FEMA Chief ‘Adds a Human Touch’ to Disaster Response

WASHINGTON — In the past 10 days, Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has logged 13,000 miles in air travel, flying to Puerto Rico after it was hit by Hurricane Fiona, and then to western Alaska, where officials worked feverishly. to recover from the damage caused by Typhoon Merbok.

And yet, it is only in the last few days that most Americans have probably become familiar with Ms. Criswell, as the face of the federal government’s response to Hurricane Ian.

On Tuesday, he appeared at the White House news briefing, urging Floridians to take the storm seriously. On Wednesday, Michael Coen, his chief of staff, said he holed up in a conference room at FEMA headquarters in southwestern Washington, surrounded by television screens broadcasting coverage of the storm’s track, with members of the staff submitting regular updates, taking cable breaks. news interviews.

She left the building at 10:30 pm and received the last call from officials informing her of the storm a little before 1 am. -FEMA fleece zipper, providing sobering updates on the damage Hurricane Ian has done so far.

Her staff say she’s looking forward to getting started in Florida, where she’s expected to visit the hardest-hit areas on Friday and try to get to shelters to talk to disaster survivors about the federal support available to them as they try to rebuild their lives.

It’s a grueling schedule by any measure, but he’s maintained it throughout his career, which began in 1994 at a local fire department in Aurora, Colo., placing her at the helm of FEMA, making her the first woman nominated to lead the nation’s leading disaster response agency.

“She needs to be where the action is, where the people are, where the local officials are,” said Marty Bahamonde, a 30-year FEMA veteran and director of disaster operations in the agency’s external affairs division. “She walks out the door the moment she realizes something is going on.”

For Ms. Criswell, a firefighter for more than 20 years and a triathlete with three Iron Man competitions under her belt, responding to complex disasters has been a mainstay of her career. In one of her positions in the Colorado Air National Guard fire department, Mrs. Criswell supervised more than 500 firefighters on military bases in nine Middle Eastern countries.

Following the 9/11 attacks, Ms. Criswell deployed to al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait as a senior fire officer assigned to accident rescue. In 2002, Ms. Criswell became the first woman to serve as fire chief in the Colorado Air Guard wing. She later led New York City’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic, in her role as commissioner of the city’s department of emergency management, as well as the First woman to serve in that role.

Since Ms. Criswell began running FEMA, she has tended to visit disaster sites multiple times to make sure the community gets what it needs from the federal government.

“She is very practical, very present,” said Governor Pedro Pierluisi of Puerto Rico, noting that he has made three trips to the island since taking over the agency in April 2021. the most recent visit a day after Hurricane Fiona hit the southwest coast. “She adds a human touch to what she does.”

President Biden also praised her on Thursday, calling Ms. Criswell the “MVP here.” Congratulating FEMA is not without its danger, given that the agency has often been synonymous with maddening layers of bureaucracy, red tape, and sometimes botched responses, most infamously with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Indeed, Mr. Biden’s compliment may have rekindled memories of former President George W. Bush praising his FEMA director, Michael D. Brown, just days after Hurricane Katrina left a trail of destruction in New Orleans: “Brownie, you’re doing a great job,” a comment always attached to the government’s ultimately unsuccessful response.

The challenge facing FEMA and Ms. Criswell from Hurricane Ian is just beginning. It also comes at a time when the two main politicians concerned about the response to the hurricane — Mr. Biden and Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida — are locked in a dispute over immigration policy.

Ms. Criswell has tried to stay away from that dynamic. She talked to Mr. DeSantis days before the hurricane made landfall in Florida and has been responding to the governor’s concerns.

Without lavishing praise on FEMA, Mr. DeSantis has acknowledged how well preparations have been for the storm.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen an effort mobilized for so many rescues so quickly,” he said Thursday.

That has a lot to do with Ms. Criswell’s coordination efforts behind the scenes.

“She really has to be the national diplomat,” said Rebecca Rouse, associate director of emergency and security studies at Tulane University.

Ms. Criswell’s collaborative personality has been a marked departure from previous FEMA administrators, who were more willing to criticize local governments.

Craig Fugate, who led FEMA during the Obama administration, local governments criticized for allowing construction in high-risk areas.

Brock Long, the FEMA administrator under President Donald J. Trump, was also willing to call state and local governments for not taking more responsibility for protecting people from disasters.

People who have worked with Ms. Criswell say that her extensive experience at many levels of emergency management is perhaps her greatest asset. She is able to work with officials at the local level because she was once one of those officials.

Mr. Bahamonde, who has worked for eight FEMA administrators, said that Ms. Criswell was the most proactive so far.

Between briefings and media interviews Monday at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Ms. Criswell called the governors of Georgia and South Carolina, where the impact of Hurricane Ian is expected to reach, to make sure they had your cell phone number.

“I have never worked with another administrator who has talked to more governors and more local officials than she has,” Mr. Bahamonde said.

Still, Ms. Criswell faces daunting challenges in reforming policy within FEMA.

Rob Moore, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, credited Ms. Criswell with addressing a number of policy challenges, including trying to improve racial equity in disaster aid and making it easier for smaller communities get funding for climate resilience projects. . (Disaster programs disproportionately favor white disaster victims compared to their black and Hispanic counterparts, research shows.)

At the same time, he cited a number of areas where FEMA could make progress but has not. For example, he said the agency could require cities and towns to enforce safer building standards to add better protection against storms like Hurricane Ian; the agency sought proposals on that idea, but has yet to act on them.

“We are rapidly approaching the halfway point of the Biden administration,” Moore said. “If you don’t have some of your big regulatory changes in the pipeline at the midpoint, you run a very real risk that they won’t get done.”

Christina Farrell, the first deputy commissioner of the New York Department of Emergency Management, worked with Ms. Criswell in New York. Ms. Farrell described her as a “very decisive leader” who brought a humanizing element to her employees as they worked grueling hours during the city’s early response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Ms. Criswell often shared photos of her golden retriever, Wilson, on an internal messaging platform she had started for photos of cute pets.

“If the commissioner shows a picture of his dog in serious moments,” Farrell said, “it kind of makes other people feel like they can open up.”

Those who have known her most of her life say that she has always been the same resourceful, down-to-earth, and hard-working person. When she was growing up in northwest Michigan, everyone called her “Cookie.” Now Criswell, a 56-year-old grandmother of three, goes by “Grandma Cookie,” Coen said.

Cindy Martinelli, who fought fires with Ms. Criswell during her days with the Aurora Fire Department and remains a close friend, said she was texting with Mr. Criswell Wednesday night, relaying how the friends sent videos of Mrs. Criswell on television. “She’s always ‘town girl she made it big,’” she said.

Christopher Flavelle contributed report.