DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Hurricane Florence is now projected to make landfall on Friday, bringing with it a life-threatening storm surge on the coasts of North and South Carolina, and also Virginia. Areas further inland are bracing for floods where the storm is projected to dump torrents of rain. The Federal Emergency Management Agency warned yesterday that Florence could bring - could be the strongest storm to hit the Eastern Seaboard of the United States in decades, and President Trump echoed that warning.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They haven't seen anything like what's coming at us in 25, 30 years - maybe ever. It's tremendously big and tremendously wet - tremendous amounts of water.
GREENE: OK. I want to bring in MaryAnn Tierney. She joins us on the line. She's the regional administrator for FEMA, covering much of the mid-Atlantic region.
Thanks so much for taking the time for us this morning.
MARYANN TIERNEY: Well, thank you for having me on.
GREENE: What is making this storm potentially so historic that is causing, I mean, just these dramatic warnings we're hearing?
TIERNEY: Well, that's a good question. First, the size of the storm and strength of the storm make it a very serious danger to people, not only on the coast but inland. And everyone must start preparing, if they have not already, for this storm.
GREENE: Well, let's talk about different communities. I mean, you're responsible for the state of Virginia. I know another region, the Carolinas, is obviously bracing for the impact even sooner. But if you're in a coastal community, where, I guess, there could be storm surge, what exactly should you be doing? And how bad could things get?
TIERNEY: That's a really good question. So the first thing that people should be doing is listening to the advice and guidance of local officials. So if you are under an evacuation order - which in Virginia, the Hampton Roads area, Zone A, is under a mandatory evacuation order right now - you should be evacuating. If you have not already, you should be making plans to do so very shortly. You need to evacuate and get to an area that's safe - on higher ground, out of the storm surge zones.
GREENE: And then what about further inland? I mean, we're talking about flooding. I mean, I remember covering Hurricane Harvey in Houston and watched, you know, entire neighborhoods that were literally underwater. Is that the scale that we could be talking about here?
TIERNEY: The potential inland rainfall is very significant. The Weather Service is predicting, at a worst case, over 20 inches of rain inland. That's something people need to take very seriously. They need to be listening to local officials and preparing - having a plan to evacuate if told to do so, having an emergency supply kit on hand and talking to your family about what you would do in case you are flooded.
GREENE: Are you getting reports that make you think people are heeding these warnings? I mean, we're talking about more than a million people on the Eastern Seaboard right now who have been told that they are under a mandatory evacuation order. Are people listening?
TIERNEY: We have been in touch with state and local officials. And in Virginia, people are evacuating now. Again, some people will not. And I encourage them to rethink that choice and move inland out of the storm surge areas, out of the warning areas.
GREENE: What are you most worried about as you think about your region, the state of Virginia, some of these coastal communities? What is keeping you up at night right now?
TIERNEY: Well, first, making sure that people are safe. So there is still time - though not much - to get ready for this storm. People, if they're in an evacuation zone, need to evacuate. If you're not in an evacuation zone, you need to have plans to have supplies on hand should you lose power - or that may have to evacuate. And then again, people inland need to take this storm seriously. This is a storm that's not just going to impact the coast. It's going to move very slowly across the Carolinas and into Virginia over the next several days. And folks need to take that very seriously, and they need to prepare.
GREENE: I want to ask you - I know you were part of the FEMA leadership that responded to Hurricane Sandy back in 2012. I mean, that storm struck areas including New York, New Jersey, where a lot of residents didn't necessarily know what to expect or how to prepare for such a powerful storm. I mean, we always hear - you should listen to local governments; you should heed the warnings. It doesn't seem to always happen. What can you do differently now to make sure that people are getting out of harm's way?
TIERNEY: That's a really good question. One of the things we are doing is we're talking to people like you, getting the word out - trying to encourage people that are in the danger areas - particularly in the hurricane warning, storm surge warning areas - to heed that warning and prepare. We're also using all of the available tools we have at our disposal, whether that's social media, media interviews - using those tools in new and innovative ways to reach a variety of people. We've also made a huge effort to reach out to non-English speakers through Spanish media as well.
GREENE: I know your agency, FEMA, has faced some criticism for its handling of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. And the agency has had some reports about how to improve. Can you give me an example of something that you are doing right now that might be based on some lessons learned?
TIERNEY: Thank you. That's a good question. I really appreciate a chance to address that. Like any emergency management agency, FEMA is an agency that is constantly looking to improve its operations. We learned many lessons from the 2017 hurricane season. One specific example that we're implementing right now in FEMA Region III is pre-positioning additional air rotary wing for search and rescue, should that be necessary on the coast.
GREENE: All right, MaryAnn Tierney is the regional administrator for FEMA Region III, which includes the state of Virginia. That is one of the states that is bracing for Hurricane Florence to arrive. We're also looking at the potential impact on the Carolinas. Again, landfall is expected, potentially, Friday.
Thank you so much for all the time this morning. We really appreciate it.
TIERNEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.