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Acting Homeland Security Secretary Weighs Federal Response To Hurricane Harvey

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel in Washington where the federal government is coordinating its response to Hurricane Harvey, which is hitting Texas now. Elaine Duke is the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and she joins us now on the line. Welcome to the program, Secretary.

ELAINE DUKE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And we're expecting landfall overnight. Are you confident that the people who need to get out of the storm's path are doing so?

DUKE: I have been talking with the governor of Texas. He has been working on evacuation and getting the messaging. And I hope the people that were ordered to evacuate the area have.

SIEGEL: What kind of resources are on the ground in Texas to help people get out?

DUKE: The governor of Texas is currently leading the evacuation. That is always a state responsibility. FEMA - it will come in as requested by the governor, and he just made a request to have federal assistance. And that is with the president now. And then FEMA will be entering with its support. But evacuation should be done, and the governor has changed to mandatory shelter in place at this point because it's too dangerous to leave the area.

SIEGEL: So now it's better to stay off the roads than...

DUKE: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...Even to try to evacuate. What are you expecting tomorrow? The governor, Greg Abbott, has said we could expect a very major disaster.

DUKE: Absolutely. It's going to have three pieces. One is wind. But even more importantly and more disastrous is we expect a huge amount of flooding and a storm surge. Flooding is going to be the biggest piece of this disaster because of the sustained rain over the area for a period of what we're expecting to be several days.

SIEGEL: I've seen forecasts of as much as 35 inches of rain falling over the next couple of days. That squares with DHS is...

DUKE: Yes, it does. And with the hurricane over the area and the way - with the winds, it will not be able to be reduced. We expect very severe flooding.

SIEGEL: What does DHS do at a time like this? Is it an all-hands-on-deck moment for personnel? Or, say, would immigration agents have to continue routine enforcement even while the hurricane is pounding the area?

DUKE: We surge with FEMA. So some of our resources in DHS join FEMA to support its support of the governor - in this case, Texas. But we also have to ensure the safety and law enforcement throughout the country. So we find that right balance of surging resources to FEMA and continuing our current operations.

SIEGEL: I've been thinking back to Katrina. And some of the people who remained and did so at great risk did so for reasons like there was an elderly relative whom they didn't want to move, or there was a family pet whom they didn't want to part with. Are we dealing better with these problems at persuading people these days than we were 12 years ago?

DUKE: We have been working with the state on making the evacuation plans much more robust in accounting for those type of people that don't want to leave a pet, also people in medical facilities or the elderly. And we're hoping that those that can, evacuate. It is for their safety. It's also for the safety of those that have to come in and conduct rescue operations shortly after the storm.

SIEGEL: You have an added dimension, which is people who are undocumented and might think that they - if they show up at a shelter, that someone will ask for their papers.

DUKE: DHS is concerned with the safety of all persons that are in that area right now. Safety and security are going to be our focus over the response to the storm.

SIEGEL: Again, thinking back to Katrina, are you confident that no one would be flooded in a nursing home in the way that people were in New Orleans?

DUKE: I have talked with Governor Abbott. They have done amazing planning and evacuation planning in that area, so I'm confident that they have that done properly.

SIEGEL: Well, we're - we hope you are. (Laughter) And thanks for sharing some time with us today.

DUKE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Elaine Duke, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.