Remarks by President Biden in Briefing on the Impact of Hurricane Ida in Hillsborough Township, NJ
Somerset County Emergency Management Training Center
Hillsborough Township, New Jersey
12:23 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thanks, Gov. Thank you. Wish I were here under different circumstances, but you really took a hit and New Jersey took a hit; parts of my state as well, but New Jersey and New York in particular.
And I want to begin by thanking Senator Booker for all the work he’s doing in the Senate trying to get this infrastructure and other — the things we have to do to not just build back, but build back better than it was before.
And I want to thank Representative Watson and — now, am I in your district or am I in — I’m in Tommy’s district —
REPRESENTATIVE WATSON COLEMAN: You’ll be in my district in a moment.
THE PRESIDENT: In a moment. Okay. We’re right on the line.
REPRESENTATIVE MALINOWSKI: We’re all one district.
THE PRESIDENT: I — I think that’s true. And you also have one of the best state police forces in the nation. I’m a big statey guy, and so is Delaware.
But thank you very much for all you do.
Look, to the local officials, the mayors, and the county commissioner: You really get hit first. They come to you first. They want to know what’s going on, what you can do to help them. And, in some cases, even with search and rescue, you can have some of the least reach in terms of availability of resources.
And the one thing I will say — and I really want to thank my FEMA director. She’s done one thing that — and we had a great FEMA director in the past as well — that makes it work. When you get local, state, and federal working together, it is more than three times — it’s — it’s like 10 times what it would be if just having one moving.
And the losses that we witnessed today are profound: dozens of lost lives; homes destroyed in Manville, including by gas leaks triggered by the flooding; damaged infrastructure, including the rail system. And my thoughts are with all those families affected by the storms and all those families who lost someone they love.
I understand there are still two — is it two people missing? Or —
GOVERNOR MURPHY: Four.
THE PRESIDENT: Four people still missing. And I especially want to thank — and it’s an overused phrase, but the brave first responders. I — you know, we have — you have exemplified the courage, both in New Jersey and next door in New York. They’ve done an incredible job.
And we’re working closely with Governor Murphy, and we’re going to continue to do so. I’m here to see firsthand what the damage is and find out directly from you all what — what is most needed.
Now, look, FEMA has been, I hope, as responsive as we’ve intended them to be, and I’m sure they have. A hundred and thirty-two personnel from FEMA, so far, including federal search and rescue teams, including 60 individuals; Incident Management Assistant Teams of 20 people to support these response operations; and Mobile Emergency Response Support teams — six of them — to provide communications and logistics support.
And on Sunday, when — when the governor — and we spoke to the governor and he asked for the major disaster declaration, we made it available immediately so that we could speed federal assistance as quickly as we could to hard-hit communities.
The FEMA Administrator was on the ground here in New Jersey yesterday, I believe, to assess the damage. She’s visited two communities, Mullica Hills and Wenonah, hit by the tornado, as — that was on the ground just — what? — for over 13 miles that was on the ground, that tornado — those tornados.
The HHS Secretary has worked with the state to make sure folks on Medicare and Medicaid get the emergency care they need now. And we’re going to make sure the relief is equitable so that those hardest hit get what they need. And they — and we know there’s a lot more to do, and that’s why we’re here.
For decades, scientists have warned of extreme — weather would be more extreme and climate change was here, and we’re living through it now. We don’t have any more time.
I hope no one — I’ve been on the telephone or on the road an awful lot between California, Idaho, New Orleans — excuse me, not New Orleans — Louisiana, but in New Orleans — Mississippi and, you know, here. I mean, every part of the country — every part of the country is getting hit by extreme weather. And we’re now living in real time what the country is going to look like. And if we don’t do something — we can’t turn it back very much, but we can prevent it from getting worse.
And so, we’re all in this together, and we’ve got to — we’ve got to make sure that we don’t leave any community behind. And it’s all across the country.
You know, the members of Congress know from their colleagues in Congress that, you know, the — what looks like a tornado — they don’t call them that anymore — that hit the crops and wetlands in the middle of the country, in Iowa, in Nevada, and — I mean, it’s just across the board.
And, you know, as I said, we’re in this together. And so, one of the things that, today, I’m going to ask you about when we get into this — some question and answers here, is about how we’re going to build back realizing what the status of the climate is now, what the trajectory of it is going to be.
And we can no longer — we all know — we can’t just build back to what it was before. Whatever damage done in New Jersey, you can’t build back and restore it — what it was before, because another tornado, another 10 inches of rain is going to produce the same kind of results.
So, I want to talk a little bit about the specifics about the things you think you would need not just to get back to normal, but to get back to a place where, if it happened again, the damage would be considerably less. That’s what this is all about, in my view. This is an opportunity.
I think the country has finally acknowledged the fact that global warming is real and it’s moving at an incredible pace, and we’ve got to do something about it.
I’m going to be going from here to what —
COP29 [COP26] in Glasgow for the world meeting together and how we’re going to deal with climate change. And it is — it’s — I think we’re at one of those inflection points where we either act or we’re going to be — we’re going to be in real, real trouble. Our kids are going to be in real trouble.
So I want to thank you, and I yield back to you, Gov.
GOVERNOR MURPHY: Thank you, Mr. President. Amen to all. And again, we can’t thank you enough for being here, for all your support.
Another person who we’re going to hear from next has been there for us. And Deanne Criswell, who’s the Administrator for FEMA — we’ve had a lot of conversations over the past several weeks, harking back to Henri, which also wreaked some havoc in New Jersey but nothing like Ida.
Madam Administrator, it’s an honor to have you here.
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, Governor. And thank you to all the elected officials, commissioners, and mayors that are here today.
I’d actually like to start by giving a big shout-out to all of the first responders that have been supporting the lifesaving efforts over the last few days, many of them in your own communities, many of them who have had damages to their own homes. And I just want everybody to know: The hard work that you do is really appreciated at — you know, in your communities, but also at the federal level as well. We couldn’t do it without you. You’re the ones on the ground. I always say it, and you’ve heard from others as well: Disasters always start and end local, and so we want to make sure that we’re here to support the first responders.
I did spend yesterday visiting some of the damaged areas and meeting with local officials. I toured Mullica Hill and Wenonah, and witnessed firsthand the destruction that these tornadoes did bring.
But because of the President’s swift action in declaring a major disaster declaration, we’ve been able to now provide aid to some of the families who have been impacted, specifically those individuals that live in Bergen, Gloucester — excuse me if I get these wrong — pronounce them wrong — Hunterdon, Middlesex, Passaic, and Somerset. And —
THE PRESIDENT: It’s okay as long as you send the money.
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: I’m sending money. I bring a checkbook, Mr. President, that you gave me.
And we’re continuing to do damage assessments today. So I have staff on the ground today that are doing assessments in Essex, Hudson, Union, and Mercer. And, you know, we wanted to be able to get this disaster declaration in place quickly, knowing that we still needed to do additional damage assessments, to really get a better understanding of the scope of the impact that the communities are experiencing across New Jersey.
So far, we actually already have over 7,000 families that have registered for assistance, and that number will continue to grow. But if they haven’t registered yet, individuals can go to DisasterAssistance.gov, they can go to our FEMA app, or they can call 1-800-621-FEMA. That’s 1-800-621-3362.
Additionally, we’re going to have teams that are going in the neighborhoods. They will also be in the recovery centers when they’re established. If you haven’t registered, they can assist you with registering. If you have and you have questions about your case, just find somebody with a FEMA shirt and they’ll help you understand where it’s at and if you — if you need to provide any more information.
I mean, I think — you know, the thing that’s been remarkable over the last few weeks in watching the track of Hurricane Ida that really caused damage across nine states is that the weather events such as these are just becoming more normal. They’re becoming more common, but they’re more severe and they’re more intense. And the effects of climate change that are causing these storms is here, and it’s our job to make sure that we are all ready to respond, as well as prepared.
And FEMA is really committed to helping with making communities more resilient. We recently authorized, on behalf of the President, close to $5 billion in hazard mitigation funding to help give communities that extra resource to build that resiliency. It’s just the first step. But FEMA wants to be an active participant in this role of making sure that we’re preparing to reduce the impacts from the future risks that we’re going to continue to see as a result of climate change.
And then, lastly, I’d just like to say: This is September, and it is National Preparedness Month, and our theme this year is “Prepare to Protect.” And I think what we saw over the last week is that nobody is immune from the threats that we’re facing from these disasters.
I read recently that it said one in three Americans have already experienced a major disaster this year. I can’t, you know, verify that number, but it’s there. People are experiencing these events. We need to invest in reducing the risk that these communities are facing, but we also need to make sure that we’re helping individuals be prepared.
And so, if you don’t have an emergency plan, please go to Ready.gov, and there’s some great information there to help you prepare for what you may be experiencing in the future.
Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, Governor.
GOVERNOR MURPHY: Thank you. Thank you, Deanne. Thank you for the major disaster declaration for those six counties, including this one, and for your work to hopefully add to that list. I know your team is — is on that.
Again, it’s DisasterAssistance.gov if you’re in those six counties. If you’re not in the six counties, we have a website set up — NJ.gov/Ida — and, hopefully, that’s a landing place for now for folks to go until — please, God — they get designated as a disaster county. So, thank you for everything. You all have been extraordinary.
We’re in Somerset County and we’re honored to have the Commissioner Director with us, an outstanding leader. Hear a few words from Shanel Robinson. Shanel.
COMMISSIONER DIRECTOR ROBINSON: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. President. And thank you, Governor. And welcome, to all of you, to Somerset County’s Emergency Operations Center. And thank you for visiting to see the catastrophic damage that Ida brought firsthand.
We all greatly appreciate your commitment to our recovery and especially for our inclusion in FEMA’s disas- — major disaster declaration. So, again, thank you for that.
Now, as you tour Manville today, you will see the heart and spirit and the resilience of the people of Somerset County. You will see the devastation that Ida brought, but nevertheless, we will continue to do and build a better and stronger community.
Hurricane Ida is our fourth — understand, our fourth storm of the 100-year storm in just over two decades. And as you mentioned, Mr. President, it’s only going to get worse.
But this historic storm has hit us particularly hard. You know, in Somerset County, the result was not just a deluge of waters, but a deluge of emergencies.
In our own, Somerset County 911 Communications Center fielded over 13,000 calls that night, 5,000 of them being 911; 520 air and water rescues, where people were rescued from their vehicles or from their homes; 170 fire alarms; 8 explosions; and there are countless of automobile accidents and injuries.
But as we all can attest to and can agree to is that our first responders — state, local rescue teams — risked their own safety to save the lives of the residents of not only Somerset County, but of the state of New Jersey.
And I would be remiss if I did not thank our Somerset County Department of Public Works who were, with their front loaders, rescuing people who were out there cleaning the debris, making sure the roadways were safe and blocked from those that entered into dangerous paths.
But also, during the worst of the raging waters in our Millstone and Raritan rivers — they raged over our 750 bridges here in Somerset County alone, but yet our workers were there to make sure that they were doing all that they could to make sure that our residents were safe.
And sadly, six Somerset County residents lost their lives to the floodwaters. We must continue to hold their families and loved ones in our prayers and in our hearts.
But again, because of Ida’s devastation, we know that we cannot forget that we must endure, as we have thousands of people that are continuing to seek shelter.
Our collective mission now — as you see around the room, you have local, county, state, and federal officials coming together to making sure that we get our families back into our homes, make sure that our businesses are operating again, and to repair and restore our public infrastructure.
Here in New Jersey, there is a strong connection — again, the leadership who are in the room — there’s a strong connection to make sure that we’re doing all that we can for the residents of New Jersey, not just Somerset County. And we must do all that we can to make sure that the residents know that we have their back. And as you said, Commissioner — Administrator, we’re here to prepare to protect. And if the residents do not feel that we have their backs, then we failed them.
So, over the weekend, we’ve transitioned from emergency response to disaster recovery. This will not only take weeks, but months or even longer. We will never be back to close to normal, but all we can do is do better.
We will need FEMA, the Red Cross, state and local OEM, and nonprofits to come together to ensure that the recovery is not just for some, but for all.
So, again, thank you, Mr. President. And thank you, Governor. And thank you to all of you for your resiliency and for your deep concern for not only Som- — not only Somerset County, but the state of New Jersey, and your commitment to our recovery.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Shanel.
GOVERNOR MURPHY: Thank you, Shanel. Great leadership by you and your team, as you said, at the county and local level, and heroism all over the state by first responders.
With your blessing, Mr. President, I think we have one more speaker before our friends in the press leave, and that is the superintendent of our state police, Colonel Pat Callahan, who has been there every single day during this pandemic and certainly through Ida and all the other weather challenges we’ve had.
Pat, over to you.
COLONEL CALLAHAN: Thank you, Governor, for that introduction and certainly for your continued leadership through probably some of the most challenging times in New Jersey’s history.
And thank you, Mr. President, especially for your kind words about the state police. Delaware State Police is pretty good too, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: The best.
COLONEL CALLAHAN: (Laughs.) But your presence here sends a strong message to all of us and to our residents that that support — from not only response, to recovery, mitigation — that the federal government is here, and that we saw that yesterday when the Administrator and I walked around and spoke to those homeowners. So, thank you.
And I also want to take this opportunity to thank and offer my gratitude for the swift offers of assistance that we got from the White House, from FEMA, Department of Defense, HHS. It’s an honor to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all of you and show the rest of the country what it means to be a true collaborative effort here. So, thank you.
And just a little bit about the day of the storm, Mr. President: That morning of, at 10:00 a.m., we hosted a call with the National Weather Service, all of our county OEM coordinators, our state emergency management partners. We activated our SEOC two hours later. And then, in short order, that unprecedented amount of rainfall just stagger- — staggering rate fell and ravaged our state, upending families and causing a horrible loss of life, as you’ve heard.
To give a broad picture, very few areas were unscathed. Flooding occurred in 10 of our 21 counties that were normally not flood prone. And as we witnessed yesterday, that EF-3 that hit down on that 13-mile path, starting with — over in Harrison Township, all the way up through Wenonah and out.
So it — that all happened in a period of about 9 or 10 hours.
GOVERNOR MURPHY: Yep.
COLONEL CALLAHAN: Almost three months of rain in about five hours. Just unprecedented. The rivers exceeded their levels even today. The Passaic rifer [sic] is — Passaic River is not expected to fall below flood stage until tomorrow. We might even be expecting some rain tomorrow, which we’re keeping an eye on, as you could well know.
And, Mr. President, while we prepared our roadways, we cleared storm drains and debris, the amount of rainfall was overwhelming. Whole roadways were actually swept completely away. Motorists were stranded for hours. And, as you know, sadly, some of them never made it home.
Our search and rescue personnel, just at the state level alone, had 543 rescues. And collectively, our local first responders — to your point — more than 3,500 rescues in that time, leaving their own families, leaving their own homes. And our missing persons operations are still ongoing for those four.
The preliminary damage assessments have been happening at a rapid rate. And as we know, that those four additional counties — that we’re hopefully going to get there. So, thank you for that.
The debris removal costs alone for this one are going to be staggering, as everybody in the room knows. And some of our most economically vulnerable populations have been hit the hardest, with many individuals who lost their homes, they lost their vehicles, and they lost their jobs all in that 10-hour period.
Shelter is going to be a need, temporary housing, the debris removal, and sadly, unemployment and funeral assistance for several of those families.
But I would like to point out that the damage that we witnessed probably would have been significantly worse if it wasn’t for the mitigation efforts that New Jersey had in place for the past several years, thanks to our partnership with FEMA.
In New Jersey, we have a return of six dollars in savings for every dollar spent from our mitigation. I think that puts us in the top five of the 50 states, which is pretty phenomenal. So that’s under Governor Murphy’s leadership.
Our Climate and Flood Resilience Program and Interagency Council on Climate Resilience is undertaking bold and comprehensive actions to ensure that our communities and infrastructure are more resilient for future storms. And I know that’s what you spoke of in your remarks: that resiliency can’t mean bouncing back; resiliency has to be bouncing forward because these storms are going to keep coming.
So investing that federal funding in our state will certainly ensure that we’re building a better nation together, and I know that that’s a priority for you and your administration.
So, in closing, I echo the Governor’s remarks and welcome you here to New Jersey, while I certainly wish it were under different circumstances.
But having lived your life in our neighborhood, you know that we’re a strong, resilient people and a tough state, and I — together, I know that we’re going to get our families and our citizens back and forward from where we need to be.
So, thank you, sir. It was an honor.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank all your troopers for us too. We — for real.
GOVERNOR MURPHY: Thank you. And it has to be said, Mr. President — and I think the mayors you will hear from in a minute — the press, I think, with your blessing, are going to depart if I’m not — if I’ve got that right.
Every loss of life is a tragedy, never mind 27 — and four missing. But, literally, thousands of rescues —
(The press departs the room.)
12:47 P.M. EDT