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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Hurricane Sandy Recovery Update in New York

Michael Byrne, FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer
New York, NY
January 29, 2013

State Dept Image/Jan 29, 2013/New York, NY
Date: 01/29/2013 Location: New York, NY Description: Michael Byrne, FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer, briefs at the New York Foreign Press Center on Hurrican Sandy Recovery in New York. - State Dept Image

2:30 p.m.


MODERATOR: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the Foreign Press Center. We’re happy to have Mike Byrne here. He’s the FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer. We’ll talk today about the recovery efforts with Hurricane Sandy, give you some updates. We’ll start off with remarks from Mike, open it up for questions. I will be in charge of that, and we’ll go from there. Thank you for being here.

MR. BYRNE: Thanks a lot. Good afternoon and thanks for being interested in the work we’re doing here.

I first want to start by letting you know that while FEMA has the responsibility for coordinating, it really is a team effort. We come in support of the state, with the federal system of government. We are invited in by the state and the city to work this disaster, and we’ve worked with them quite a bit. I actually worked the response – FEMA response to 9/11 a while back and also am a New York City born and bred, former New York City fireman. So I kind of know the environment I’m working in here, and it really is a great collaboration. I know a lot of the key people here and it’s been a pleasure getting a chance to work with them; unfortunately under these circumstances, but it does provide for a very collegial environment.

In addition to that, though, we’re not the only federal agency that’s playing a role here. We had – in the early days, we had a very large footprint of other agencies – Health and Human Services, to be in particular, the Department of Defense, EPA, I could go on – pretty much the full federal family. When something this big happens, we all come together and it’s the responsibility of FEMA to coordinate all that and to provide funding to those agencies so that they can provide the response.

Well, a couple of things about the response. Generally, in the early days of the response, the most important thing is the people that are being impacted, the survivors, the people who’ve survived the event and need assistance to get back on their feet. And we were able to move pretty quickly; we were able to get lots of supplies in. Within 24 to 48 hours, I had over 1 million meals ready to eat and 1 million liters of water in place here in the city to be distributed by the state National Guard and the city to the people – and the counties – to the people that needed that assistance.

We also helped them with movement of patients. We brought in ambulances, literally hundreds of ambulances from all over the country. But also more importantly, we provide financial assistance to the survivors. We had over 261,000 families apply for assistance, and we’ve paid out, to date, about a little over $871 million in assistance directly to those families. It’s not money that they’re waiting for; it’s money that they already have in their hands to help them recover. They can use that money for a variety of things. They can use it to repair their home. They can use it to rent a resource – rent a rental unit while they’re working on their home. They can use it to replace some of the things that they’ve lost.

There’s other types of benefits that we provide. Namely, on some of the sad things, we do provide funeral benefits, and if you are running short for that, we’ll provide – and I think we’ve had – I paid – I think we processed about 41 of those funeral benefits to date. We also provide disaster unemployment insurance. If, for example, regular unemployment is not available because you were self-employed or something like that, we’ll provide those kinds of assistances. So we really try to run the full gamut of assistance that’ll get people when they’re sort of knocked down for a little bit by a storm of this magnitude to help them get back on their feet and start the recovery process.

In addition to that, because of the diverse community here – New York is the melting pot of the United States – and we ended up printing over 970,000 fliers in 25 different languages, including – in addition to English. And we also brought in – we had specifically five people who were responsible for our international relations and to go out and outreach in these communities. As you’re aware, there are neighborhoods in New York where the first language is not English. The first language is Spanish, is Russian, is Yiddish, is – pretty much runs the gamut. It’s a very exciting place to work, but it also creates challenges for us to communicate.

And a lot of cultural differences, which we’ve been fortunate because we have worked with the leaders of some of these communities, to be able to outreach and to get people to realize that this assistance was available. I will tell you, we continue to get a level of application – here we are 90 days in – and yesterday we took another 400 new applications. So the applications continue to come in. Not at the rate we were seeing in the early days. We literally were getting thousands of them a day. But we’re still seeing significant numbers, and I think part of that is because of getting the message out that there is assistance available and you should take advantage of it.

In addition to assistance to families, we also provide assistance to public and private nonprofits that are eligible. And these are the really large, sort of, capital projects that will need to come back – major hospitals – Bellevue, NYU, the Health and Hospital Corporation here in this city – these are going to be major, major projects because they were severely damaged. In fact, some of them are not back to full operating capability even as of today – the tunnels that flooded, the MTA and PATH trains that were flooded; the roadways and bridges that were impacted by this storm; as well as the overtime costs for police, fire, and emergency services for the efforts there.

That’s what we’re entered into now, and we’re well over – I think about 500 million has been paid out – but we fully expect that those costs are going to be in the billions, not the millions, in terms of – to get the city and the state and the counties back to normal. Just some of the projects, like the waste water treatment facility out in Bay Park – it’s certainly going to be hundreds of millions of dollars to get back online. Sandy was a powerful storm. It didn’t just flood, but it came with force. And it destroyed a lot of homes and a lot of infrastructure because of the sheer power of the water that came through.

Now, in addition to the public assistance program, there is something else that the FEMA – because of the way that the law that created us, the Stafford Act, is structured, it has a piece in it that’s called hazard mitigation. So it allows us to look at these projects, these places that were damaged, and in fact, the whole infrastructure of the region, and to say, “We can add a little more money to this to build it back smarter, to build it to be more resilient, to build it so that we don’t have to continually, repetitively, have this fail should storms come along.”

And what happens is that for every dollar that’s spent on the storm, of the first 2 billion that’s spent, an additional 15 cents is added to a pool of money, and then for over 2 billion, an additional 10 cents is added, and it creates a pool of money that will become the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. It’s a state-run program. We provide the money to the state. But the exciting thing about this program is that the requests for assistance bubble up from the local level, so local jurisdictions will get a chance to think about, “What is it we really need?”

Yesterday, coincidentally, we released the new Advisory Base Flood Elevation numbers that showed the changes, dramatic changes that took place in terms of having to elevate to a higher standard now here in the city. One of the things that could be eligible is to help take care of that problem, either the buyout homes that now, it doesn’t make sense to continue to have them there, or to help pay for elevation. It’s not a given that that’s what the money’s going to be spent on, but it’s certainly an opportunity for that to be used in that way.

So we’re entering that part of it. Obviously, that’s a more deliberative process. It’s one where a lot of thought has to go into it, a lot of community engagement to find out what the right uses of the money are. But that process is underway and we’re in discussions with the state and the city and counties to figure out what the best solutions for them are.

But it’s certainly – I think it’s – I can tell you from my experience in working other disasters – in particular, the one that’s closest to mind is I was in Louisiana for Isaac earlier, middle of last year, and during – in some communities I got to go to, those homes that elevated came away just fine. The power was out for a few days, they had some cleanup to do, but their living space was fine and they were able to get back to normal a lot quicker than those that didn’t elevate. And the ones that didn’t elevate did continue – did suffer damage unfortunately, yet again.

That’s kind of like the – overall in a nutshell, and so I’d pretty much just like to pause and open it up and see if you guys have any questions.

MODERATOR: For those of you who have questions, I’ll just kind of point your way. Just state your name and organization. That way, Mike knows who he’s talking to.

QUESTION: Tom Ronse, Morgen, Belgium. Sir, you are quoted in the New York Times today as saying we’re not taking into consideration any future climate change. That was in regard to the flood map. That’s sort of baffling. It’s like a general saying, “We’re going to prepare for the last war.”

MR. BYRNE: Well, we have to go with the – this has to be based on the science that we have available to us today. And the models that we have are quite robust and quite thorough. So what we do is we factor in the current state of the land and then the current force of water models that we can use. And we envision whole different varieties of storms. The ability of our computing power today is far greater than it was the last time this was done, which was 30 years ago. And that ability gives us the best knowledge that we have today for how this is going to go forward.

As far as the implications of climate change, there are no models for us to use for that. The models we have and the science that we have is what we use to make these recommendations. And I’ll tell you, they’re pretty conservative in the sense that I think if they’re followed, our current experience in terms of – say, for example, in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, the model that was put in place for them in 2009 ended up being quite accurate, quite accurate.

So we’re confident that we’re giving people good advice, and we’re confident in the data that we’ve got thus far.

QUESTION: I heard that FEMA is planning to pull out of the affected areas by the end of the month. Is that true? And I heard also that there is an outcry from these communities and an appeal not to do that.

MR. BYRNE: Well, I wish they’d tell me they were pulling out. I would be able to reduce all my staff numbers. But no, that’s not – that is not – simply not true. If you know specific areas, please share that with us, and we’ll make sure that the messaging gets out. No, I still have a force of over 2,500 FEMA workers here, and we’re going to be here for the long haul.

Now, there are different things we’re going to do. There are different places that we’re going to shape our response to meet the requirements that we see. So at the high point, we had 20 or 30 disaster recovery centers open. We don’t need that many now. We have about 18 still open. I still had people roving, knocking down people’s doors in the early days, especially when the power was still not back on. We wanted to make sure people were okay, and we worked with the city and the state to do that.

But that doesn’t mean we’re going away. FEMA’s here for the long haul, and we’re not leaving until we’ve used every possible funding capability and every possible assistance capability that we have to the fullest.

QUESTION: Okay. Ahmed Fathi, Saudi TV, economics channel. When you spoke about the elevated houses in Louisiana that was in better shape with Hurricane Issac, was this due – that this elevation process took place after Katrina or a different hurricane?

MR. BYRNE: In many cases, it was done after Katrina, but it may have been done earlier. But the – in specific, there’s one community I went to, a little town called Lafitte, and it’s surrounded by water on three sides; a very, very strong, very cohesive community; a lot of spirit about their place, a spirited place, wanting to be there. And they decided after Katrina, after they got hit, that they did a lot of elevations. Now, not everybody elevated, but everyone who did elevate came away from this last storm in pretty good shape.

QUESTION: With some areas in New York City, specifically using the examples of Staten Island and Far Rockaway, after today we watch on different news channels the situation is still deteriorating, people – lots of people are not back to their houses, lots of people have mounting demands. There is no problem in food. That’s it. But with the terrible weather that we have been experiencing in the past week, what kind of extra preparations do you have for these people? You just give them money and they have to figure it out.

MR. BYRNE: Well, we’ve – again, it is a partnership. It’s not just FEMA. We have our colleagues in the city, especially in the city and those areas that are very much engaged. The city resources are significant, and a lot of times we’re just in support for them. But there are a lot we do.

We provide hotel rooms for people who need a temporary bridge to be able to do some repairs to their homes. It’s a program we have called TSA, or Temporary Sheltering Assistance. There’s also the program that we’re working with the city in support of the city’s Rapid Repair program, okay, where we have provided additional funding to help the city go in with their own contractors and do basic essential repairs to get some heat back into the house, to get water running, hot water running, and to be able to make sure that the electric’s working.

And to date, I think we’re up to about 17,000 households that are now being able to go back into their homes which, if we had not done this program, would not have been possible. I will also say that it’s a new program. It’s something we had to create on the fly because of the unique dense urban nature of this disaster. We don’t – a lot of our previous disasters in recent – haven’t been in the environment where the population density and the requirements were so vast.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up.

MR. BYRNE: Sure.

QUESTION: Can you put a dollar value on the amount saved by doing the elevation for the houses in Louisiana?

MR. BYRNE: We can follow up with you on that, because we do have what we call the cost-benefit analysis that we’ve done in the past, and we’d be happy to get you those statistics. Because we do look at that, because when you’re making a decision – because even though the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program ends up being a fairly significant amount of money, and especially on this event, we do have to make some decisions in prioritization. And the way that we do that is by doing cost-benefit analysis, and we try to invest in the things that are going to give us the biggest bang for our buck.

QUESTION: Do you have like an estimate – I’m with QMI Agency from Canada – how long do you think it’s going to take for everything to sort of be back to normal? Months? A year still? Or –

MR. BYRNE: Wow. Yeah. I think it’s safe to say a year or so. It’s going to take a while. We’re going to work as fast as we can to get the resources in place, but just the sheer amount of construction, the sheer amount of restoration of critical infrastructure that’s going to take place, it’s going to take a while to get done.

QUESTION: I’ve been to the Rockaways. At one point I helped to empty those basements. How many houses will need to be destroyed? Because the mold – mold, is that the English word? – was big problem. It was a big, big, problem, and I – the Rapid Repair is trying, but what’s the – in the long-term?

MR. BYRNE: No, we know we still have a lot to do. I mean, looking at my statistics every day, we still have more than 9,000 homes that still don’t have power. And it’s because they’re in such bad condition that we can’t restore power to them.

QUESTION: How many?

MR. BYRNE: About over 9,000. Yeah.

QUESTION: Now, right?

MR. BYRNE: Right now, right now.

QUESTION: 9,000.

MR. BYRNE: Still, yeah.

QUESTION: And that’s New York (inaudible) New Jersey?

MR. BYRNE: No, that’s all – the 13 impacted counties. Because it’s not just the city, it’s also Nassau, Suffolk, and also the – I have six counties upstate in New York.

QUESTION: And (inaudible)?

MR. BYRNE: No, that’s not including New Jersey. Yeah. I’m just New York. I got my hands full with New York. (Laughter.) I don’t need any additional challenges. But the mold is actually something you can clean. That’s – and we certainly encourage that. I myself went out and helped clean out a mold house to – just to prove to myself it was possible, and I’m convinced that we can. Because mold is everywhere, I’m told by the experts, that it’s just a question of if it’s – if the conditions are right, it shows itself more. And what you have to do is get in there and clean it up.

QUESTION: I don’t know if this is a question (inaudible), but do you know how much it costs, on average, to put a house on stilts?

MR. BYRNE: It varies. It’ll depend on – the best way to do it, and we’ll try to come up with some numbers for you, is like – how much for every foot does this take? And it’s also different whether or not you’re rebuilding after being completely destroyed, that makes it easier, or if your house is in all great shape, and you’re going to try to raise it. And also it’s important to know – like, we came out with the Advisory Base Flood Elevations yesterday. But just because we say that that area, say, of the city has to be elevated to 12 feet, let’s say – all right, we have to know what you’re at already. Your house may actually be at five or six feet or even 10 feet. And so you’re at a requirement to elevate maybe less than what our maps are showing.

QUESTION: Alf Ask from the Norwegian paper Aftenposten. In some of these areas, you have houses that should not be in there in the first place, so to say, because they are dangerous when you have a storm. Will you be responsible for the buyout program, or will there be a buyout program for these houses?

MR. BYRNE: Well, first and foremost, the decision to do a buyout program will be a local decision and then our Hazard Mitigation Program can support that. But I think it’s – the question and the issue of whether or not a home can be built there – there are things you can do in the construction process that can make a home safe. If it’s in what they call – refer to as a V zone, a V zone is an area where it’s not just about the elevation of the water, it’s also the wave action, the force of the water.

So in a V zone, you need to build so that there’s a pathway for the water to go underneath the house. So it’s – your house will be raised high enough so it’s not impacted, and there’s also a way for the water to go through. We provide that kind of technical advice. If you go to any of our websites, you can see the recommended construction techniques that we recommend.

Because there are hazards everywhere. If one looks at the – a corollary to this, the wildfires out west – like, I managed a response to wildfires in Colorado this past July. If you do a defensible space, there are things you can do to mitigate and to lessen the possible impact of a hazard on your home. Now, is that going to apply for all of them? Are there houses we need to have a conversation about as to whether or not it – repetitive loss and things? That’s certainly the case, and we’re engaged in that now.

MODERATOR: Orhan, did you --

QUESTION: Follow up on this question.

MODERATOR: (Inaudible), hold on one second.

QUESTION: Orhan from Cihan News Agency.

QUESTION: Is there anybody still live in hotel room?

MR. BYRNE: Yes. We still have –

QUESTION: How many?

MR. BYRNE: I think about between 15- and 1,600 families are still using our hotels.

QUESTION: 1,600?

MR. BYRNE: Yeah. And now in addition to that, though, there’s a lot of people that are using our rental assistance, because part of our assistance is, if you can’t – if you home is unlivable, we will provide you rental assistance up to 18 months while you do the repairs on your home. Now, I don’t have the numbers of how many people are in the rental program, but I do know that at the hotels there’s between 15- and 1,600.

QUESTION: Rooms or persons?

MR. BYRNE: It’s households is the way we refer to them.

QUESTION: 1,600?

MR. BYRNE: 1,600, yeah.

QUESTION: Now, you said that this – you already distributed $871 million. It’s in New York State or –

MR. BYRNE: Just in New York State.

QUESTION: New York State. Okay. To the 261,000 – to families –

MR. BYRNE: Those are the applicants. Now, not every one of those families got funding. Some of them needed to be connected to another agency or something, but we did have a high approval rate on this event.

QUESTION: Could you give us that figure again?

MR. BYRNE: Which one?

QUESTION: The total amount that –

MR. BYRNE: 871 million.

QUESTION: In New York State.

MR. BYRNE: In New York State. That’s just in New York. Yeah, that – New Jersey, my colleague in New Jersey has given out quite a bit, processed quite a bit also.

QUESTION: How much out of the $50 billion package that was approved yesterday – Congress – New York State (inaudible) benefit --

MR. BYRNE: I’m letting our headquarters and the Congress review the guidance that Congress gave us in the document to see how that’s going to be proportioned, and I expect in the next couple of days to be able to get a sense of that.

QUESTION: What’s the initial assessment for the damage in New York State?

MR. BYRNE: Well, I think the initial assessment for the damage FEMA-wise – now, I think it’s important to recognize that the way the supplemental was done is there – other agencies are coming into provide support. So some of the work for the rail systems here is going to be funded through the Federal Transportation Authority. Some of the additional housing support is going to be by HUD, the Housing and Urban Development and their community development block grants. So that 50 million included a lot of other agencies’ money. I believe FEMA’s request for the impacted area was about 11.5 billion.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) are you going to rebuild the whole neighborhood (inaudible)?

MR. BYRNE: That’s for that community to decide, and like I – when I was a firefighter in New York, I knew a lot of families that lived down that way, and these are tough, resilient people. They’re going to get together, and I’m confident they’re going to work it out. And I think it’s prudent that they’re taking their time to do it. I think it’s prudent that they’re – the community’s well engaged there, as well as city support and state support, and I think it remains to them to decide their destiny. And we’ll be here to do whatever we can to support them.

MODERATOR: Gemma, did you have a question?

QUESTION: Yes. I am Gemma from the Nippon Television. I just wondered what kind of role FEMA has played in helping any small businesses, or even sort of bigger businesses. Is that something you are involved in? And sort of how is the status now, especially in Manhattan (inaudible).

MR. BYRNE: Yeah. Well, a couple of things. First, it’s one of those key areas that one of our partner agencies plays a role, and that’s the Small Business Administration. And they provide low interest loans for businesses to sort of get some funds to get them back on their feet. The – as I mentioned before, we do have the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program where if you were – like, I mean, a lot of people get regular unemployment insurance, but this is a program where you wouldn’t be eligible for the regular because you’re self-employed, a small – and this is particularly important for small businesses – you can apply and we’ll pay for unemployment insurance for just a while. Oh, great. And the Small Business Administration is actually processing – give you some numbers – it’s almost $760 million in low interest loans.

QUESTION: 760 million?

MR. BYRNE: 760 million.

QUESTION: In New York State?

MR. BYRNE: In New York State, yeah. Everything I give you is New York State, yeah.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. BYRNE: Yeah. In that total number, there will also be funds in there – loans that were given to households, because households are also eligible.


MR. BYRNE: Seven hundred and sixty.

MODERATOR: Here are some better numbers.

MR. BYRNE: All right. It’s nice having somebody to – (laughter) – and I thought I was pretty good remembering all those numbers. You hit me with something I didn’t remember. All right. the businesses – all right, so yeah. Of that 760 – 711 million was to homes. The businesses, it was 42 million. But that’s – and then I think – it’s also a mistake not to take into consideration insurance. It’s not just about FEMA’s funding, it’s not just about FEMA’s and the Small Business Administration, it’s also insurance is paying a big, big role. The National Flood Insurance program, which FEMA underwrites, I think the number is $1.79 billion in claims have been paid out. So that’s – you start rolling all these numbers together, 871, the 760 million from SBA, and then 1.79 or 1.8 billion from the National Flood Insurance program, and you add all that together, you end up with some very significant dollars that have already been paid out, and here we are only 90 days into the event. So it’s a demonstration of the power of the event, the density of the population that had to be served, but also the speed with which we were able to get assistance out on the street.

QUESTION: Masako Hara. I’m from Nikkei from Japan. (Inaudible) is not included in 871 million.


QUESTION: No, okay.

MR. BYRNE: It’s in addition to. In addition to, yeah.

QUESTION: Follow-up of his question about the houses that were built in unsafe areas like marshland, like Oakwood Beach in Staten Island –

MR. BYRNE: Staten Island.

QUESTION: It’s now clear that these houses should not be – not have been built there in the first place and that real estate developers lied to the buyers about the dangers. And shouldn’t these marshlands be restored as a protection against future storms, and does that not indeed involve clear necessity of a buyout program?

MR. BYRNE: That’s a local decision to make. We’ve got a strong –

QUESTION: In New York City?

MR. BYRNE: Yes. In New York City. New York City – we’re really home rule – New York is a home rule state where the local communities get to make those kinds of decisions, and I think that’s the way it should be. The people who live there get a say in their destiny, in what’s going to happen to their homes. So it – we will explore the options. We’ll help them with technical assistance, show them that the risks of staying there are – we’ll provide as much information as we need to to help them make the right decision for them. And then, if we have to, we’ll support it either through a buyout or an elevation kind of project if that’s what that community wants to do.


QUESTION: What would you say is your biggest challenge right now and main priority?

MR. BYRNE: Oh, jeez.

QUESTION: I know that it’s not so urgent --

MR. BYRNE: Just one? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: If you have any --

MR. BYRNE: Yeah. I think certainly the housing, the homes that still don’t have power, being able to get power to be able to get people back into them. The beaches along the south shore. Some of the main critical infrastructure – in fact, I would say the – some of the hospital work that we need to do. There’s a sewage treatment plant there in Nassau County – I mean, I really could go on and on, and I try to treat all my problems with equal attention. So to say that there’s any top one, I can’t really say that, but I can tell you there’s a lot of things that we’re working on right now and I’m really fortunate to have a great team of people and a great partnership with the state and the city.

QUESTION: Maybe on a more personal note, you’re a New Yorker, you have worked on other disasters before, but how difficult was it for you to come here and see those scenes? What was the scene that was the most difficult for you to watch or witness or --

MR. BYRNE: Well, certainly the fire out in Breezy Point was very tough to see. I can only imagine what that must have been like that night. The – and in fact, I haven’t been a firefighter; I honestly don’t know how they stopped the fire, how the fire didn’t consume more homes. It truly must have been a heroic effort. So, yeah, on a personal level, that troubled me. But I will tell you, every disaster I’ve ever worked has humbled me in a way. There’s always a surprise. There’s always something that you think you’re prepared for and it hits you. And I would say, this one, it’s again – it’s just the sheer size and scope and the density of the problems that we had. Having to go into high-rise apartment buildings and go door to door to make sure people were all right and support – that doesn’t happen in every disaster.

QUESTION: Are you worried for next year?

MR. BYRNE: It’s my job to be worried all the time, okay? I’m the person – there are two things about my job: I am never satisfied with how fast we do things, I always have to be unsatisfied because we can always move faster; and I always have to be prepared for whatever the next thing that comes. So I’m – I try to – my family has an expression: I wear suspenders and a belt to keep my pants up.

QUESTION: May I ask you, how many people do you have on your team? (Inaudible.)

MR. BYRNE: Right now, about 2,500, but at the high point I had probably about 3,500 FEMA people. But that doesn’t count the other federal agencies. I would say in the first weeks and even month of the event, there was probably about 16,000 federal employees that were part of the response here, supporting the city and the counties and the state.

QUESTION: How important were and are volunteer efforts like Occupy Sandy?

MR. BYRNE: We couldn’t do without the volunteers. The volunteers are a core part of – we are blessed to live in a generous nation, but also a generous world in terms of people wanting to assist, when those of us who are safe and secure want to assist to the people who are in trouble. We truly could not do it. There are things that government can only do so much, and it’s always great to have the voluntary agencies to be able to come in and support and back us up.

For example, mold cleanouts, the mucking out basements, pumping water out of basements – it really was the voluntary agencies that did the lion’s share of that kind of work, and continue to to this day.

QUESTION: How many estimates, how many volunteer work hours --

MR. BYRNE: I don’t know the hours, but at one point in time I do remember getting that there were over 500 voluntary agencies working in this impacted area – in the impacted area here.

QUESTION: I was in Staten Island, and there were people coming from Chicago --

MR. BYRNE: Yeah. Isn’t that something? Yeah, it just kind of makes you feel good about being a – that humans reach out to each other. Yeah. Yeah, in fact, the team that I helped do the mold cleanup in the house was a team from St. Louis, and I was – we were teasing each other about baseball teams, because I’m a New York Yankees fan and obviously they don’t root for the Yankees.


QUESTION: On the flood plans – maps, obviously people who just rebuilt without making changes, their insurance, flood insurance will go up, for many to an unpayable level. But for the people who do follow the rules on elevation, how much will their insurance be affected?

MR. BYRNE: Well, that’s a great question, and we actually have some brochures that we can make sure that you guys get.

PARTICIPANT: We have them electronically.

MR. BYRNE: Oh, we have electronically. Denise will get it. It’s actually – the reasons to consider elevating are both I think just from a human suffering point of view, it’s something you should consider because it really does work. The other reason is there is a financial incentive, because if we look at, say, three houses, okay – one house that built three feet below the base flood elevation, well, their premium – and the – please let me – the maps that we came out with yesterday really won’t go into effect, regulatory – in other words, the way the premiums are going to change – for about two years.

So they have time to think about it. They have time to – especially if they’ve had damage, they should certainly take into – this in consideration. Because if their house is three feet below the base flood elevation, their premium, on average, would be about $9,500 a month – or, I’m sorry, a year. Okay, so over 10 years, that’s $95,000. If they’re at base flood elevation, their premium would be $1,410 a year, which, again, is $14,000 over a 10-year period. If they elevate to three feet above flood elevation – and this is where the investment pays off – their premium would only be $427 a year.

So it’s – there is an incentive. Because the premiums are based on risk. They’re based on an actuarial model that shows if you’re willing to take this kind of risk on, well, it’s going to cost this much money to – if I tried to get a life insurance policy at my ripe old age right now, I doubt my premium would be the same that it was when I was 20. So it’s really the same kind of risk that you’re undertaking. And if you’re taking more risk, it is more expensive for you to take that risk.

QUESTION: I’m curious about where are all the debris dropped? Because emptying all those houses, the beaches – where – it’s so much stuff. Where will you put --

MR. BYRNE: We did it in stages. And so first we went to – we had areas that set up large parking lots, large open fields where we set up debris staging areas. So we moved it out of the impacted area because we need to clear the roads and get things out of the way so that we can start rebuilding. And then once it’s there, we’ll do some processing, try to do some reclamation so that not all of it has to go to a landfill. We try to reuse things and things like that. And then we’ll also try to reduce the vegetative debris by burning it down to smaller piles.

Once all of that processing is done, then it’s shipped to – there are really no landfills around the New York area any longer, so it gets shipped out to various other states. I think West Virginia, I know Virginia, Pennsylvania all have places where some of this debris was taken.

QUESTION: About which areas are the most far behind – electricity, nothing – like which parts?

MR. BYRNE: Well, I don’t think there’s any one area. I think there’s aspects of any – a number of a dozen areas I could tell you where they’ve got challenges still.

QUESTION: I heard many complaints from people about insurance company that resist settling claims. Can FEMA do some (inaudible) this?

MR. BYRNE: Well, we underwrite the policy. Yeah, we certainly are in conversations with them and we certainly have been encouraging them to do. And certainly the governor of the state of New York took some rather bold action and insisted that the insurance companies do turn around their – the visit, the inspections and the adjustments that were going to be made down to a six-day period. So that certainly got everybody’s attention and got them moving.

But I will tell you they’ve been working hard. I mean, I think it’s wrong to paint all of the insurance companies – we would not have paid out $1.8 billion thus far today, the first 90 days, had they not been doing their jobs. So I think they’re doing their job. Of course, like my job is to always think I can do better, so of course we think they can do better. And if you truly feel you’re being wronged, well then by all means we also have disaster legal services that are available to you. We have phone numbers if you want to call a lawyer and get a lawyer involved to help you with that. We certainly are going to support that.

But I’d also give the insurance companies a chance. Let them know your displeasure, document the losses that you’ve had, and when you feel that that’s not getting you where you need to go, then by all means take advantage of our disaster legal services.

QUESTION: Do you experience a big difference between some companies and others? Are there like exemplary ones and others that are like scoundrels?

MR. BYRNE: No, I can’t say that. And also I can’t say I’m looking at that. That’s not something that’s my responsibility. We have a national flood insurance program that is run out of our FEMA headquarters, and I rely on them. They’ve been a big support to me to make sure that the insurance companies are engaged. And again, I just have to look at the results. I mean, it is – knowing this firsthand, everybody thinks it’s easy to pay out a lot of money. It takes a lot of work, a lot of research, a lot of questions back and forth, a lot of boxes that have to be checked to make sure – because this – the money that I’m putting out is taxpayer money. This isn’t FEMA’s money. It’s taxpayers’ money. So I have to be a good steward of it. So it takes time to do that. And for the insurance companies to have paid out $1.79 billion thus far in the first 90 days, I think they’re making progress. Are they moving fast enough? None of us move fast enough when people are suffering.

QUESTION: About the 9,000 houses without power, is it only because there are problems in the houses, or is it because the power grid hasn’t completely been restored?

MR. BYRNE: No, it’s power in the houses. It’s – the grid is back to where it’s – or close to where it’s going to be. It’s just a question of the houses are so – in such bad shape or their electrical panel had been under water, and there’s just lots of issues for those homes to be able to be repaired to where it would be safe, because right now it’s not safe to turn the power back on in those homes.

QUESTION: How many of them are in downtown?

MR. BYRNE: Downtown here? I don’t think there’s too many down here.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. BYRNE: Oh, nice. I got it. All right, the power outages that we’ve got as of today, in the city Brooklyn’s got 257, Queens has got 251, Con Ed, and then LIPA there’s 7,692. So that’s the largest portion of that, and that’s all of Queens. And Staten Island is 382. So in New York City total – I apologize I didn’t – well, actually, no, if I include Nassau and Suffolk, it comes out to about 9,000. But the New York City total is 8,500.


MR. BYRNE: Close.

QUESTION: Thomas, German TV. Do you have a number of houses which are so destroyed that they cannot be rebuilt?

MR. BYRNE: We do. And I don’t know, see if you can come up with that. I know we have –

PARTICIPANT: That part I’m looking.

MR. BYRNE: We have a max grant number that’s I think, what, 3,000 something?

PARTICIPANT: 3,733 max grants.

MR. BYRNE: Yeah, this is not completely – there’s – the number of completely destroyed is probably a little different, but one of the ways you can gauge this is we have – there’s a maximum amount that FEMA can pay out, and it’s $31,900. Now, if your damages are more than that, we’re sorry but we are – it’s in the legislation we can only go that high. And that gets changed every year, but that’s our number for this year. And we have 3,000 –

PARTICIPANT: 3,733 max grants.

MR. BYRNE: 3,733 maximum grants have been paid out.

QUESTION: And what is the maximum?

MR. BYRNE: $31,900.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. BYRNE: Yeah, yeah. Right. Yeah, yeah. The yellow are the ones that had such damage that somebody couldn’t live in there. I mean the red. The yellow is where some repairs could be made. And then green were fine to move back in. Yeah, yeah.

MODERATOR: Time for one or two more questions.

QUESTION: The total amount of money that was approved by Congress is about 20 billion less than was requested by the governors of the three states. Who will suffer as a result of this 20 billion deficit?

MR. BYRNE: That’s – I’m the guy in the – not to process this stuff. I’m not the person who decides how much or anything like that. It’ll be my job to make sure that the funding that Congress was gracious enough, the taxpayer dollars that have been passed now into the hands of the agency that I’m – the work I’m responsible for, it’ll be my job to do that efficiently and get that money into the hands of the survivors and do everything we can to maximize his benefit.

QUESTION: Looking back, do you think New York was ready for something, or we were just thinking nothing that big could happen here and what lesson could New Yorkers learn from this?

MR. BYRNE: Yeah, I think that the New York – it was ready, I mean, but it’s – an event of this kind is so rare that yeah, it did probably surprise us in some ways. But the very fact that during all the – when you think about it, during all the hospital evacuations, no one lost their lives. That’s – yeah, you have to be ready to do that. That’s not an accident that you’re capable of doing that. The fact that they were able – we were able to get food and water in to people so quickly, and it was because we moved things forward before the storm hit, and New York and FEMA and the state all worked out collaboratively where to put things. So I would say we were ready, but it’s impossible to be ready, completely ready in every way, shape, or form, for an event that is this destructive.

MODERATOR: Thank you so much for your time and for being here.

MR. BYRNE: My pleasure. It was nice meeting you. Thank you, thank you.


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