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CNN "CNN Newsroom" - Transcript

Interview

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Location: Washington, DC

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Secretary of Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano good enough to join me live from FEMA headquarters there in our nation's capital.

Madam Secretary, thank you so much for coming on and sparing the time.

Let me just ask you straight up here, because this is the concern. Does the federal government have the money it needs to respond to this storm?

JANET NAPOLITANO, U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Yes.

And let me be very clear about this. Survivors of Hurricane Irene, survivors from the tornado, survivors from the flooding that occurred this spring, they are all going to receive their individual assistance.

Public assistance for projects already under way will continue. The only thing that has happened -- and this has happened historically at the end of the fiscal year is -- if you have had a heavier-than- predicted disaster year, that we take money and make sure that survivors get paid first and no new projects for older disasters are approved until Congress replenishes the funds necessary for disasters.

BALDWIN: I know -- I think of Joplin, for example. And who can forget the images there? I know they just started school recently and they are still picking up the pieces.

Can you be more specific, Secretary Napolitano, in terms of how you prioritize your funding obligations?

NAPOLITANO: Well, I think it's pretty straightforward. Survivors come first, always, and then all uninsured losses for businesses, infrastructure, like highways, things of that sort. And, like I said, all that has happened now is, we have declared immediate needs assistance, meaning that we want to make sure that all the immediate needs of the millions of people affected by Hurricane Irene are met. No new projects will be funded, i.e., nothing that is not already in the works will be started, until Congress and the president replenish the fund.

And this happens historically. There's nothing new about this, because at the beginning of any fiscal year, it's difficult to predict how many disasters you're going to have to deal with. And so traditionally and historically, they wait until right around this time every year and then make decisions about how much actually will be needed to make sure that all of FEMA's obligations are met. And that's our expectation.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: I know that the immediate needs assistance, that's certainly nothing new, as you point out. But what is new or perhaps unprecedented is the money in the coffers for FEMA, as we now know. Pre-Irene, it was less than a billion dollars.

So, springboarding off your point with regard to Congress, will the Obama administration have to request supplemental funding from Congress and then how is that handled? Does that get decided upon by the super committee?

NAPOLITANO: Well, it gets obviously decided by the appropriators.

But we're already talking with the head of OMB and with the president. And we don't know what the damages from Irene are going to be. Those assessments are just now beginning. We were just able to get up in the air in North Carolina a day or two ago, because the wind speed was over 35 miles per hour. It was unsafe for aircraft to get up to do the low flying necessary.

But they're up there. They're doing the damage assessments. We're working with the governors in the other states. We're still in response in a number of states. As you have noted, the record flooding that we're now seeing in places like New Jersey, in New England, that's still ongoing. Some of those rivers won't crest for a day or two.

So, right now, with the size of the storm, we have still got response going with the inland flooding effects, as well as now recovery and damage assessments for places where the hurricane hit first.

BALDWIN: I know I have you for a limited time. So let me just get one more question in. And that is, FEMA admits that, yes, it's been victimized by fraud and waste.

And my question is, how is the government getting a handle on those problems? How and when will the government begin to get their money back?

NAPOLITANO: Well, I think a lot of those older problems have long been rectified and dealt with. And we want to make sure the taxpayers are getting their money's worth. We want to be and are good stewards of the taxpayer dollars.

But these are disaster dollars. These are to go to places that otherwise would have no recourse for all the victims of disasters that we have had this year. So it's very important and I think very fundamental that from a safety and security perspective, we take care of these issues.

BALDWIN: Well, Madam Secretary, I thank you so much for coming on, spending the time. Thank you.

NAPOLITANO: Thank -- you bet. Thank you.

BALDWIN: And quick reminder to all of you. If you are watching these images, you would like to help in some way, you can. You can just visit our Impact Your World page. There's all kinds of great information there with links to several relief organizations, if you would like to give. The page is CNN.com/Impact.

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