FEMA Chief Brock Long Leaving Agency He Led Through Deadly Storms

Long was praised for shifting FEMA’s focus toward disaster mitigation — spending money to protect vulnerable communities before hurricanes, floods or wildfires occur, to reduce the damage later.

by Jennifer Jacobs and Christopher Flavelle, Bloomberg News / February 13, 2019
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long, right, briefs U.S. President Donald Trump on the looming threat of Hurricane Florence in the Oval Office of the White House Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Long is leaving the agency March 8. His deputy, Peter Gaynor, will serve as acting administrator. TNS

(TNS) — Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long is leaving the agency he led through a record period of natural disasters — including a widely panned response to a storm that devastated Puerto Rico.

“While this has been the opportunity of the lifetime, it is time for me to go home to my family — my beautiful wife and two incredible boys,” Long said in a statement. He said he would leave March 8 and his deputy, Peter Gaynor, would serve as acting administrator.

Since taking over the agency in June 2017, Long has overseen the federal government’s response to an extraordinary series of disasters, from powerful hurricanes that struck the Southeastern U.S. and Puerto Rico to wildfires that scorched California.

“This is one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make,” Long told FEMA staff in an email. “Thank you for an incredible journey and for the support you have shown me. Whether you agreed with my vision for the agency or not, thank you for standing with me as we tried new concepts designed to ultimately save lives and better our profession.”

House Democrats have pledged to investigate the agency’s response to Hurricane Maria’s strike on Puerto Rico. The storm left most of the commonwealth without electricity for months, and caused an estimated 2,975 deaths.

But in his statement, Long said, “With this administration’s leadership, we also improved and transformed the field of emergency management.”

Long’s tenure began with unusual bipartisan support — he was confirmed by a 95-4 vote — but was later dogged by ethics complaints regarding his use of government vehicles.

An inquiry by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General concluded that Long took government cars for his personal use despite FEMA’s own lawyers telling him it wasn’t appropriate.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said that Long would have to reimburse the government for the cost of the vehicles and staff involved in the trips, many of which were between Washington and his home in North Carolina. The report puts that cost at $151,000.

“Over the last two years, administrator Long has admirably led the men and women of FEMA during very difficult, historic and complex times,” Nielsen said in a statement.

Before taking the FEMA post, Long worked at an emergency management consulting firm. Until 2011, he ran Alabama’s emergency management agency.

Advocates for reforming federal disaster policy praised Long’s tenure.

“Under his leadership, the nation committed to one of the largest set-asides for mitigation in history in last year’s disaster reform bill,” Laura Lightbody, director of the flood-prepared communities initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said by email. “He also championed the need for states and localities to have more skin in the game when it comes to preparing, recovering and paying for disasters in the face of increasing federal costs.”

Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, said that Long deserves credit for shifting FEMA’s focus toward what emergency managers call disaster mitigation — spending money to protect vulnerable communities before hurricanes, floods or wildfires occur, to reduce the damage later.

“We’ve had directors that talked a big game on mitigation, but man, Brock seemed to live and breathe it,” Berginnis said by phone Wednesday.

Long also sparked an unusual level of devotion from the agency’s employees, Berginnis said. “They would have jumped over a cliff for him.”

When Hurricane Michael wiped out broad swaths of Florida, Long criticized the failure of citizens to heed evacuation warnings and leaders to better prepare for such natural disasters.

“It’s frustrating to us because we repeat this same cycle over and over again,” Long said during a press briefing last year at FEMA headquarters in Washington. “If you want to live in these areas, you’ve got to do it in a more resilient fashion.”

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(Jennifer Epstein contributed to this report.)

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