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CNN "The Situation Room" - Transcript

Interview

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Location: Washington, DC

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Joining me now, Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano.

Madam Secretary, thanks for coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

When you look at this monster storm going up the East Coast of the United States, what's your biggest concern at this time?

JANET NAPOLITANO, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Well, it's a big storm. It's going to cover a lot of large geographic area, a lot of population. And what -- one concern I have is that once the storm has immediately passed, that people don't forget about the after effects. There can be flooding. There can be surge. We think there could be a lot of power outage associated with that.

So it's going to be a whole series of events. And what we've been preparing for is that cascading series.

JOHNS: Right. And power outages obviously is a concern for national security and national security installations -- army, military, what have you.

What are you doing to handle the power outages as they may affect the first responders? NAPOLITANO: We've already been working with the first responders, the Department of Defense, with all of their installations up and down the Atlantic Seaboard. We have been moving assets out of the way of the storm. We've been prepositioning things so they could come in immediately after the storm passes to provide aid and assistance to the people who live along the storm's path.

So there's been an awful lot of work done in preparation over the last few days. And one of the things we're reminding people of today is that they -- they are part of our team. And they need to be prepared, as well. You can go to ready.gov and find a convenient list of some things to take care of. That means not only for those who live right on the coast, but also those who live inland, because, as I said earlier, flooding and some surge flooding at the back of this storm is -- is highly likely.

JOHNS: Another issue that we've been talking about here in THE SITUATION ROOM for a couple of days is when we had the earthquake, it was difficult to get through on cell service.

Are we going to be able to make telephone calls?

And what would you tell people to do in the alternative, if cell service is not working very well once the storm hits?

NAPOLITANO: Well, what was interesting there was that the first responders in the earthquake were all able to communicate with each other, at least as far as I am aware. So the cell service failure was an after effect of everybody trying to use their cell phone simultaneously.

So we urge people to use other means of communication, if they can. We think that there are a lot of ways that we need to think ahead and prepare for in case you can't use your cell phone to call a family member, how you get in touch in case you are separated.

JOHNS: Let's talk a little bit about other forms of communication. One of the things that we've been discussing is using social media, using e-mail and so forth.

Are you encouraging that and are there any guidelines you can give people?

NAPOLITANO: Yes. And we are encouraging it. And the guideline I'd give is common sense. Do what you must and think ahead. Have a plan for yourself and for your family members so that, let's say you have to evacuate, other family members will know that you are safe and know where you've relocated to.

JOHNS: We've also seen, in some of the states and localities where this storm is expected to pass over, budget cuts over the past weeks, months, even the past couple of years.

How are people supposed to deal with a huge potential emergency like this at a time when they're cutting back on emergency service and perhaps even in the area of first responders? NAPOLITANO: Well, this is where, you know, people really see their government at work and -- and why it is that we want to sustain the improvements that have been made over the past years.

But I can say this from a -- from a federal government perspective. And that is, the availability of funds under the Disaster Recovery Act or the Disaster Recovery Fund will not be a limitation on our ability to respond. And I've been in touch with mayors and governors all up and down the Atlantic Seaboard over the past few days and none of them have mentioned that as a limiting factor. Everything possible is being put in a -- in a smart and effective way and a plan, in a coordinated way, into preparing for the storm.

JOHNS: No need -- on the ground level, we're already hearing from people who are refusing to heed evacuation orders.

What is your message to them this evening?

NAPOLITANO: Well, I would ask them to reconsider. Those -- those warnings, those requests to evacuate are not given lightly. We know they cause hardship to people.

But when the able-bodied evacuate, that enable -- that enables us to focus on those who need special assistance -- evacuating the elderly, nursing homes, evacuating the sick, hospitals, evacuating communities that need special help.

So one of the reasons that we ask people to evacuate is so we can to focus on those communities and so we don't put our own first responders at risk to go in and save people.

So we want to keep loss of life to zero, if we can, absolutely to a minimum. And that's the reason these evacuation orders are given.

JOHNS: Earlier today, President Obama had a conference call with a number of governors, mayors and leaders from areas that could be affected by this storm.

Were you on that call?

What was the president's message to these people who are dealing with the crisis?

NAPOLITANO: I was on that call. I've been on several other calls with the president. And his message was that the federal government was standing behind our first responders and local communities "110 percent," was the phrase that he used. We know that cities, towns and states are the first, they're on the front lines. They're the first to respond. The federal government, however, is here to provide support and backup.

JOHNS: Just by coincidence, I think, CNN did a CNN/ORC poll, which was released today, which gave us a little bit of an indication of how people feel they're prepared for a big emergency on the East Coast. And I just want to put it up on the screen and show you the results of this poll. You know, things like having a stockpile of food and water, in the Northeast 36 percent, yes; the Midwest, 39 percent; the South, 55 percent; the West, 46 percent. It's fascinating, almost, how people in the Northeast seem to be less prepared than people in some other areas.

Why do you think that is?

NAPOLITANO: Well, you know, I don't know why that is. But perhaps one reason is that the Northeast really hasn't been hit by a hurricane for many, many years. And I think, given that people forget how big a storm these are and what kinds of impacts they can have.

We've already seen this, this spring with flooding in the Midwest and tornadoes throughout the Midwest and the South, that it's been a -- it's been a very bad weather year. We've been able to manage all of those disasters, work with communities across the country. I think at one point, we had 28 states in the country that had major disaster declarations in effect.

But the Northeast was largely exempt from that. So now it may be the Northeast's turn, unfortunately. We ask, again, from the Mid- Atlantic up, North Carolina north, for people to take that extra step, be prepared, think through what you need to do for yourself and for your family.

JOHNS: Madam Secretary, Janet Napolitano, thanks so much for coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

We'll be checking back with you.

Please get back to us if you have any updates, as this hurricane rides up the East Coast.

NAPOLITANO: Thank you very much.

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