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

Administrator Brock Long of FEMA (center) speaks during a firehouse briefing on Hurricane Harvey in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Tuesday.
Jim Watson
AFP/Getty Images
Administrator Brock Long of FEMA (center) speaks during a firehouse briefing on Hurricane Harvey in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Tuesday.

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."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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