The Federal Emergency Management Agency was able to accomplish all its goals in helping the Commonwealth recover from the devastation wrought by Typhoon Soudelor last Aug. 2, according to FEMA coordinating officer Stephen De Blasio.
“Yes, we were able to accomplish our goals in the four months we’ve been here. We’ve put a lot of FEMA dollars there on the streets to the homeowners. The Small Business Administration has been here and put a tremendous amount of money to homeowners and businesses of all sizes. The voluntary agencies continue to work with folks for any unmet needs that continue under the immediate case management program,” he told Saipan Tribune in an interview the day before leaving the island last Saturday.
In monetary terms, De Blasio said FEMA was able to accomplish the following:
Pushed out to individual households over $20 million in rental assistance, housing repairs, and “other needs” assistance for personal property lost.
SBA was able to approve upwards of $28 million in low-interest loans to homeowners and businesses of all sizes.
FEMA provided $70 million to the local government to repair public buildings that were damaged.
Funding aside, De Blasio said one of the goals that will really have a lasting effect during the post-Soudelor period is the recovery and rebuilding effort FEMA conducted with the help of the other federal and local agencies.
“When we rebuild we want to make sure we’re stronger and more resilient and more disaster-resistant so you won’t incur the same damage when the next typhoon comes through or whatever the event may be. We’re big on mitigation so as we build back we make sure that we’re building it back in a way that wouldn’t incur the same impact when the next storm comes through. I believe that we will continue the rebuilding process, fixing the buildings that were damaged and mitigating future damage that may come in the future.”
De Blasio said some of the things FEMA was able to accomplish on the mitigation side were putting up concrete poles with the help of the Commonwealth Utilities Corp.
Another mitigation project FEMA wants local government to look at, he said, is putting below ground some of the power lines, for instance the CUC lines between the power plant and the hospital.
“Get that underground! Concrete poles around the substations. Concrete poles all the way to the airport. We did the same in Guam after Typhoon Pongsona. All you see are concrete poles. So we need to do that here as well,” he said.
For home construction, De Blasio said his mitigation people built models of houses that could survive the strongest typhoons.
“We showed them how you strap from the slab up the walls, over the roof, and back down to the slab on the other side so everything is strapped so the roof will not be blown off and the homes will not be blown over or blown away with the next storm…it shows how we should be rebuilding the homes. Use screws rather than nails to hold the roofing material down to the beams and then again strap down the roof’s ends…” he said.
Of all the challenges FEMA faced in the post-Soudelor recovery, De Blasio said the most daunting was getting resources to the Commonwealth.
“It’s always a huge challenge to just get resources in here. So we had to fly things in. It was too slow to get barges coming in and out because the barges have very limited capabilities. They basically have resources to deal with their daily routine of traffic and out of the island. So, it was difficult to get our stuff on these barges at our leisure, so to speak. So, we ended up having to airlift an awful lot of things to the airport. We flew in generators, other resources from Hawaii and Guam. We used the Department of Defense on a mission assignment to bring in the USS Ashland, which brought in the first batch of generators from Guam from our distribution center in Guam over here and that really got the ball rolling and were able to provide the federal support to local entities who were already doing things and making things happen,” he said.
FEMA was able to overcome the challenges with the help of local, federal, and private agencies and voluntary groups.
“The collaboration and the cooperation was tremendous not only with the government but also with the voluntary and faith-based agencies, the private sector stepped up, a lot of workings with the banks to handle the money that FEMA was putting out here to make sure it got into the hands of the survivors. Again, there will always be challenges but the key is to be able to have a flexible and scalable system of coordination collaboration that you can adjust to meet those challenges. To have an impact on survivors, that’s the key.”
As in all catastrophes, FEMA learned a thing or two from Soudelor, De Blasio said.
“This was a terrible event. It was a major, major storm. It was devastation that hasn’t been seen here since 20 or 25 years. You always learn lessons from these events and we’ve learned a few. We’re going to improve upon our operations as we do after a disaster.”