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Senator Ben Nelson and FEMA Director David Paulson React to Florida Disaster
Aired February 3, 2007 - 12:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta. We're going to take you straight to Lake County, Florida, central Florida where the new governor, Charlie Crist, is talking about the devastation as a result of this string of tornadoes yesterday.
GOV. CHARLIE CRIST (R), FLORIDA: And director, I'll leave it to you and then we'll follow up with you.
DAVID PAULISON, FEMA DIRECTOR: Thank you Governor, appreciate it very much.
First of all, the president and Mrs. Bush want to send their heartfelt prayers and sympathy to those who lost their loved ones in this disaster.
I flew over with the governor. Senator Nelson and Senator Martinez and it's just a devastating area. It makes you sick to your stomach about what we saw about the people who lost their lives and those who lost their homes, and in some cases everything they own.
But I have to tell you we want to thank the first responders, the crews through these four counties and around the state, just an absolute phenomenal job of doing a very, quick and efficient search and rescue. I need to thank the state Emergency Management Center. They are organized. They're Craig Fugate (ph) and his deputy, Rubin Almager (ph) are some of the best in the country. You need to hear that. They've just done an outstanding job.
I need to thank the governor. You have a governor who understands emergency management, he understands and cares about people you. Have two senators that understand how disasters operate. They care about people. And the congressional members in these districts have been on the phone with me constantly for the last day and a half. And I have to tell you I'm just absolutely pleased at what I saw here in my home state about how well it was organized and the care that goes out.
We received a declaration from the state of Florida asking for a disaster assist in four counties, for Lake County, Seminole County, Sumpter County, Volusia. I had my staff work through the night. We got it to the president this morning and I just received a call from the White House that the president has signed the declaration for public assistance, which would include all the emergency measures taken by the state, debris removal. And it will be doing public assistance examinations on the public buildings to see what's damaged and we can assist repair. But also, importantly, is all four counties receive individual assistance.
So if your home is damaged and you need -- if you want assistance from FEMA, you need to register with us. You can call the -- go to the fema.gov website, is the best way to do that. Or call the 1-800- 621-FEMA phone number and we'll register you. I also have a mobile vans coming into this area to register you and help you with assistance. They'll be scattered around these four counties. We also have a lot of equipment coming in. I've got a trailer full of generators that are already in the state. Two trailers with blue tarps, three trailers of water, two trailers of MREs (meals ready to eat), two trailers of blue roof seating and also the five mobile assistant centers that are coming in.
We're here to assist the state. One thing you need to understand is that this is not something that one entity can do. It's not something that FEMA can do alone, it's not something the state can do alone. It's neighbor helping neighbor. It's the volunteer agencies coming to assist, which they already have. It's dozes on volunteer agencies already here working. It's the local communities and the counties doing everything they can to help. The state putting out everything it can do. And the federal government doing everything it can legally do. If we work together, if we work together, we can get through the disaster. And that's what we're going to do. That's what new FEMA is all about is putting team works together instead in (INAUDIBLE) trying to do itself.
So governor, I want to thank you for what you've done. Senators, just an outstanding effort by all.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much. Thank you.
CRIST: I want to reiterate how grateful we are here in Florida to both the president of the United States for approving this and director for you in coming down. Thank you for appreciating what's happened here in Florida. Thank you for appreciating the devastation, the loss of life, how this affects real people in a real way because that's what this is really all about.
When I came down here yesterday and toured it for the first time, I just couldn't believe it. It is amazing to see how destructive and how surgical and the intensity of a tornado, let alone several of them. As you know, we've had a lot of hurricanes in the past few years in our state, but the intensity of these tornados is remarkable. So on behalf of the people of Florida, we cannot thank you enough, director and you, too, Mr. President.
I also want to thank our congressional delegation. And I want to thank the people who have already volunteered to help. The director's exactly right, but you know, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, volunteer groups, this is not just government, this people helping people and doing what's right.
There were some people from my home county of Pinellas, came over and they were making homemade omelets this morning. I mean, that's the kind of outpouring of support, the kind of goodness that's happened here out of a very difficult situation. I want to personally thank Senator Mel Martinez, Senator Bill (SIC) Nelson and give them both an opportunity to talk to you, too -- Senators.
SEN BEN NELSON (D), FLORIDA: Well this is the way government is supposed to work with the local, state, and federal government all coming together. Director Paulison, your pro's pro. This is a man who understands emergency management. He was our own right here in Florida as the fire chief of Miami Dade County before he went to FEMA.
And you can see the change in FEMA. You know the problems that we had with FEMA back in the '04 and '05 hurricane seasons, and you can see that FEMA's really got its act together now. So, director, thank you for responding so quickly. Thank you very, very much.
SEN MEL MARTINEZ (R), FLORIDA: Well, I'm, too, delighted to know that federal government is going to provide the assistance that it can. I want to just commend the governor for pulling everyone together. Governor Crist is only a couple of months in to the job -- or a month or so into the job and has responded ably and capably. I'm very proud of you governor and keep up the good work. He has brought together the local, federal, and state entities to pull together and get this job done and I'm pleased to be here with the members of Congress, Cliff Stearns and Jenny Brown Wade (ph) who represent this district and now our offices along with that of Senator Nelson will be working together in the days to come as problems arise and people need help.
Our caseworkers will be there for them for the people in the area so they can call and get the help they need. We know this doesn't end today. The cameras will go away and the attention will be focused elsewhere, know that still people will be hurting. And as the long- term recovery that is going to take in this area and that's why I look forward to working with those here in local government as well as the members of my legislative -- our federal legislative delegation and continuing to work with the governor's office to make sure that after the lights go off and after the people leave and go back to their business, that the people here who are hurting continue to get the help they need for the long-term recovery that they will need to have. Thank you.
REP JENNY BROWN WADE (ph), SUMPTER COUNTY, FL: The area impacted here, actually is represent Cliff Stearns. I represent the Sumpter County portion of this area. And emergency management should be just that. Crews here, as you can hear in the background, you know, cutting down the destroyed trees, helping people get their lives back together. We are working together here.
We have a strong governor. Thankfully we now have the declaration from the president so we'll be able to get a lot of federal aid down here. People on the ground, as we already had yesterday, saying thanks to Secretary Paulison and we will work together. We will work through this. It is a strong community here, and that's important. But what's more important is that we -- it's well coordinated and it is a disaster that, thanks to the human spirit, we will get beyond and we will be helping people who have been affected -- Cliff.
REP CLIFF STEARNS, FLORIDA: I just want to commend the Marion County and Lake County sheriff's department for the command center they set up almost immediately within 24 hours here at this ground zero sight. They've done a superb job. They set up a curfew and they made sure there was no vandalism or looting which is prominent sometimes after these disasters.
The second thing as Senator Martinez mentioned, long after the cameras are gone, there's people going to be looking for their social security check, their veteran's check or any type of federal, or government, or state benefit and they should know that both Jenny Brown Wade and I have caseworkers in the area that will help them. They can just call our offices, and lastly, we just want to thank the positive spirit of the people who have been involved and encourage them for the future, we're here to help.
CRIST Thank you very much. You know, we've been through this a lot in Florida, as you know. Over the past couple of years we've had eight storms. It's unbelievable that one state would endure that kind of weather, but I couldn't be more proud than I'm right now of the people of Florida. And director, we can't thank you enough again, President Bush thank you for your assistance in hearing of us, yesterday.
I spoke to him yesterday afternoon on the phone and he obviously heard the call and I'm very grateful to you.
But I want to thank the local people, the people right here in Lake County, in Volusia County, in Seminole County, in Sumpter County because they have poured out their hearts to help their fellow man and local law enforcement, local firefighters, the first responders who got here yesterday, they're the ones who are the real heroes. They're the ones who will be here for a long time continuing make sure that the people in this part of the state of Florida get what they need to get their lives back to normal. That's what this is about right now. And it's that kind of effort and that kind of coming together that gets the right thing done. And so, if you all have questions, we'll be happy to strive to answer them. And we'll start with you.
QUESTION: How soon do you think people see these mobile investment trailers, the trailers of water come to these four counties?
PAULISON: They'll be here today. They've already crossed the state line. They be here today, this afternoon. The word that I'm getting all the trailers have started to arrive if not this afternoon, tonight.
QUESTION: My second question is for those needing the individual help, what is the requirement that -- for FEMA to step in and actually to rebuild their home?
PAULISON: If the home is damaged they need to go ahead and register with FEMA. Use the 1-800-621-FEMA number or go to fema.gov and register on the web yourself. That way we'll send an inspector out to look at your home. It has to do with the type of damage you had, do you have insurance or not. We can't duplicate insurance benefits. But we'll have caseworkers out here and people that can -- if your home is damaged and you have damaged property, please just go ahead and register. It's not hurt to do that. They will come out and inspect your home and talk with you and have a caseworker work with you.
QUESTION: People had, after the Christmas day tornados in Volusia County, why was there no federal aid available for them?
PAULISON: I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you.
QUESTION: When people's homes were damaged in Volusia County after the Christmas day tornado, people in this area wondered why there was no federal assistance available.
PAULISON: The state has appealed that decision, and I am...
QUESTION: Why was it refused?
PAULISON: The decision at the time is it did not overwhelm the capability of the state. However the state has appealed that decision. I'm back to the state to get more information from them and that is sitting on my desk. I will make that determination myself. I now will probably make that decision within this next week about the appeal in that case.
QUESTION: How do you feel on that case?
NELSON: On behalf of the congressional delegation, we've gotten into it to support the state's appeal, and we feel very confident when FEMA takes another look at this, they will recognize that that was a very bad tornado as well.
QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) damages (INAUDIBLE) from that tornado?
RUBIN ALLEN (PH), EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT, FLORIDA: Are you asking for this storm here?
QUESTION: From the Christmas day.
ALLEN: The Christmas storm -- my name is Rubin Allen (ph) I'm the deputy director for Emergency Management from the state of Florida.
But there were 141 homes that were damaged and there was approximately almost 61 million dollars in damage for that storm. One of things we do is we bring that information forward to FEMA. FEMA has to make those decisions, and then if we disagree, obviously there's an appeal process that we're currently going through right knew. And we believe there'll be some great -- more information forthcoming to FEMA that we can sort of discuss those issues and work those problems out.
QUESTION: Do you know what the damage is for this one yet?
QUESTION: Do you know what's the damage for this one?
ALLEN: We have economic groups right now currently developing those figures. Right now we have assessment teams determining exactly the numbers of homes that have either major damage or destroyed. The rough numbers that we're just calculating, based on yesterday after we did the search and rescue are approximately 1,500 homes are either major damaged -- majorly damaged or actually destroyed, and that's in all four counties. Hopefully we'll have better figures by the end of this weekend that we'll actually bring forward to FEMA.
QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) can these people down here count on from federal aid?
ALLEN: It's important to emphasize that the death count really only come comes after the M.E. through the Department of Florida -- Department of Law Enforcement. Right now we only have a confirmed out of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, eight. We believe there might be more in the future.
QUESTION: Director Paulison, there's widespread political support in this state for a national catastrophe fund. Now they're trying to rally the rest of the country to get behind it. I know you're not elected, and you don't have a vote, but would that help the way FEMA works if you support something like that?
PAULISON: I think the insurance issue is a big issue. I mean, you know, I live in Florida, too, and I know what I pay for homeowner's insurance, and it gets expensive and it puts some people even out of the market. So we have to do something with it. I don't know what the right answer is. I'm going to leave it up to the elected officials behind me to come up with that decision. But I know here in this state and I know this governor, who's already started to do some work on the insurance issue. It's a big issue, we have to deal with it as a whole -- in the country, not just state by state.
Well, we want everyone to have home owner's insurance, because -- one, that takes the load off the federal government and it gives people much more (INAUDIBLE) assistance. So, it is an issue we're going to deal with. And again, I'm not an elected official, so you're not going to back me in a corner.
QUESTION: How much federal aid can people count on?
PAULISON: Individual assistance can be up to $28,200 based on what kind of damage you have and what they're eligible for. And it could be a series of things, it would repair of your home, replacement of your home, there could be a medical expenses that were not covered, a car destroyed. It's a whole series of things that we would cover under that, but there's a max cap including rental assistance is part of that also. So, it's at $28,200, I believe is the cap for, as the total block that a person could get if their home is destroyed.
And I think you wanted an answer that first question.
WADE: I wanted to -- I'm Jenny Brown Wade, it's my bill in the House on the catastrophic fund. It would, if anything, save federal taxpayer dollars because the reinsurance would be cheaper that the state would be able to buy. Not every state would be in the national catastrophic fund, only if they had a state catastrophic fund. So that overcomes a lot of the objections to, let's say, Kansas might not want to have a catastrophic fund. If the reinsurance is there it will make the insurance more affordable so more people will have insurance and that's the answer to how it's going to help FEMA.
CRIST: Dave, if I could speak to that, too, for a minute. A national catastrophic fund is something we desire very much. Not only on behalf of the people of Florida, but we think it makes sense for the country. I mean if you're from California and you suffer from earthquakes or firestorms, or whatever it might be, the congresswoman is exactly right, the floods that they experience. You know, in the northeast they have blizzards. Throughout the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast they're subject to hurricanes, but it's not just hurricanes, obviously it's tornados too.
That's why it makes sense. That's why Florida has a policy to have a catastrophic fund to get reinsurance, to lower the insurance premium cost on the backs of our consumers. So, this is something we're going to continue to push forward with our friends in the Congress and Governor Schwarzenegger in California.
QUESTION: Do you fear that this is going to undo some of the work that you just finished in Tallahassee on insurance?
CRIST: Quite the contrary. We think the work we just did in Tallahassee in order to address the insurance issue, for example, making sure the policies were not cancelled and that insurance companies didn't jack up rates. These people who have suffered these past 24 hours or so, they're going to benefit from that. And so the members of the House and Senate in Tallahassee need to be congratulated for their great work, Speaker Marko Rubio and especially Senate president Ken Pruitt. These two men led and they led well and they protected these people again along with those that are standing behind me.
QUESTION: You saw today and yesterday (INAUDIBLE).
CRIST: Sure. I mean the hurricanes were incredible with the kind of damage they created. And their swath, if you will, is much broader than you see in a tornado. But the intensity and the surgical strike, if you will, that a tornado creates is, I think, unsurpassed by anything that I have seen at least. I can tell you that. And the devastation, as Senator Nelson described it yesterday, some of these places it looked like the surface of the moon afterwards. I mean, it was absolutely wiped out.
And to see that kind of intensity is -- it's unbelievable. And when you also factor in the fatalities that we're suffering from yesterday and hopefully not again today, but from yesterday, it's something that strikes at the hearts of all of us. We want to do everything we can to continue to support our people. But the director has announced today with the support from Washington and the president goes along way to comforting an awful lot of Floridians in the best way possible. QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) these truckloads of supplies that you have coming in...
CRIST: I'm sorry, I can't hear you.
QUESTION: The truckloads of supplies you have coming in, the tarps and the sheeting, how do you make sure that gets to the people who need it?
PAULISON: We work with the state. The state has plenty of supplies already. The supplies that we're bringing in, we're just brining in as a precaution in case they're need. The state really only asked for the blue tarps, but I sent a lot of other stuff in, generators and water and ice just in case the state needs it. We deliver it to the state and if they need it, it's there for them to use.
QUESTION: What about temporary mobile homes? Based on the damage that you had seen, do you think that there is a need here for temporary mobile homes?
PAULISON: Again, we'll work with the state on that. Right now there's not a crisis for housing. I believe there will be long-term, but we'll work with the state to see if there's going to be a need for something like that.
You know, all disasters are local. The state is there to back them up and we're there to back them up, but the way we're going to be responding is different than what we've done in the past. Waiting for a local community to become overwhelmed before the state steps in, waiting for the state to become overwhelmed before the government steps in simply does not work anymore. We've got to go in as partners. And that's what we're going to do and that's our new philosophy of responding to these disasters. So, we're going to make sure we're there work with the state and then working with local communities. What are the needs (INAUDIBLE) together.
QUESTION: Do we need to get rid of mobile homes?
QUESTION: Do we need to get rid of mobile homes in the state, eventually? It seems like most of the damage is in these mobile homes (INAUDIBLE).
PAULISON: Yeah, that's the state building code. I'll let the governor answer that one.
QUESTION: Do you have any idea...
CRIST: Well, the building code continues to get stronger, as you know, Mark, and we addressed that in a special session that we just had to bring the Panhandle in line with the rests of the state to make sure that those homes are protected, too.
We do need to wrap up. I know that the senators need to get back. But I wanted to conclude by telling you -- and we'll answer your questions individually, don't worry, but I wanted to conclude by thanking you, Director. We thank you very much for your leadership and your support. Again, want to thank our president, our members of Congress; we really appreciate your support in this. Don't be silly. Happy to be here.
But this is a great example of the local levels, state level, the federal level working together. And it's not just the government; it's a private sector too. As you all have seen around here today, an awful lot of people have volunteered to help our fellow Floridians. God bless them and thank god for all of you. Thank you.
WHITFIELD: You've been listening to a number of officials on the federal, state, and local level there in central Florida after touring the devastation across four central Florida counties following a tornados that ripped through the area less than -- or just over 24 hours ago. They toured by helicopter to see the devastation and you heard from the new FEMA director, David Paulson, say that not only are FEMA trailers on the way and arriving today in central Florida, but a number of people will also be getting immediate disaster assistance because that request has been made by the state, and so FEMA has awarded assistance to Lake, Volusia, Sumpter, and Seminoles counties.
The tornado ripped through central Florida in the middle of the night, so many were sleeping. Their cries of terror horrifying, listen to these desperate calls to 911.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My roof's gone. Oh, my god.
911: OK, listen ma'am, did anybody get injured?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No. No.
911: Not injured. You just have your roof is missing?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. My live room, my bedroom, I'm in the kitchen.
911: OK, and there's nobody injured, correct?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, no, but I don't know about my neighbors. It's all old people in here, honey.
911: OK, OK, listen, we got the calls and we are on the way, we are sending people in as fast as possible, OK?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, thank you.
911: 911, where's your emergency?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, I'm in a 18-wheeler and I've just been turned over by a tornado.
911: You're definitely in Volusia County? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes ma'am.
911: OK, what's the last cross street? You're on 17, what's the last cross street you remember seeing?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ma'am I couldn't tell you. I'm trying to get out of the truck.
911: Ma'am, listen to me. Listen to me. Did anybody get hurt?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, my mom is gone -- my mom is gone!
911: OK, is your mom there?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just send ambulance. I don't know where she is.
911: OK, hold on a second ma'am. Hold on. Hold on.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: This is the kind of chaos that followed those string of tornadoes. Our live coverage of the deadly Florida tornado continues. An entire church was destroyed, we'll talk to the church leader straight ahead.
Plus, breaking news in Baghdad. A bombing targets Saturday shoppers we'll have a live report. You're in the CNN NEWSROOM.
WHITFIELD: Horror in Baghdad, a suicide truck bomber plowed into a crowded market today. Police raising the death toll moments ago, to now 121. CNN's Arwa Damon joins us now from the Iraqi capitol, 121, but we know this number could rise, right?
ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely Fredricka, and that is everyone's concern. In fact it has been rising by the minute, we, of course, have been reporting the updates.
And just to update you on another thing, 373 Iraqis wounded. We are hearing from hospital officials from hospitals located in that area that they have begun turning back patients in part because they are simply your flowing with the wounded and other parts trying to direct patients to hospitals where they have certain specialties. We do know that a lot of the victims of these types of explosions do end up being burn victims, for example.
This attack took place, as you were mentioning, in a very crowded central Baghdad marketplace right at peak shopping time at about 4:45 in the afternoon, just before the sun would go down, just about the time when Iraqis would be out doing their last-minute shopping.
A suicide bomber drove a dump truck packed with explosives into that market place and utterly devastated it. Shops, stalls, buildings, vehicles, all damaged. Just to give you an idea of the magnitude of this attack, some 10 days ago there was a car bomb at around the same time in the very same marketplace, but that car bombing, in that case, killed three Iraqis.
As we go back to the end of November where there were six car bombs in Sadr City, again, targeting various marketplaces. In total, those six car bombings killed about 200 Iraqis.
Here we have a case of a single suicide truck bomber that has killed at least 121 Iraqis and again, authorities here do fear that that figure may rise. There are individuals that are believed to be still trapped underneath the rubble and of course many of the wounds of those that were injured in the attack are severe.
There has been this disturbing trend over the last few weeks of an increase, particularly in suicide bombings in the capital of Baghdad, all of this, of course, as U.S. and Iraqi security forces are trying to push forward in implementing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and the U.S. administration's new Baghdad security plan -- Fredricka.
WHITFIELD: Arwa Damon, in Baghdad, thanks so much. We know you continue to stay on top of this story as developments warrant will bring you back.
Meantime the other big story taking place right here, stateside, in central Florida, more than 24 hours after at least one massive tornado devastated four counties. Among those who took a helicopter ride today and viewed the devastation for himself, Senator Bill Nelson, who is with me now, just moments ago.
Senator Nelson we saw you along with the governor and the FEMA director and Senator Martinez talk about your observations. You had described this yesterday as something to witness in a moonscape. Give me an idea of your impressions today.
NELSON: Yes. Fred, you can see the devastation here, but about 20 miles to the east of here, this tornado touched down in all of this ferociousness. And the landscape there, where 13 people were killed, is just absolutely pulverized. It's about 500 feet to 600 feet wide area. And it is just literally like a moon scape.
There were a few little sticks of trees sticking up left, but it really hit in all of its ferociousness there.
WHITFIELD: And while everyone understands why people want to live in Florida, everyone also knows that living in Florida could bring this kind of potential with the kind of track record of natural disasters that strikes Florida.
So give me an idea why the emergency response, perhaps, is different this time just 24 hours after this tornado struck.
NELSON: Fred, I think -- I had trouble hearing you, but I think your question is to compare FEMA to its past. In the '04 hurricanes that we had four that hit Florida within a six-week period and then, of course, in 2005, which included Katrina, as you know, FEMA didn't respond well. They brought in a real professional, and that's David Paulison who is the former fire chief of Miami-Dade County.
He's cleaned out the political dead wood and has brought in a bunch of professionals. They are now on the spot. They know what they're doing. And I give them high marks. We've seen it first tested after post-Katrina right here, and going into this hurricane season in this 2007 year, I'm feeling a lot more confident about FEMA.
WHITFIELD: And the early estimates are about 1,500 households that have suffered either major damage or were destroyed. After getting the view that you got today, do you think that number is perhaps the minimal of the scope of damage?
NELSON: No. That's -- that's about right, 19 lives. There's still a couple missing.
But we're talking about major damage. But, again, when you look at it from a helicopter, it's not like a hurricane. Hurricanes are miles and miles wide. This is a narrow swath. And this thing would pick up and then it would come down. And where it would come down as you can see right here, it's done a lot of damage and especially so in the little place called Paisley.
WHITFIELD: Yes. That was one of the other hard-hit areas, Lady Lake and Paisley, devastated with the kind of death toll.
NELSON: And ...
WHITFIELD: Go ahead, senator.
NELSON: ... that's correct. And DeLand. And it was a very wide area that it hit. It started about 20 miles to the west of here, went all the way to the coast. That's an area about 80 to 100 miles long. So this hurricane -- I mean, this tornado really kept going.
WHITFIELD: And it's a fitting description because while you're talking, we're also looking at tape that's just arriving about exactly what it is that you all saw from the helicopter's point of view, and it is a wide swath of land that was touched by this tornado.
It's still unclear whether it was one tornado or if there were more, but at least one tornado which really devastated the area.
What kind of assurances can you give, senator, to the people who are directly touched by this devastation about how soon they might be able to get into one of those trailers that's on the way today or how soon they might be able to get some other kind of immediate assistance since many people really have the clothes on their backs and that's it?
NELSON: Well, you heard the director of FEMA, Paulison, just a few minutes ago announce that the president had accepted the emergency declaration. Now, that activates a whole bunch of federal financial assistance, individual assistance, housing assistance, assistance to local governments such as debris.
WHITFIELD: I'm so sorry we lost our signal with Senator Bill Nelson there from central Florida. If we're able to reestablish that connection, we will. In the meantime -- all right. It looks like we have him again. Senator? All right. There we go. Sorry about that.
WHITFIELD: I'll allow you to continue.
NELSON: Yes. I was talking about all of the assistance that was activated as a result of this particular declaration. Your specific question was when does the housing assistance arrive?
Last night there were a few people in the shelters because they're out staying with friends and other family, but over the long hall what they're going to need is this temporary housing assistance.
So FEMA's now forward bringing supplies and equipment. The next thing then Fred is to bring in the trailers or housing vouchers where they could go to apartments and that until they can rebuild their lives.
WHITFIELD: Do you see this devastation or this emergency response as the potential redemption for FEMA for so many Americans who have lost hope that they would be able to rely on the federal government in an instant like this?
NELSON: Well, it's an interesting question as you put it at redemption because we should never have to have redemption when it comes to emergency assistance, helping people. But...
WHITFIELD: ... But so many people felt let down.
NELSON: Particularly after Katrina.
NELSON: And particularly after the '04 Florida hurricanes, you're right. But, yes, I think FEMA's stepping out in the right direction. Now, the real test will be when we get to a real active hurricane season. Fortunately we were blessed. The lord spared us hurricanes in the '06 hurricane season, but I think FEMA's ready this time for the '07 hurricane season.
WHITFIELD: And senator, there was an interesting question that was posed from one of the reporters there talking about trailer homes, you know, trailer homes never do well against a tornado or strong winds, the kind of winds that can be brought as a result of hurricanes in Florida.
So the question was might this be an impetus to disallow trailer homes to be able to set up camp in Florida? Is that something that should be addressed on a state level or a federal level?
NELSON: Both, Fred, but it's not going to be the issue of mobile homes or not. It's the question of the construction standards of the mobile home. There's a new law from about five or six years ago that requires all kinds of new construction, much sturdier standards as well as tie-downs.
The problem is so many of the mobile homes in Florida are under the old construction. And so there's been a program here in Florida to try to reinforce them, and more importantly to get the severe tie- downs so that when the winds pick up, they won't pick up with it.
But as long as you have old mobile homes in a place like Florida, it seems like those tornadoes just search them out. And you see part of the result in this set of tornadoes yesterday.
WHITFIELD: Just over a month ago, Christmas Day, another county sustained quite a bit of damage with 141 homes that were devastated at a result of a natural disaster. Many of them were denied the kind of assistance that these people are now allowed to get. And so those cases are being reopened and readdressed. Do you think that is appropriate?
NELSON: Yes. You're talking about the Christmas Day...
NELSON: ... tornado, and that was over on the coast near Daytona Beach.
I feel quite confident that FEMA in looking at the state's appeal when they had turned down federal financial assistance for the victims of that set of tornadoes, I feel quite confident that FEMA's going to reverse its decision and allow that assistance.
WHITFIELD: What are the potential gaps or, you know, voids that you are afraid might arise from a natural disaster of this scope there that you want to try to stay on top of to make sure that people get the kind of assistance that they need?
NELSON: Well, after all the fall der off and people will try to start settling back into their lives, do they have a place? Did they have insurance? Is the insurance company going to pay off? Do they have the temporary financial assistance to get back on their feet? That's what this whole -- that's what this whole program's trying to do, to get them back on their feet.
WHITFIELD: And sorry for interrupting you, but, you know, you touch on insurance. That's huge, especially in Florida, especially after Hurricane Katrina.
So many people were put in a position where they could no longer afford the kind of home owner's or even hurricane or windstorm damage coverage because everything skyrocketed. We saw a number of interviews with people as a result of this tornado that while they had brand new homes or brand new cars, they didn't have insurance coverage. That's a shame.
NELSON: Well, and you're going to hear that more and more, a topic of discussion at the national level. Fred, when the big one hits -- and the big one is the Category 4 or 5 that hits at a highly urbanized area direct from the water, when that hits, it's a $50 billion insurance loss storm, and there's no one state or no one insurance company or no one family that can withstand that kind economic loss.
At the end of the day, the federal government is going to pick that up. Now, the question is do we do it in a rational way with -- such as a national catastrophic fund or changing the tax codes where insurance companies or individual people could reserve for catastrophe.
Those are the issues that are on the table now, and the chairman of the committee, Senator Dodd, has promised me that he's going to have early hearings as we try to build consensus on what is the appropriate federal role of the backup to the states and the local governments when the big one hits on the issue of insurance.
WHITFIELD: Senator Bill Nelson, thank you so much for your time, your insight, and for being a real trooper, dealing with the buzz of the saw activity back there as well as the drop in our satellite feed. Thanks so much senator, appreciate your time.
NELSON: Thanks, Fred.
WHITFIELD: Well, you have seen the pictures, but just as a reminder just in case you really don't get the kind of devastation that resulted. Look at these. Homes blown to bits. Trucks have been tossed aside just like toys. Pictures are quite heart-breaking. And the firsthand accounts, well they are heart-stopping.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CALLER: Yes, my mom is gone. My mom is gone.
911: OK, is your mom there?
CALLER: Just send an ambulance. I don't know where she is.
911: OK, hold on a second ma'am. Hold on, hold on.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: New 911 tapes just being released. The killer storm in Florida, our top story here today. Hear from the survivors straight ahead.
WHITFIELD: Hello, again. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. We're at the bottom of the hour now. Here's what's happening in the news.
Picking up the pieces, a daunting task in central Florida after a killer storm sweeps across four counties. At least 20 deaths are now reported and the search for survivors goes on.
In Iraq, more bloodshed in the streets of Baghdad. A suicide bomber targets another crowded market. More than 100 deaths are reported and more than 370 of the people are wounded. Other parts of Iraq also rocked by deadly attacked.
And now checking stories across America this weekend.
Fire in Philadelphia, a restaurant and nightclub burned today in the Old City section of Philly. The building, popular with tourists, was home to the Five Spot Lounge and Peek-A-Boo Burlesque Revue. The choking smoke forced residents out of nearby apartments.
And in Britain, authorities confirm a deadly strain of bird flu at a turkey farm -- 2,500 turkeys wiped out. Tests will determine whether the strain is similar to one found in Asia. Protective zones are in place around the farm to try to contain the outbreak.
And now back to our top story here in this country. Central Florida, the devastation across four counties. FEMA Director David Paulison got a first-hand view. And as we learned in your press conference, Mr. Director Paulison, we also learned that many FEMA trailers are on the way today. What's the timeline that folks who are now out of their homes can hope for?
DAVID PAULISON, FEMA DIRECTOR: The trailers that are coming in are for primarily food, water, ice, blue tarps, generators. Those types of things that the state has asked for. They're already in the state of Florida. We're moving them to our logistic centers to make them available for the state if they actually need those.
WHITFIELD: You know, the hardest part immediately following a natural disaster of this kind of magnitude is really finding a number of people who have been displaced because they have nothing. They don't have access to their cell phones. They've been blown away. A lot of times they're kind of out of touch with how to find the emergency response. So how is it that you all go about trying to find them?
PAULISON: Well, the state has already set up a victims type of system, a victim locator system. And they're working to find extra people to hook up with their families, find out those that are injured, those that have been deceased. And they're doing a very good job of it. They have lot asked the federal government to step in and do that or to help them with that yet. We're going to be helping them with debris removal, with emergency protective measures and then individual assistance for those individuals whose homes have been damaged or destroyed.
WHITFIELD: Did you see that responding to this disaster was going to be a real test for not only for FEMA, but for you given that so much of the country has been very discouraged by FEMA as a result of Hurricane Katrina?
PAULISON: I don't see it as a test. I just see it as a time we have to respond together. This is one of those types of things where we have to work together. It's not up to FEMA. It's not up to the state. It's not up to the LOCAL community. It's all of us working together as a team.
That's what we've done here. The state has allowed us to work with them as partners, to coordinate with them, and that's going to allow us to do a much, much better job of responding to the victims than we've been able to do in the past.
WHITFIELD: Were there certain things that you've been particularly conscientious of to make sure things certain things get done so that no one can say this is a repeat of FEMA not being able to be reliable to the people who are in greatest need?
PAULISON: You know, we've taken those lessons we learned in the 2004 hurricanes and also what we learned in Katrina and Rita, and even Wilma here in Florida a few years ago -- to make sure we take those lessons, look at clearly what did not work and what did work and what we need to fix.
And we've been working on it for the last 18 months to make sure this organization can be much more nimble, much more agile and much more responsive to the needs of the state and the local communities. And I think we've done that. In fact, I know that we have done that.
WHITFIELD: What were some of those needs that you wanted to make sure that were met right away?
PAULISON: One of the biggest failures was in Katrina was communications, a breakdown in communication between the local community and the state, between the state and the federal government and inside the federal government itself.
We have fixed that. We're now using what we call the unified command system where we're sharing information with each other and Logistics, having the right things at the right place at the right time.
We now have enough supplies in stock to take care of a million people per week if we had to do that. Working with victim registration, making sure that we have the right people on the ground, the right equipment on the ground to be able to register people so we know where they are instead of having them -- not being able to find them like we did in Katrina. Don't forget in Katrina, we had people in every state in this country and we didn't know who they were, where they were or what their needs were. We're not going to let that happen again.
WHITFIELD: And how much are you relying on the state or many of these citizens to convey to you exactly what they need?
PAULISON: Absolutely. We want people, if their homes have been damaged to register on our Web site, FEMA.gov or call the 1-800-621- FEMA number and register themselves on the telephone so we can send an inspector out to look at their house, get a caseworker with them, find out what their needs are and get them the assistance they need. Again, working with the state and the local community.
WHITFIELD: FEMA Director David Paulison. Thanks so much for your time. I know you've got your hands full there as well.
PAULISON: Thank you. WHITFIELD: Thanks so much.
Meantime, Paul Milliken with Central Florida News 13 is on the ground in the storm zone as well. He is at the damaged trailer park in Volusia County, one of four counties hit hard by this storm.
PAUL MILLIKEN, CENTRAL FLORIDA NEWS 13: Yes. Hi, there. We're just listening you talk to the FEMA director. Certainly the people who live here are really hoping for a lot of assistance. They sure need it.
I'm actually standing in an area that's been cleared. Now look right over here. This is an area that has not been cleared as the clean-up process here begins.
We're in the Hawthorne Hills subdivision. This is in DeLand in Volusia County. This is one of the hardest hit areas in Volusia County. Complete destruction here, there's a few houses left standing. For the most part though, they are totally leveled.
You can see a lot of people are here right now trying to clean up. Just a few moments ago actually, folks from the National Weather Service were here as well. They were trying to determine just exactly what category this tornado falls into.
Right now they're saying it looks like it was an F3 tornado. That could even be bumped up to an F4. That would be unheard of in Florida. We usually get some F0s, F1s, F2 and F3 is very rare here.
Just look at all of this over here. You can see a lot of these people just trying to pack up some. Power crews are coming in as well. Power is still out here for the folks who were able to continue living here, whose homes were untouched.
Power may be restored by this evening, but that's kind of dicey again at this point. They're just trying to get a lot of this cleared out. There's so much debris here. It's still pretty dangerous out here as well. There's a curfew that's been in effect. So once it gets dark again, the police will be patrolling, getting people to move out.
Again, a lot of the people here now just don't have a place to stay. We've been stopping by shelters throughout the day. Folks there saying they don't know what they're going to do next. It's going to be a long cleanup process out here in Volusia County. For now though, we are live in Volusia County. Paul Milliken, back to you.
WHITFIELD: And so Paul, what about the people who live in that area? Are we talking about a number of older citizens who have greater needs and perhaps certain vulnerabilities that perhaps some of the other storm victims don't have?
MILLIKEN: Yes. That's really the sad part about this. This is primarily a retirement community. In fact, every area hit in DeLand was primarily a retirement community. That also goes for the Christmas Day tornadoes where we went through the same thing, just about a month ago. And again, it was retirement areas that were hit. So yes, these are folks who basically are living on fixed incomes and many of them living paycheck to paycheck. So again a lot of concern here. Not sure what they're going to do next. A lot of people really depending on federal assistance, which is why there's so much attention focused on the help that FEMA could give.
WHITFIELD: All right. Paul Milliken, thanks so much.
And we'll have much more on the devastation hitting four central Florida counties when we come right back.
WHITFIELD: Our top story, Volusia County, one of four Florida counties hit hard by tornadic activity. Our Susan Roesgen is there in the middle of it all in Volusia County. Susan, what are folks up against there?
SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN GULF COAST CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're up again a lot of things tonight, Fredricka. And the big story here as you can see behind me is up in that bucket where the power company is trying very hard to restore the power to basically just a four-square- mile area, not an area that big.
But they've had to bring in 100 power company trucks to try to do it. We've seen a lot of power poles, fresh poles come in here to replace the poles that the tornado tore down. And also, they're trying to lift the wires out of the mud here on the ground. They say they don't know which wires might be energized still and which might not.
And so they're very concerned about the public safety out here. So they're trying to lift the wires up off the ground and replace the poles that were cut in half by the tornado.
Again, they say they have got about 100 power company trucks out here, just in this small area of Volusia County alone. In this county, 500 homes Fredricka were destroyed. And I'm walking over here to one of them. This is a two-story wooden house that was built 135 years ago, and as you can see, it was absolutely flattened by the tornado early Friday morning.
Even more incredible is that there was someone inside this house, a 21-year-old man was inside this house in a back bedroom. How he got out alive, Fredricka is a story we'll be telling later on this evening -- Fredricka?
WHITFIELD: We look forward to that and there are lots of incredible survival stories just like that, people who were just very narrowly missed by this lethal storm. Susan Roesgen, thanks so much.
And of course, there are other top stories that we're following here on CNN. We'll check in with those in a moment.
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