Barack Obama photo

Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jay Carney

October 31, 2012

Aboard Air Force One
En Route New Jersey

12:47 P.M. EDT

MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to the great state of New Jersey, which, as you know, has been devastated by Sandy. You know the President's schedule: He will be taking an aerial tour with Governor Christie of some of the areas that were most affected by storm damage, and he'll be discussing with local officials the response effort and recovery effort underway in New Jersey.

As you know, earlier today, the President went to FEMA, where he held a briefing at FEMA's National Response Coordination Center, and was joined by Secretary LaHood, Secretary Sebelius, Secretary Chu, Secretary Napolitano, Administrator Fugate -- who is with me today -- Secretary Panetta, Secretary Donovan, Chief of Staff Jack Lew, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security John Brennan, and other senior members of his team. Vice President Biden joined the briefing by video teleconference. In addition, U.S. NORTHCOM Commander General Jacoby joined by video teleconference.

Administrator Fugate is with us today, and I asked him to join me so that he could answer some of your specific questions about recovery and relief efforts.

Before he left, the President also placed a phone call to NYU -- and let me get that information here -- where he spoke with NYU Langone Medical Center dean, Dr. Grossman; the chief nursing officer, Dr. Glassman -- that would be Dr. Robert Grossman, the dean and CEO of the Medical Center; and Dr. Kimberly Glassman, chief nursing officer at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Dr. Grossman and Dr. Glassman were responsible for the safe evacuation of over 200 patients after the hospital's power generators failed. I think we all are aware of the story -- the President mentioned it yesterday on his visit to the Red Cross and I think highlighted it as an example of how, in response to disasters like this, Americans come together to help one another, neighbors help neighbors. And it was a heartening story about, as the President said, in the darkness of the storm, the brightness of America shown through.

With that, we're here to take your questions. Again, I have with me FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate.

Q: What does the President make of all the attention that's kind of been focused on the very effusive praise that Governor Christie lavished on the President yesterday, and in terms of optics today of -- we're six days from the election, and the President going to New Jersey with a strong supporter of Governor Romney?

MR. CARNEY: You've heard the President say that this is a time to focus on what was a devastating storm and the terrible aftermath of that storm. New Jersey was, by many measures, the hardest hit state -- I believe that's correct -- and it is entirely appropriate for the President to visit New Jersey and receive updates on the efforts there to recover and to view firsthand the damage inflicted by Sandy. This is not a time for politics. And the President appreciates the efforts of governors, state and local officials, across the various states that were affected by the storm, regardless of political party.

Q: What is he hoping to get out of it?

MR. CARNEY: The President is Commander-in-Chief. The President has overseen the federal response effort, as you know, for these past several days. He has been meeting regularly with the entire federal team that has been coordinated by Administrator Fugate, and directed them to spare no effort, to lean forward in their response to the storm and in the provision of assistance to states and localities that have been affected by the storm.

As you know, there have been -- there were, I think, about 10 emergency declarations signed by the President that went out before the storms. New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut have all received major disaster declarations that includes individual assistance, whereby individuals in affected counties can apply directly for aid. And I'm sure Administrator Fugate has more information on that.

Q: What does he hope to get out of this --

MR. CARNEY: Again, he's overseeing -- as part of his job to oversee the federal response effort, he wants to see how bad it is. He wants to meet with Governor Christie and other local officials to hear from them directly and in person about the response efforts. He wants to thank those first responders in New Jersey, and while he's in New Jersey, those first responders in other states who have done such remarkable things and acted so heroically in order to prevent further loss of life and damage.

Q: Can you give us some background about how this trip came about, who initiated it? Was it Governor Christie's office that reached out to the White House? I mean, who specifically from the White House was the go-between?

MR. CARNEY: I don't have the specific details on that. I think, in general, when we have incidents like this, natural disasters like this, and the President travels to the location, that we are very careful about making sure that the places that we visit, we are not using resources that would otherwise be used in recovery efforts. That's the case here.

We reached out I believe to New Jersey and worked with the Governor's office to make this trip happen. I know it's been reported that there were discussions about New York. It was the assessment at the White House that because of the situation in Lower Manhattan, it would not be appropriate for the President, for the very resource allocation issue, to visit New York at this time.

Q: So when Mayor Bloomberg said that he made the point to the White House that it wasn't appropriate, he was not correct on that?

MR. CARNEY: No, he was agreeing with our assessment, which is that it was not appropriate at this time.

Q: Can I ask one more follow-up question? At a rally for Mitt Romney today, former Governor Jeb Bush -- and Administrator Fugate, I wonder if you could respond to this -- Bush said, "My experience in all this emergency response business is that it is the local level and the state level that really matters, that if they do their job right, the federal level works out pretty good." Do you agree with that?

ADMINISTRATOR FUGATE: That's the system. We're called the federal government, and our job is to support the governors and their teams. And I think when you look at the states impacted, there are four that are going to primarily need federal assistance beyond just a normal grant -- and that's New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and West Virginia where it's still snowing. So these are the areas where we have active requests for commodities, generators, and other support.

But the system is always built upon the federal government supports the states; the states support local governments. That's why the investment in Homeland Security dollars has been so critical in building up more robust capabilities, allowing state and local responders to deal with the most immediate lifesaving missions, while we backstop them, including the Department of Defense for the type of catastrophic impacts we're seeing.

Q: Are you at a point right now where you can make an assessment for a state like New Jersey as to how long this recovery process is going to take, or it still too early?

ADMINISTRATOR FUGATE: When did the storm stop blowing? I mean, we're still -- you look at -- the first thing was search and rescue. We mobilized the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Urban Search and Task Forces to support New Jersey. Swift Water Rescue -- the lead federal agency was the U.S. Coast Guard.

We still do not have the primary all-clear. So we are still checking and looking for people. And, unfortunately, I think -- we're hoping that we've gotten to all the living, and now the next step will be to go and look for those that were lost, particularly in the fires, the flooding. The Coast Guard still has an active search on for the missing captain off of the HMS Bounty.

So we're moving right now from search and rescue to the immediate needs. One of the things Jay talked about the President did was, in declaring the disaster, people can start registering for FEMA assistance. And probably the most important one is people that have had flood damage to their homes, that they're not going to be able to go back, can start registering. What we want to do is get them rental assistance and give them a place to stay.

When a lot of people's power comes back on that's going to be what really needs to happen, but there were homes that were flooded and destroyed, or are so badly damaged they need a place, they need help. So we're doing that.

And one follow-up -- yes, I know there's no power and the Internet is not going to help and you can't call 1-800-FEMA. That's why we also put people on the ground, starting today, to go door to door, start getting into those neighborhoods. It will take time to reach everybody. But we also are aware that those that can call in can call 1-800-621-FEMA. And people already have registered. You can go online. Our website is mobile friendly, so you can register online if you've got connectivity. But we're going to go into the neighborhoods with the state and reach out to everybody that may need assistance.

Q: -- about using assets in a novel way, maybe bringing the military to bear more than has been done in the past. Can you cite any examples of things that you're doing maybe a little differently this time to expedite the recovery?

ADMINISTRATOR FUGATE: Everybody looks at this going, we're doing things differently -- I'm thinking, no, this is how we planned for it. When you look at the number of people -- this is a large population -- you've got to bring a lot of stuff ahead of time. And you look at the role of the Army Corps of Engineers, NORTHCOM -- this is what we've designed the whole system for in these types of events when it goes beyond what the governors' teams can do.

A lot of disasters is financial assistance. This one is getting stuff there based upon the populations at risk. So I wouldn't say it's so much novel as much as, yes, this is how we've been planning it, but this may be the first time since Katrina you've seen this happen.

Q: Can we talk about environmental concerns on the water? There's a whole bunch of subway water. Where do you pump it out? There's a bunch of gas on top of it; raw sewage in the Potomac River that there's concerns about if it floods. And that was front page of the Post. Where does this stuff go? How do we -- what's the plan to --

ADMINISTRATOR FUGATE: Guess what, it happens when it floods. This is not novel. The lead for this will be the Coast Guard and U.S. EPA, working with state environmental agencies. They are already identifying where there are sheens, where there are spills. They have contractors on support.

So part of this remediation will be making decisions about how to mitigate some of the hazards where cleanups need to occur. So that assessment is also taking place. And as the Coast Guard, shifting from search and rescue, their what we call ESF 10, the HAZMAT function, will be one of their activities going through the next days as they get in there and see what's --

Q: Can you identify places where you would pump this water to, particularly in New York City?

ADMINISTRATOR FUGATE: This is, again -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is going to support the locals in pumping. Part of it's going to be what's the contamination, what has to be done immediately. So, again, I kind of walk around with this as I don't know the answer to all the questions, but our job is getting smart people there that can answer the questions to get things done. And that's what we're doing with this team.

MR. CARNEY: Part of the federal role here is to expedite the assistance that the federal government can provide. This effort has been led by Administrator Fugate. One of the things that came out of the President's call with utility companies last night is that FEMA established a power restoration working group, which includes a representative of the utilities at the National Response Coordination Center to cut through the red tape, increase federal, state, local and private coordination, and restore power to people as quickly as possible.

This is a very high priority of the President. And in that conversation with utility executives yesterday, he praised the companies in their efforts thus far and the bravery of linemen who are involved in restoring power in sometimes dangerous situations. But he made clear that we need to collectively give 100 percent to that effort, because power restoration is such a vital component of recovery.

Q: Jay, there was some question yesterday about statements that Mitt Romney had made during the primary debates about turning some of the FEMA funding over to the state or even to the private sector. And I was curious, does the President have a response to that in Romney's non-response to those questions yesterday?

MR. CARNEY: This is really a day not for politics, but for focusing on the damage caused by the storm. That's why we're in New Jersey. That's why the President will be viewing some of the hardest hit areas in this state. So I just don't have a comment on a political matter right now.

Q: Can you be more specific about why New Jersey is different than New York in terms of diverting resources from --

MR. CARNEY: Well, it's not about -- well, Administrator Fugate can talk about the allocation of resources. I think both states were extraordinarily hard hit. New Jersey I think was hardest hit of all by some measures.

Q: But in terms of the President coming and not diverting resources? Why is it okay for him to go to New Jersey and not New York?

MR. CARNEY: -- the White House and Mayor Bloomberg that because of the unique nature of the damage to Lower Manhattan and the resources that need to be brought to bear there, that it was not appropriate for the President to visit Manhattan today.

Q: Why did he scrub the trick-or-treat tonight?

MR. CARNEY: I would refer you to the East Wing for more details on that. I think they put out a statement that it was because of the storm.

Q: Administrator Fugate, can federal money -- this disaster aid be used to get the election happening in these states on Tuesday? Is that money usable for that?

ADMINISTRATOR FUGATE: Here's what happened in 2004 -- we had so many places that were impacted, at polling stations, that the Florida Supervisor of Elections had requested assistance in getting temporary facilities back up. We worked with FEMA and it was eligible funding.

But the actual part -- who does what, what needs to be done -- is a state responsibility. But we're able to support, as a state puts in a request for anything, to support the actual polling operations.

Q: Thanks, guys.

MR. CARNEY: All right, thanks so much. Thank you, Mr. Fugate. I appreciate it.

END 1:03 P.M. EDT

Barack Obama, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jay Carney Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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