WASHINGTON — In an administration where inexperience runs rampant and it’s acceptable to vehemently oppose the very agency you’ve been tasked with running, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator William “Brock” Long stands out as exceptionally competent.
In an event like Hurricane Harvey, Long is “probably one of the best prepared (people) that the country could ask for,” Mark Merritt, a co-founder of a disaster cleanup consulting firm and a former FEMA official under President Bill Clinton, told The Associated Press.
The man who oversees the federal government’s response to natural disasters has received accolades from environmentalists, who see him as someone who will work toward better preparing the country for climate change-driven extreme weather, as Bloomberg reported in June. During a Senate confirmation hearing, Long said, “If we ultimately want to reduce costs in the future for disasters, we have to do more mitigation.”
Long has nearly two decades of experience working in emergency management and planning, including numerous natural disasters and Alabama’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. Before serving as director of Alabama’s Emergency Management Agency from 2008 to 2011, he worked at FEMA as both a regional hurricane program leader and an evacuation liaison team leader.
For the first time in Trump’s tenure, Long and the Trump administration are being tested with a major natural disaster. Since slamming into the Texas Gulf Coast as a Category 4 hurricane late last week, Harvey has continued to pummel Texas and Louisiana with record-breaking rain and catastrophic flooding.
If his first several days in the spotlight are any indication, Long appears up for the monumental task.
On Friday, as the storm barreled toward Corpus Christi, FEMA activated a response coordination center in Denton, in North Texas, and several support bases in Texas and Louisiana. Long didn’t mince works about the threat, saying in a statement that “this storm poses a very real danger to those in its path.” Later that day, at the request of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Trump signed a disaster proclamation, a move the president said “unleashes the full force of government help!”
As the disaster has unfolded, displacing tens of thousands of people, Long has spoken plainly about the persistent threat — “We have not seen an event like this,” he said Sunday. “You could not draw this forecast up.” — and the long-term recovery that will follow for places like Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.
“FEMA is going to be [in Texas] for years,” Long told CNN during an interview Sunday. “This disaster is going to be a landmark event. ... While we’re focused on response right now and helping Texas respond, we’re already pushing forward recovery housing teams. We’re already pushing forward forces to be on the ground to implement the National Flood Insurance Program policies and doing the inspections that we need. We’re setting up and gearing up for the next couple years.”
Trump praised Long on Monday for his “outstanding” work. And on Tuesday, during a visit to Texas to meet with officials and assess the damage, Trump noted that Long “has really become very famous on television over the last couple of days.”
Aside from showing face and signing a disaster declaration, as is common practice, Trump is doing little to make things easier on the residents of Texas, his FEMA chief or the communities that will be hurt by future natural disasters.
Under the president’s 2018 budget request, FEMA’s grant funding for state and local programs would be slashed by $667 million. Among the programs targeted is the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program, which assists states and local communities in preparing for natural disasters, including hurricanes and floods.
Trump has also proposed a $62 million cut in National Weather Service funding and $190 million from the National Flood Insurance Program to update U.S. flood maps. And earlier this month he scrapped an Obama-era rule requiring federal, state and local agencies to account for rising sea levels caused by climate change — Trump has called climate change a “hoax” — and to construct buildings, highways and other infrastructure to withstand flooding.
Along with the threat of budget cuts, numerous key leadership posts at FEMA, including deputy administrator, have yet to be filled.
Asked by CNN about those vacancies, Long said, “I don’t even have time to worry about it right now.”
“But what I have seen inside my agency is, I have got some of the most dedicated people in the entire federal government, great lines of communications with the president,” he added. “He’s extremely concerned, incredibly engaged.”
Trump, on the other hand, claimed Tuesday that unfilled positions are part of a larger, conscious effort to downsize government.
During a Tuesday segment of “Fox & Friends” on Fox News, conservative commentator Laura Ingraham questioned the lack of manpower at FEMA and other agencies, saying, “We can all look at these horrific pictures, and we can conclude that a federal government does need staff. We see it acutely in need of staff in a crisis like this.”
In a response post on Twitter, Trump said he is not looking to fill many of those jobs: “Don’t need many of them — reduce size of government.”
FEMA estimates that more than 30,000 people will be displaced due to the storm and will need temporary shelter.
Trump has faced backlash in recent days for his seemingly insensitive response to the Texas disaster. On Friday, as the hurricane was making landfall near Corpus Christi, the White House announced that Trump had signed a memo banning transgender individuals from enlisting in the military and had pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona. And over the weekend, as deadly flooding forced Texans from their homes, Trump posted a slew of unrelated and self-congratulatory tweets.
Responding via Twitter to a Trump post Sunday about the continued need for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Daniel Watson, a former FEMA spokesman under President Barack Obama, noted the danger in distracting the media, which plays an essential role in disseminating safety information.
“During a disaster, #1 rule for @POTUS is do no harm,” Watson wrote.
In the end, Trump is confident Texas will come out on top.
“Nothing can defeat the unbreakable spirit of the people of Texas and Louisiana. Right now, every American heart sends its love and support to those whose lives have been upended ― totally upended ― totally ― by this very horrible storm,” he said during a joint press conference Monday with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö.
“We will get through this,” Trump added. “We will come out stronger. And, believe me, we will be bigger, better, stronger than ever before. The rebuilding will begin, and in the end it will be something very special.”
In an editorial Tuesday, The Houston Chronicle urged Trump to stay focused on the task at hand — rather that spend his time promoting books — and ensure Texas gets the federal funding it will need to rebuild.
“Mr. President, our worry is that this attention from the White House will recede along with the floodwaters,” the editorial said. “If we truly want to come back stronger than ever, then the federal government has to step up with funding and leadership, and the buck stops with one man: President Donald J. Trump.”