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Homeland Security secretary tours the damage from deadly weekend tornadoes

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you are from western Kentucky, this is not just another story about a bad storm in the Midwest. This is about your life, now completely upended. Homes are gone. Family members have died. The loss is hard to absorb. At least 74 people are confirmed dead in the state. Dozens remain unaccounted for. President Biden plans to visit Kentucky tomorrow. He says federal officials are prepared to do whatever it takes to help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This administration has made it clear to every governor - whatever they need, when they need it - when they need it. Make it known to me, and we'll get it to them as rapidly - as rapidly as we can.

MARTIN: We are joined now by the secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas. He toured the damage in Kentucky over the weekend. Secretary Mayorkas, thank you for being here.

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Thank you for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: As I noted, you have been in Kentucky. You saw the devastation there. Is there an image that is stuck in your mind after making that grim tour?

MAYORKAS: Rachel, there most certainly is. You know, while I was in route to western Kentucky, I did my research on what the city was and what has happened to it. At the candle factory in Mayfield, people were working the night shift to make a little extra money. The average per capita income in that small city was $18,000 a year, and people were earning extra money around Christmastime, manufacturing candles for distribution to people all over the country. And we arrived at the scene of what was once that factory and is now just rubble. And the search and rescue teams were working, and one officer had pulled from the rubble an individual's backpack, one shoe that could be recovered and a cellphone. And on that cellphone were 27 missed messages, meaning a loved one had called to see whether their family member had survived.

MARTIN: Yeah.

MAYORKAS: And we don't know the answer to that question, but the scene is ever present in my mind.

MARTIN: What is the biggest need there right now around Kentucky?

MAYORKAS: Food, of course, is always important, and that is being delivered. The four things that we heard most important - water, fuel, communications and shelter.

MARTIN: So what's the federal government's role here? We heard President Biden say, whatever they need, when they need it. What are you sending, and how fast can it get there?

MAYORKAS: So the speed with which we have responded is extraordinary. Following the president's direction not to wait to ask for help, but to proactively reach out to the community in need, we arrived before the emergency declaration was even signed. Our search and rescue teams were there to provide help to see if we can recover anyone who was still alive in the wake of the devastation. We have disaster assistance teams on site. We have been providing food, water and other resources. We have been going family to family, individual to individual to learn what has happened to each individual and what we can do about it. We provide support to the state and local authorities, funding for them, actual provision of resources and the ability to reimburse them for certain costs that they incur. We are...

MARTIN: And this...

MAYORKAS: ...On site. And we will remain there.

MARTIN: And this is in Kentucky, but also you're talking about the five other states that were hit by these tornadoes. Is that right?

MAYORKAS: Yeah, that is indeed correct. And just last night, the president approved an emergency declaration for the states of Tennessee and Illinois.

MARTIN: Is there something in particular that makes this recovery effort especially challenging?

MAYORKAS: You know, Rachel, FEMA, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, is extraordinarily skilled in addressing major disasters like this. I think what we saw on Sunday is somewhat unusual in that an entire city, entire community, was wiped out. And the rebuilding process is going to take time. We are going to be able to provide temporary shelter and care for people. But homes need to be rebuilt. Schools need to be operating once again. Businesses need to be rebuilt and restarted. It really means building a community from the ground up.

MARTIN: Tornadoes like this in December are actually rare, but FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell called this the new normal. How is the agency preparing for this new reality with the frequency now, the severity of these extreme weather disasters?

MAYORKAS: You know, Rachel, Deanne Criswell, the administrator of FEMA, and I were talking about this yesterday. And we've certainly spoken about it throughout this past year. There used to be a cadence to the response to disasters. There used to be seasons for hurricanes and fires and the like. And quite frankly, that cadence has changed dramatically. It is now a year-long process of disaster response and recovery.

MARTIN: Do you have the resources you need, then, to meet that new need?

MAYORKAS: We do. We do have the resources. We have the skill. We have the operational capacity. FEMA is just extraordinarily talented in incident management response. But I must say that it is December, and this department has gone through a great deal this year. We are tired, but it is dedicated to - a dedication to mission, seeing the suffering of people, and we just keep doing what we need to do to fulfill our mission.

MARTIN: Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Thank you, sir.

MAYORKAS: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.