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FEMA Assesses Hurricane Damage, Taking COVID-19 Precautions

A trailer is left damaged and debris scattered Thursday in Holly Beach, La., in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura.
Eric Thayer
Getty Images
A trailer is left damaged and debris scattered Thursday in Holly Beach, La., in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Thursday that while the impact of Hurricane Laura was less catastrophic than initially predicted, the storm significantly damaged many communities and remains a threat to parts of several Southern states still in its path.

FEMA officials said on a call with reporters that it is working to assess the damage and distribute aid to people in need — while taking precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Hurricane Laura slammed into the Texas-Louisiana border early Thursday as a Category 4 storm, bringing extreme winds and high waters to coastal and inland communities, particularly in Louisiana. The storm flooded roadways, scattered debris, sent thousands of people scrambling to shelters and left hundreds of thousands of customers without power.

National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Goldstein said that Louisiana was "fortunate in one way but less fortunate in another" as the state faced a smaller-than-expected storm surge but some of the strongest winds in recent memory.

That's because the center of the storm was slightly east of where forecasters had predicted. Goldstein said if it had been just 10 to 12 miles farther west, St. Charles, La., would have had "extremely serious inundation."

MaryAnn Tierney, a FEMA administrator on the ground in southwest Louisiana, stressed that it could be another day or so until officials get a full picture of the destruction and decide how best to support affected communities.

More than 10,000 people sought shelter Wednesday in Texas and Louisiana, according to Charley English, a national emergency management liaison for the American Red Cross. He said the vast majority of those people took shelter in hotel rooms and college dormitories instead of mass shelters to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Officials said responders are working on the ground to distribute food, water and other supplies. FEMA has also deployed several types of federal response teams, including search and rescue, to help with relief efforts in parts of Texas and Louisiana.

David Bibo, FEMA acting associate administrator for the Office of Response and Recovery, said first responders are wearing masks, practicing social distancing, washing their hands frequently and following other public health guidance to protect themselves and the people they are assisting.

The process of administering that relief has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.

FEMA is modifying some of its practices to assess damage in light of the pandemic. Bibo said responders are using photographs and phone calls to get a sense of damage rather than sending an in-person inspector, and delivering aid with minimal contact.

There will likely be additional requests for federal assistance to support both individuals and public infrastructure as communities rebuild, Bibo said.

Amid a worse than average hurricane season, a pandemic and a slew of natural disasters in the West and Midwest, some lawmakers have questioned whether FEMA's resources may be enough — especially after President Trump cut billions of dollars from its disaster fund to help extend some COVID-19 unemployment benefits earlier this summer.

When asked how the pandemic is affecting relief funding, officials on the call said FEMA has "sufficient resources to handle the response to Hurricane Laura as well as deliver other assistance that has been authorized and directed by the president."

Trump has approved emergency declarations for Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Arkansas to assist with hurricane response.

Laura weakened to a tropical storm Thursday afternoon, but officials warn the threat is not over.

Forecasters said the storm will veer to the right, moving over northeast Arkansas by Friday morning and gaining speed into Kentucky on Friday evening. Goldstein said it will move across the Central Appalachians on Saturday morning as a nontropical system on its way toward the Mid-Atlantic.

Goldstein warned of heavy rainfall at the center of the storm, which could lead to isolated flash flooding until it reaches post-tropical status.

And Bibo urged people in the Tennessee and Lower Ohio valleys to heed the instructions of local officials as Laura heads their way.

As of 8 p.m. ET, the storm was about 35 miles south of Little Rock, Ark., with noticeably weakened sustained winds of 40 mph. The National Hurricane Center said it is drenching parts of that state with flooding and rainfall. Tropical storm warnings are in effect for portions of southern and central Arkansas.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.