The following is a transcript of the interview with former FEMA Administrator Brock Long that aired Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019, on "Face the Nation."  

MARGARET BRENNAN: Welcome back to FACE THE NATION. We want to speak now to FEMA administrator Brock Long. He left the Trump administration in March and now he is back in his home state of North Carolina. He joins us from Charlotte this morning. Brock, good to have you on the program.

BROCK LONG: Good to be with you. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Now we are learning that this is not just a Category 5 hurricane, but it's one of the largest hurricanes ever and particularly for that northwest part of the Bahamas the strongest hurricane that place has ever seen. How should FEMA be focused right now?

LONG: Well, unfortunately, there are a few things that scare me. Not only the wind intensity of this storm, but what I really like to pay attention to is the forward speed of the storm and if you notice in this forecast it's- it's actually forecast to stall and slow down even further. And when that happens I know that the model guidance really doesn't handle storms that well and the track could change tremendously over the next 24 to 48 hours. So FEMA's trying to get the word out to anybody from Florida to North Carolina one, please don't let your guard down because even if the- the center of circulation travels that left hand side of the air cone it could bring tremendous hit two to Florida and other states as it passes up through the southeast. But what FEMA focuses on is trying to properly stage incident management teams, logistical support when it comes to supplies, food, commodities to backup state efforts, and they always want to push as close to the storm as they can without putting people in harm's way.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You heard from the Homeland Security secretary that they do not project this storm to be making landfall in the U.S. right now. But what you're saying is you don't think it is that certain.

LONG: I- I know that here again when you go back to the forward speed there's a lot of uncertainty in this in the track forecast and when a storm basically comes to a halt until it starts to move again the model guidance doesn't typically pick it up. But looking at the model guidance, it is in good agreement that the- that this storm is going to turn back to the sort- southeast but we've got to continue to watch it over the next 24 to 48 hours no doubt about it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Now in terms of disaster preparedness and response FEMA doesn't have a permanent leader, hasn't since you left the job. The Homeland Security secretary is also in an acting position. Does this lack of permanence affect the ability of the agencies to act?

LONG: It's never ideal to not have a confirmed administrator in the position at FEMA. But, you know, I brought Jeff Bard as well as Pete Gaynor in and knowing that those two guys are back there working with, you know, in control of FEMA. I have great confidence. They're two of the best emergency managers I've ever met and they're actually backed up by 20,000 of the most battle hardened FEMA staff that's ever existed. I mean these guys have been through it over the last two years. They've been responding to storms and events from across half the globe. You know a lot of Americans don't realize that they responded to the Northern Marianas when they were hit with the strongest storm in history and Hurricane Yutu and they've responded all the way to the Virgin Islands and the East Coast. When we were in office- or when I was in office, I had over 220 different events. Basically a new event every three or four days and these guys have been truly dedicated they bust their rear ends to serve other people. And I sleep peacefully knowing that Pete's there, Jeff's there, and the experienced FEMA staff is in place.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You're praising the leadership but you have been critical of the agency's functions. Recently you said that it's "Dying a death of a thousand cuts." It's understaffed. You think it could be more efficient, are you--

LONG: --Yeah, I do.  

MARGARET BRENNAN: --concerned the agency isn't- isn't adequate to the challenges?

LONG: Well I think FEMA faces unrealistic expectations by Congress and the American public and the standards in which we declare major disaster declarations need to be increased. You know if you look at 50 percent of the disasters that FEMA has historically declared, they're less than seven and a half million dollars. And in some cases you know we've got to stop looking at FEMA as 911. This is a partnership. You know if we want to get better and become more resilient and respond better than we have to refocus the training upon how we asked citizens to be prepared, not just going out and having supplies for five to seven days, but be- you know teaching them how to become more financially resilient. Teaching them that insurance is the first line of defense, not FEMA. Teaching them tangible skills like CPR when they face active shooter events. But we also have to bolster state- state and local capabilities. But more importantly, until Congress starts to incentivize putting building codes in place and land use planning in place, incentivizing states and locals for ensuring their public infrastructure, FEMA's job is impossible. So it wasn't a knock on FEMA. It's just we have to set realistic expectations for the agency and really bolster the capability from neighbor helping neighbor all the way to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You were administrator when Hurricane Maria devastated  Puerto Rico which you know the Trump administration was harshly criticized for. Are the solutions you just laid out- is that what you've learned?

LONG: Well the problem- what made Puerto Rico really difficult is because a lot of the infrastructure rotted and decayed over a period, you know a long period of time. No doubt about it. And if Americans may not remember, but I had to ask for special authority to actually put funding forward on behalf of FEMA to fix Puerto Rico because of that. FEMA doesn't have the authority to fix infrastructure that's not well maintained. And so when- when- when infrastructure is not maintained the impacts of a hurricane are going to be exponentially worse than what they should be. So, you know, putting Puerto Rico and that issue aside, going forward here again we've got to start electing officials based on building codes, and land use planning, and those who advocate that, and building incentives. You know, start providing more funding to the communities that implement- and implement and uphold stronger building codes because they work.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I know that you fought for funding for Puerto Rico. I think it's now 42 billion dollars that Congress has approved to help Puerto Rico rebuild and not all of it's been dispersed, but the president tweeted this week that Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth and said it's really a matter of broken politicians, corruption, and that the money is being sent to crooked politicians. What do you make of the president's comments given that you fought so hard for these- this funding?

LONG: Well you know I- I- I think where- where the president- I'm not going to speak for the President of the United States but, you know, having worked with Puerto Rico and we've seen recently that the leadership of the Commonwealth has collapsed. You know if- if American taxpayers are going to put, you know, billions and billions of dollars into rebuilding, not only Puerto Rico, but other jurisdictions then you know Congress really needs to focus on making sure that once that infrastructure is rebuilt that it's maintained for years to come. And I think that's the greatest concern that Congress needs to be focused on. And here again, you know Hurricane Maria was far greater of an issue than just FEMA's response and quite frankly a lot of people inside FEMA including myself believe that we kept Puerto Rico from complete and total collapse.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Alright. Brock Long, thank you for sharing your insights with us and we will continue to be covering the storm. We'll be right back.