Lack of Political Leadership Could Hamper Harvey Response, Katrina Veterans Warn

Officials deliver water to a holding area for residents waiting to be evacuated in Corpus Christi, Texas, ahead of Hurricane Harvey. Officials deliver water to a holding area for residents waiting to be evacuated in Corpus Christi, Texas, ahead of Hurricane Harvey. Eric Gay / AP

Career staff are well positioned to provide disaster response and assistance as Hurricane Harvey makes landfall in Texas and Louisiana Friday, according to former leaders of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But the career employees could run into problems coordinating with counterparts at other agencies without political leadership.

Harvey is expected to be the most significant hurricane to hit U.S. soil in 12 years, and FEMA has already activated national and regional response coordination centers. FEMA Administrator Brock Long was at the White House Friday to brief President Trump, who said he is “closely monitoring” the situation.

While Long was sworn into office two months ago, the top two deputy jobs beneath him remain without presidentially appointed leadership. The deputy administrator spot is filled by David Grant and the chief protection and national preparedness position by Kathleen Fox; both are career employees serving in acting capacities. Grant vacated his position as associate administrator for mission support, leaving one career employee—Brian Kamoie—to serve as both the acting associate administrator and the deputy associate administrator.

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Michael Brown, who came under fire during his tenure as FEMA administrator for the George W. Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, said the agency puts aside any differences between political and career employees during crises.

“On the day-to-day stuff outside the time you’re responding to and recovering from a disaster, it’s a problem,” Brown said. “When you’re responding or recovering from a disaster, nobody gives a crap.”

R. David Paulison, who succeeded Brown after Brown resigned in the wake of FEMA’s feeble Katrina response, said he is “very comfortable” with the leadership currently in place.

“You like those positions filled,” he said, especially “as you put your policies in place, you want to put your own people in.” But, he added, “The people there in acting positions are seasoned FEMA executives. They’ve been there a long time.”

Career employees at FEMA, Paulison said, actually look forward to stepping up into acting positions during transition periods and weighing in on the decision-making process.

“It’s good experience for them,” he said. “You don’t want it go on forever, but it gives them a better view of the entire organization.”

The lack of political appointees is not limited to FEMA, however, and Brown warned the absence of permanent leadership in critical jobs across government could inhibit the agency’s response efforts. Just 117 of the 591 “key positions” requiring Senate confirmation are currently filled, according to a tracker maintained by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. The Homeland Security Department, FEMA’s parent agency, is without a confirmed secretary after Trump selected John Kelly to serve as his chief of staff.

Both Kelly and acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke, who was previously confirmed as DHS deputy secretary, were present at Trump’s Harvey briefing on Friday. But the number of individuals in temporary acting positions at DHS and across government could jeopardize the federal response to the hurricane. Trump has not, for example, nominated anyone to head up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

“When FEMA is responding or recovering, or even mitigating against something in the future, [it] still needs to have the attention of all other...departments and Congress,” Brown said, “so it can make policy changes, or in middle of a response it can get what it needs.” If, Brown said as an example, FEMA asks the Defense Department for five Black Hawk helicopters, there needs to be someone in place to fulfill the request immediately without getting bogged down in “bureaucratic argument.”

“We’ll reimburse you,” Brown said, speaking from FEMA’s perspective. “Give them to us and shut up. You’ll get paid.” He added that during Katrina, he instructed his colleagues throughout government to bend the rules when necessary, explaining he “didn’t give a rat’s ass.” He maintained he ran into resistance, however, from civil servants who “go onto autopilot.”

After the storm, FEMA may lament not having more political leaders in place if they are still not confirmed. The agency will create an action report of what it did well and what went wrong, but Brown said it will need presidential appointees to act on any suggested changes.

FEMA might also face budget cuts as it deals with any long-term fallout from Harvey. In his fiscal 2018 budget, Trump proposed a small reduction of $24 million from the agency’s Disaster Relief Fund and a nearly $1 billion cut from federal assistance grant funding. A House appropriations bill would match Trump’s proposal for disaster relief but largely restore spending for federal assistance grants.

FEMA projected readiness on Friday, saying in addition to its response coordination centers it has established Incident Management Assistance Teams throughout the region and has Incident Support Bases to allocate emergency supplies as necessary. In the immediate term, the former FEMA directors said the agency has sufficient funding and is unlikely to encounter any significant internal mismanagement in its response effort.

“It’s going to be very difficult,” Paulison said, “but there’s enough good people in place.”

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