FEMA assisting with Arkansas tornado aid

Officials continue providing state, local agencies support

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell speaks during a press briefing with Mayor Frank Scott Jr. (right) and Attorney General Tim Griffin (left) behind the Colony West Shopping Center on Sunday, April 2, 2023 in Little Rock. See more photos at arkansasonline.com/43tornados/.(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

WASHINGTON -- As Federal Emergency Management Agency officials continue assisting Arkansas and local agencies with recovery efforts connected to last Friday's tornadoes, one federal administrator says the agency is ready to provide resources to those affected by the storm.

Recovery and response efforts continued Monday with state and federal officials reviewing ongoing campaigns. Organizations have continued to offer resources and services to people affected.

FEMA representatives have been touring areas to speak with residents and assess damages. FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell and other agency officials spent Sunday in Little Rock and Wynne in the hours following President Joe Biden's approval of a major disaster declaration for the state.

Colt Hagmaier, the agency's deputy assistant administrator for recovery, joined Criswell on her stops in Arkansas. In an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Hagmaier explained FEMA's initial workforce following a disaster is a strategic team focused on administering damage assessments and early assistance efforts.

"That team is relatively small by intention because they work with the state to do the assessments of what else is needed, and then we surge in personnel after that," he said Monday.

The strategic team's early responsibilities include getting affected residents registered for assistance programs. Workers have been canvassing communities in the days following the storms.

"That's an initial down payment on what might be needed," Hagmaier added.

"Because these are communities that are rural and there're not a lot of hotels available, we really don't want to take away from those who have been impacted by the storms. We try to be intentional on when we send those resources. Until we get a good on-ground assessment, we try not to send too many, but we're ready to send them as needed."

Hagmaier noted each community has individual needs; he referenced parking lots of destroyed cars in Little Rock and the destruction of Wynne High School as situations needing different solutions.

"There's going to be a lot of families that their means of transportation and possibly their means of work has been eliminated," he said. "Finding options for them -- whether it be helping them to replace a vehicle or helping them get connected with volunteer organizations that can provide additional assistance -- those are some of the things that happen when there isn't a lot of transportation infrastructure."

During their tours, officials took note of the area's "lifelines," which include public services such as law enforcement, medical care and utility networks.

"In most of the communities that I have visited, I would say most of the lifelines are relatively stable, at least at a broader level," Hagmaier said.

Hagmaier said FEMA can more quickly address other issues once community lifelines are steady.

"The unique thing about tornadoes is you go a street over and there's hardly any damage. Because of that, the lifelines are able to stabilize more quickly than in, say, a broad hurricane situation," he mentioned. "I think that's good news for Arkansas and for those impacted communities, that their lifelines are stabilized."

FEMA establishes and maintains relationships with state officials ahead of a need to respond to natural disasters. Federal officials can immediately begin working with local and state leaders to determine the best response to a natural disaster, and governors can request a major disaster declaration from the White House for supplemental assistance. FEMA can recommend the request's approval before the president considers the matter.

Hagmaier said the response from Arkansas' leaders is an example of the collaborative relationship between governments. FEMA continues to work alongside local and state agencies in assessing damages. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders submitted a formal request for a presidential disaster declaration on Saturday for individual and public assistance in addition to statewide hazard mitigation efforts.

Biden approved the request; the president's action opens opportunities for individuals to pursue housing grants and loans for uninsured property losses. Local governments can seek funding for cleanup efforts.

"That request was expedited," Hagmaier noted.

"We sent incident management teams to provide on-the-ground cooperation with our state partners, and together, they did the assessments necessary to determine what kind of assistance would be available where."

Hagmaier added that the federal government can dedicate additional resources if necessary.

"FEMA is the coordinator of the interagency recovering effort," he said. "We will be coordinating throughout the life cycle of this disaster with our interagency partners to make sure that Arkansas has access to every form of assistance available."

Sanders acknowledged the importance of the state's relationship with federal agencies when speaking to reporters Monday outside of the Arkansas Division of Emergency Management's Emergency Command Center.

"We've had a great and consistent partnership back and forth," she said. "We're going to continue to work together. It's going to take everybody engaging and investing."

Arkansas was not the only state affected by storms at the end of last week; tornadoes additionally hit communities in Iowa and Illinois. Hagmaier said Arkansans should not be concerned about FEMA's ability to support disaster requests, adding the agency and its partners have the necessary resources to help affected areas.

On Monday, relief efforts in the areas hit by the storm focused on more immediate needs, like food, clothing and shelter.

Traffic at the Immanuel Baptist Church City Center, located at 315 N. Shackleford was brisk Monday as residents affected by the storm mingled with volunteers working to assist families just a few hundred yards from the epicenter of where the EF3 tornado touched down.

"I've been here since 9:30 and it's been pretty steady," said Jerry Halpain of North Little Rock, who was separating sacks of food items into lines of perishable and non-perishable items.

"People who don't have any power can pick up non-perishable food items while we're adding a few perishable items to give out to those who have power and are able to keep food refrigerated," Halpain said.

Matt Hubbard, Immanuel Baptist Church's missions pastor and overseer of the City Center, said the center has received an outpouring of support from people bringing donations or volunteering to help feed people, sort and prep donations for distribution, as well as from government officials and disaster relief organizations providing assistance and information to those affected by the disaster. Behind Hubbard, in the center's main staging area, pallets of bottled water, paper goods, cardboard boxes and other items were placed in preparation to send out; volunteers and residents mingled in sitting areas while volunteers with pallet jacks moved items about.

Outside the front of the center, Goodwill Industries volunteers handed out hot meals prepared by Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and Salvation Army volunteers while others manned a drive-through area loading sacks of groceries into cars as people pulled through the parking lot.

"We initially were the command center for [Little Rock Police Department] and search and rescue," Hubbard said. "We then shifted to become a deployment center for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and we've been asked by the City of Little Rock to be a family assistance center."

Hubbard said normally, the City Center building -- which formerly housed a grocery store but was purchased by the church and opened in March 2020 -- operates as a food pantry, a clothing closet, and a dental clinic and offers adult education courses operated by Pulaski County Special School District.

"Because of the tornado we're responding to the needs of our city," he said. "So families can come get a hot meal ... and they can also go through the line and get some supplies like non-perishable items, paper goods, diapers, bottled water; we've even got cardboard boxes for those going through their belongings, we've tarps and all of that resourcing here."

Hubbard said Little Rock city officials are onsite providing identification for residents who lost theirs to the storm, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are also onsite to provide information and assistance, and Entergy Arkansas representatives are there to assist people with estimates of power restoration, service transfers, emergency service cutoffs and other storm-related needs. The Arkansas Division of Workforce Services had a trailer set up in the parking lot Monday with officials assisting people with storm-related employment needs.

Information for this report was provided by Dale Ellis of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.