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New, Respected FEMA Chief Faces First Major Challenge With Hurricane Harvey

Aug 25, 2017
Originally published on August 29, 2017 12:29 pm

Hurricane Harvey is the first test of the Trump administration's response to a natural disaster. And much of that responsibility falls on the shoulder of the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, William "Brock" Long.

Long was confirmed as FEMA administrator by the Senate in June, just a few months ago, but he is not exactly a stranger to the agency. He was a regional manager there during the George W. Bush administration, and he went on to serve as Alabama's emergency management director.

"Top of the top"

His Trump administration colleague, homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, gave Long a strong endorsement during a White House briefing Friday. "We couldn't have picked a finer leader," Bossert said. "He's had state director experience; he's had FEMA experience. He's absolutely the top of the top."

In Alabama, Long oversaw recovery efforts from tornadoes and the BP oil spill. Barry Scanlon, who worked at FEMA during the Clinton administration and is now a private consultant, says Long is well-regarded in the field.

"He's got the relationships throughout emergency management, throughout the states," Scanlon says. "He has the respect of the people who do this every day, which is vitally important."

"Hazard amnesia"

Long, who was not available to be interviewed for this story, told the National Governors Association in July that his biggest concern as FEMA director was a lack of a "culture of preparedness." People, he said, are just not as prepared as they need to be for a major storm.

"I believe in what I call 'hazard amnesia,' " Long said. While there have been relatively recent disasters such as Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Matthew, "one of the things that keeps me up at night is this nation has not seen the devastation of a major land-falling hurricane since 2005. So sometimes I think we forget the worst."

Citizens as first responders

FEMA's role in a big storm like Harvey is to help prepare residents and position supplies, like bottled water and blankets and food, should they be needed. But it's largely up to states and local government to be first responders.

In fact, Long believes that individual citizens are the real first responders. "We have to think about the way we train our citizens and refocus these programs to give them lifesaving skills," Long said. That includes CPR and "how to shut off the water valves to your homes — how can they do simple search and rescue in their communities after these disasters?"

Long says government needs to take a comprehensive look at what it is asking citizens to do and "empower them to be a part of that response."

While Long will be doing most of the management of the federal response, ultimately it is very likely President Trump who will get the blame or credit for how his administration deals with its first natural disaster. And he will be closely watched as he performs what Scanlon calls "the role of healer in chief."

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Tropical Storm Harvey is the first test of the Trump administration's response to a natural disaster. And much of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the new administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long. NPR's Brian Naylor has his profile.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: William Brock Long was confirmed as FEMA administrator by the Senate in June just a few months ago. But he is not exactly a stranger to the agency. He was a regional manager there during the George W. Bush administration. And he went on to serve as Alabama's emergency management director. His Trump administration colleague, Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert, gave Long a strong endorsement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM BESSERT: We couldn't have picked a finer leader. He's had state director experience. He's had FEMA experience. He's absolutely the top of the top.

NAYLOR: In Alabama, Long oversaw recovery efforts from tornados and the BP oil spill. Barry Scanlon, who worked at FEMA during the Clinton administration, says Long is well-regarded in the field.

BARRY SCANLON: So he's got the relationships throughout emergency management, throughout the state. He has the respect of people who do this every day, which is vitally important.

NAYLOR: Long was not available to be interviewed for this story. In July, he told the National Governors Association that his biggest concern as FEMA director was a lack of a culture of preparedness, as he put it. People, he says, are just not as prepared as they need to be for a major storm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROCK LONG: I believe in has - what I call hazard amnesia, OK? We've had some bad disasters. We've had Sandy. We've had Matthew. We've had flooding. But one of the things that keeps me up at night is this nation has not seen the devastation of a major land-falling hurricane since 2005, you know? So sometimes I think we forget the worst.

NAYLOR: FEMA's role in a big storm like Harvey is to prepare residents and position supplies like bottled water and blankets and food, should they be needed. But it's largely up to states and local government to be first responders. In fact, Long believes that individual citizens are the real first responders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LONG: We have to think about the way we train our citizens and refocus these programs to give them lifesaving skills. Come back to CPR. How to shut off the water valves to your homes. How can they do simple search and rescue in their communities after they face these disasters. I think we have to take a comprehensive look at how - what we're asking citizens to do, but empower them to be a part of that response.

NAYLOR: While Long will be doing most of the management of the federal response. Ultimately, it's President Trump who will get the blame or credit for how his administration deals with its first natural disaster. And he'll be closely watched as he performs the role of healer in chief. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BON IVER'S "HOLOCENE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.