This is historical material “frozen in time”. The website is no longer updated and links to external websites and some internal pages may not work.

Search form

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Conference Call on the Flooding in Tennessee with FEMA Administrator Fugate, Governor Phil Bredesen, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, SVP American Red Cross Joe Becker

4:00 P.M. EDT

MR. CARROLL:  Thank you, everyone, for joining us today.  On the call today we have Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen; we have Nashville Mayor Karl Dean; FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate; and Red Cross Senior Vice President for Disaster Services Joe Becker.

As you know, the President has declared a major disaster for the state of Tennessee, and FEMA personnel are currently on the ground as part of the state’s response and recovery effort.  And FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate is actually making his second trip to Tennessee and FEMA personnel went down in support today.

Governor, I'm going to turn the call over to you.

GOVERNOR BREDESEN:   Absolutely.  And thank you all for joining us here.  We've had here in Tennessee -- we're speaking from Nashville, which was very hard hit, but we’ve had across the state a lot of communities that have been hit by some very hard flooding.  These are -- the range we experienced this last weekend were just completely the black swan of weather events, just something completely unanticipated, unlike anything we've ever seen here before.

I think that from the standpoint of some of you on the call, this thing that happened in Tennessee was sandwiched between everything that was going on in the Gulf and what was happening up in New York, and maybe it didn’t get recognized quite that much.  But we're dealing with some pretty serious issues down here.

I have to say that FEMA and the White House have both been absolutely supportive.  Very quickly FEMA was on the ground here before the raindrops started falling.  This is the Administrator’s second visit down here.  The President was on the phone to me before the sun came up practically on Monday morning. Slightly after it came up, other people from the White House had called and checked in with us and helped.  I've had a couple long conversations with Secretary Napolitano about how she could help.

I have been -- I was mayor of Nashville for eight years before being governor, now seven.  I've never seen this kind of a response to things that have happened.  We’ve had our share of tornadoes and those kinds of things.  So I'm -- certainly from my perspective as governor, we have a lot of issues to deal with; I'm very, very pleased with the response that we've gotten from the administration.

I'd also say, just take a word, when these kinds of things happen, so much of the stuff that's important on the front lines happen in local government.  It happens with the mayors and especially the first responders.  I mean, we have in Tennessee lots of professional first responders, lots of people who are volunteers who spent the weekend out there doing some extraordinary things.  I hope someday somebody kind of gathers up and recounts the -- there were people here in Tennessee who lost their lives literally trying to save other people.  And it just gives you great faith in your fellow Americans when you watch the kind of response to this kind of a disaster.

There will be plenty of time for questions and other people have things to say.  I just want to say that we've had an extraordinary event here.  It’s not just Nashville; it really is across a number of places in the state.  A place like Nashville has lots of resources to deal with it.  Some of our rural counties are a much tougher case in that regard.  And those are places where FEMA becomes extraordinarily -- Red Cross becomes extraordinarily important in the response.

But so far things are moving smoothly.  I think we're digging out, but this will take a long time before Tennessee is back to normal.

Mayor Dean?

MAYOR DEAN:  I've been very appreciative of the response we've gotten from the state and from the federal government.  The Governor has been in constant contact with us and has helped us in any way that he could.  And I've been very happy that FEMA has been present and on the ground almost immediately and helping us.

The storm which occurred really Saturday and Sunday was unprecedented.  It was by any measure, on both days, record-setting amounts of rain.  There is no recorded record of rain in Nashville that is anywhere remotely close to the figures we got. And it simply overwhelmed the system that we have here. 

I've been very satisfied with the response of our Office of Emergency Management.  They were prepared.  We went into operations really full-bore on Saturday afternoon.  And the first responders -- police, fire, and ambulance -- were fantastic.  They answered thousands of calls; made many, many water rescues; and worked very hard all during the storm.

On Monday and Tuesday we sort of sweated out how far the river would rise.  The river finally crested sometime between 6:00 and 8:00 on Monday night, and has been steadily falling since then.  We're hoping that we'll get down to flood level probably tomorrow.

Our schools are still not in session yet.  We have roads closed.  We were hit in a variety of places around the city.  Nashville is a metropolitan form of government -- the area I'm mayor of is 500 square miles -- and there are pockets north, south, east and west where things were really, really flooded and property damage is substantial, and people have been placed out of their homes.  We've had nine deaths here so far.

Right now we're going door to door, trying to determine if there’s anybody in some of the buildings that were totally submerged.  And that's taking some time, though we're getting it done.  We're beginning the recovery process.  We have five local assistance offices set up.  The Public Works Department is out working already and we're waiting just as the water totally recedes so we can get done what we need to do.

ADMINISTRATOR FUGATE:  Good afternoon, everybody.  We were watching the risk of severe weather across the southeast as we went into the weekend, but I don't think anybody was quite prepared to look at how much rain fell in such a short period of time over such a large area and across Tennessee and other states.  The weekend before, we dealt with tornadoes, but this weekend we did have some tornadoes but the predominant factor here was just the amount of rainfall and the damage it caused.

We’ve been working very closely with our partners here at TEMA -- the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency -- our regional staff in Region IV were here as liaisons.  On Monday, the President, who had been briefed on this and understood the magnitude of this, particularly in the initial reports of loss of life, which unfortunately continued to go up, asked that we come here.

I met with the Governor, where he formally requested the President to declare a disaster area, which the President did the next day.  And we continue to work at adding counties to the declaration and working as the local communities still are in response phase, but as they begin moving toward recovery, to support that.  And again, as always, if you’ve dealt with FEMA before, I’m going to ask your indulgence in helping us get the word out to the survivors in Tennessee that have been impacted by these floods and these tornadoes to register with FEMA at 800-621-FEMA. 

And again, a second way to get information, I know many people probably, with their home damaged, may only have their phones with them.  If they do have a mobile phone that can go to a website, we’ve set up a mobile FEMA website -- it’s -- that will again get them the information numbers and start that process of them registering for assistance from the federal government.

MR. BECKER:  This is Joe Becker, from the American Red Cross.  You’ve heard described the tremendous geography that this storm spanned and the damage across such a widespread area.  What that also means is different communities are in different places in response and recovery, depends if the water is still up or down, or whether roads are passable or not.

And what that means is people are in different stages.  Some still need immediate emergency help.  Others are starting to figure out how to move forward with their lives.  You’ve heard of a tremendous government response. 

Across Tennessee, there’s also a great network of nongovernmental organizations, nonprofits -- and particularly the faith community -- who stepped forward and done a terrific job of responding to needs.  And it’s also been a very heartwarming sense of neighbors helping neighbors in a fairly unprecedented way here -- great hospitality in the people. 

I can tell you from the Red Cross perspective, we have volunteers here from 37 states who have fanned out across the state of Tennessee and are still meeting those immediate emergency needs in many places -- shelter, food, supplies that people need to clean up and just immediate comfort items. 

But let’s be clear here.  This is going to be a long slog.  This is going to be for weeks and weeks with various communities in different stages.  It’s going to take a team effort of government, of nongovernment, and of people helping people.  And I think that’s what you’re seeing with -- this is a tough response.  The people have been through a lot.  It’s not just their physical needs.  It’s also their emotional needs.  And as they lean on each other, our job is to make sure that the network of nonprofits steps forward, that the Red Cross takes a lead role in that response, and that we work closely with government to make sure that the people’s needs are met.

Q    Hello.  Thanks much for having the call.  To Mr. Fugate, there was some concern in Washington about FEMA’s disaster funding running dry.  I wondered how urgent is it to get funding restored through a supplemental appropriations bill.

ADMINISTRATOR FUGATE:  Well, there is an urgency there.  We have two pieces of this funding.  Within the disaster recovery fund, we do have money for immediate needs response, so that we are not going to be delayed in helping individuals in the emergency response costs. 

But as this flood is going to show, we already have almost a billion dollars in outstanding projects from previous disasters that are permanent work that we cannot go forward on, and I’m sure that with this flood in Tennessee, as we get these numbers that’s going to add to that. 

So while we can continue to meet the immediate needs of the survivors in these declared disasters, and we can support state and local government and the immediate response, we do not have the ability right now to fund permanent work.  And that’s going to be a key factor in this recovery, as well as previous disasters all the way back to Katrina and even earlier, that we cannot go forward with permanent work until we get additional funds.

Q    Thank you.

Q    Governor, would you be able to estimate the damage around the state at this point?

GOVERNOR BREDESEN:  I have some anecdotal information at the moment, but this is the sort of thing -- I’d like to wait.  We have in FEMA an organization that is very well qualified, very well prepared to go do these damage assessments, and I think rather than just throwing numbers out there, I’d rather wait and see what they have. 

The communities -- when we do these initially, it is generally because we’re looking for a presidential declaration and have to show a certain level of damage.  That's not going to be a difficulty.  If you just walk down one street in some of the counties, we’ve already met the level of damage.

So if you don't mind, I would like to wait until we have an assessment, and then will be glad to share with you the detailed information.  It’s a lot of money.  It’s a lot of money.  I mean, I'd be astonished if there weren’t -- I would say I'd be astonished if there weren’t a billion dollars’ worth of damage in the public or private sector, and probably considerably more.

Q    Thank you.

Q    Obviously a lot of the focus has been on Nashville, and you did mention that outside areas have seen a lot of damage, as well.  Could you talk a little bit about what’s happening out in the state, addressing issues like in Dyersburg County and other more far-flung areas?

GOVERNOR BREDESEN:  Yes, we have been -- I went up yesterday up into Montgomery County and Sumner County to look at the damage up there.  This is one where, as you know, the level of ability of counties to respond to these things is very, very -- in a place like -- we’re sitting here in Nashville in an operation center, which would be suitable for any city in the United States.  It’s a great location with a lot of people.  In a smaller county, you just don't have the staff and the people on there.  So we’re very dependent on TEMA.

But TEMA is working and has a presence in every one of these counties, helping through the issues.  As you know, we’ve had the issues of water, of water supply, and there still are a number a counties in which there’s a -- more than a suggestion, really a requirement to boil drinking water.  There have been some water supply issues in other places.  A number of counties have now come off of that requirement or request to boil the water.

But this is where TEMA earns its pay.  They have the ability to do that.  They have the breadth of staffing that it takes to respond to these things.  And they’ve had a presence out in all of these counties helping people.

There is some frustration.  I mean, I’ve had some county mayors on the phone wanting to know why this hasn’t happened yet and so on, but that's normal and reasonable.

This is a place where we’ve invested a lot of money and a lot of time in putting together an organization that can respond. And just as FEMA does in the federal government, this is the time at which you turn to them and say, okay, one person, I can’t get around every county that’s out there and see it; this is where you put this stuff into play.  And we’re doing it and we’re helping these counties as best we can.

Q    Yes, Governor, in your conversation with the President, was there any discussion about him coming down at some point to visit the area?  He obviously went down fairly quickly the Gulf. He didn’t get a full tour of the oil damage down there, but he was in the region.  Any conversation about him going to Tennessee?

GOVERNOR BREDESEN:  I talked with him briefly about that and also with Valerie Jarrett at somewhat greater length -- I think it was the following day.  And what I basically said is that, first of all, he certainly would be welcome and we would accommodate him.  During the first two or three days in my previous experience, it sometimes is counterproductive in that when a President comes with all that's involved in that, it can slow things down -- it can slow things down a little bit.  But that as we -- the point we’re at now, if he wanted to do so, and I’ve communicated back that he would be very welcome.

The President has a lot of things on his plate, and I think we’re working through these things with the help of FEMA and the Red Cross and a lot of others.  But he certainly is welcome to come here any time that he wants.  And I talked to Secretary Napolitano this morning, made the same offer to her.

But I want to just say, both of them -- I know as a governor something like this happens and every place you don’t go to suddenly feels that somehow they’ve been slighted.  And I want to make absolutely sure that no one feels that.  I mean, this is one of those things that we would love to see him if he wants to come, or if the Secretary wants to come, they’d be delighted here.  But we’re getting the help that we need and if what he needs to do is to be in Washington or dealing with the Gulf or something, or any one of a myriad other problems, that is completely understood and I don’t think anyone takes any offense whatsoever.

Q    Hi.  I understand the Opryland Hotel complex was flooded and 1,500 people were evacuated.  What’s happened to them and what is the overall cost to Nashville’s tourist industry?

MAYOR DEAN:  In terms of the overall cost to the tourist industry, we don’t know yet.  Opryland was flooded and it will be closed for several months as they fix it up.  The folks who were evacuated from there were brought actually for the most part to a high school here in Nashville, McGavock High School.  And I think that operation went very well. 

I would note that the Grand Old Opry itself, which is in the building next to Gaylord Hotel, that that was flooded, but the Opry went on -- the Opry took place at the War Memorial Auditorium, which is downtown next to the state capitol, and was a successful event.  And I applaud Gaylord for being innovative and keeping the show on during this trying time.

I think clearly Nashville is very much associated with music -- all types of music, and the Grand Old Opry, in particular, and the fact that we were able to keep it going really hours or a couple days after this event speaks well of Gaylord, and it speaks well of the city of Nashville and it speaks well of country music.

MR. CARROLL:  Mr. Operator, I believe we have time for two more questions.

Q    Hi, thank you for having this.  I was interested in knowing if you could tell us what sorts of things FEMA will be able to do for Tennesseans.

MR. FUGATE:  Yes, this is Craig Fugate.  In the President’s disaster declaration and the counties that are declared, he declared for individual assistance.  And that turns on a variety of programs, including Small Business Administration disaster loans for businesses, and for those people that have the ability to repay loans, to provide them assistance in rebuilding and repairs that they don’t have insurance for.  It provides a variety of FEMA programs that can provide rental assistance or other direct grant assistance to individuals.

And it provides additional items that the state may request to include crisis counseling, as well as working with our federal partners with some of the programs that will be available to the state if it’s needed, including things like disaster unemployment insurance for people that have been impacted by this disaster.

But the other part of this is that FEMA is not the team, we’re just part of the team, and a lot of this will be done in conjunction with our volunteer partners -- with Red Cross and others -- in making sure that as we address needs that our federal programs can fit and provide that support, we utilize those, and where we have other unmet needs that we work together with our volunteer and local agencies and address those needs.

But our individual assistance programs are again -- the trigger for this is people do have to register.  They can either do that by calling 1-800-621-FEMA or registering by going to our mobile site, or just, and you can apply online if you are able to do that, as well.

MR. CARROLL:  Mr. Operator, we have time for one more question.

Q    Mr. Fugate, could you say how many applications for assistance FEMA has received at this point?  And what percentage are coming from people who don’t have flood insurance?

MR. FUGATE:  Right now, what’s coming to our tele-registration, which is that 1-800 number, is about 8,500.  Until we do the inspections and actually get out there, we won’t have a breakdown on insurance.  But as we get that information, we’ll be working back to state and local governments -- because that’s going to be a huge issue with the people that didn’t have flood insurance, and looking at what, from either SBA disaster loans or FEMA grants, we’re going to provide.

And the other thing I wanted to mention is, as the Governor points out, this has not just been Nashville that’s been hit.  It has been other areas of Tennessee.  And I'll be here part of the day, and then we’re going to head over to the western part of the state.  And again our goal here is to really try the story of what’s happened in Tennessee -- that although the Governor’s team and local officials have been doing a great job of response, we want to make sure that FEMA, on behalf of the President, that we’re doing everything we can and that we’ve gone in these areas and made sure that we have a good understanding of what’s going to be needed to support the state of Tennessee, and many of these local communities recover from what, as the Governor says, this is a very large, very complex flood event, and the numbers, as we continue to look, are only going to go up.

MAYOR DEAN:  Could I add one thing that I should have said earlier?  On the question about tourism, it’s important for people around the country to understand the magnitude of this event and how we have needs in national in terms -- particularly in terms of housing and people whose property was damaged severely during this flood.  But one thing I think it’s important to understand is that we’re still open for business.  I mean, Nashville is -- there are huge portions of the city -- 80, 90 percent of the city -- that's really unhurt by the flood.  The airport is open; the interstates are running. 

We have also a strong downtown where we anticipate things like the Country Music Hall of Fame to open this weekend.  The honkytonks, which are really the most important thing, are already open and there’s music there and beer there and barbeque. We have -- our art museum is open.  We will have the country music festival in June -- they’ve already said that is clearly going to go on. 

So what I’m trying to get across to folks is -- and this is really important to get -- is that we’re open for business right now.  If you’ve got reservations to come to Nashville, we want to see you here, we expect to see you here.  And you need to make reservations to come to Nashville.  This is really one of the great destinations in the United States.  And the downtown I guarantee you will be thriving this weekend and it’s only going to get stronger day after day as you go out -- because we’re going to restore that very, very quickly.

GOVERNOR BREDESEN:  This is Phil Bredesen, just to wrap this up.  First of all, if the mayor ceases to want to be mayor and would like to become the commissioner of tourism -- (laughter) -- I would be delighted to work it out.  But what the mayor says is absolutely right.  I was the mayor when the tornado came through here in the late ‘90s, and part of the problem was half of the country thought that Nashville was wiped off the face of the Earth, and nothing could be further from the truth.

One of the things that’s going to be very tough about this is that a lot of the homes that were affected were not in those A and B designations of the flood plain areas where flood insurance would have been required by mortgages.  They were homes that no one would have thought would be in a flood plain. 

The engineers draw all these nice careful lines where the flood plains are, but when you get this kind of event and flowing water, water goes where it wants to, and there’s an awful lot of homes and no one dreamt of would ever be in danger of that. Therefore, people didn’t have flood insurance and therefore they’re in a lot of difficulty.  For these homeowners, it just adds to the pain that we’ve already experienced in this country with home values in the recent past here.

But I just want to conclude by saying we’ve had a significant event here, a huge -- less than once-in-a-lifetime kind of event certainly in terms of the weather.  It is all over the western and middle parts of the state, not just in Nashville. First responders and local governments, our TEMA operation is doing a great job.  FEMA and the White House could not have been more helpful in this thing.  And I’m not a veteran of a number of these disasters and I really -- I very, very much appreciate the support that we have had. 

We’re working through this and we’ll get through it just fine.  And we appreciate all the help that we’ve been receiving from everyone up to this point.

Thank you all very much for being on the call.

4:25 P.M. EDT