Just days ago, senior officials in the Trump administration allegedly considered removing FEMA Administrator Brock Long, the man responsible for leading federal disaster response, as a Category Four hurricane barreled toward millions of Americans along the Atlantic coast.
Questions about removing Long from his position were not raised by Director of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen because she questioned his ability to respond to the impending disaster, nor did they stem from an effort to hold someone accountable for the federal response to Hurricane Maria (which would require the administration to acknowledge that the response was not, in fact, an “unsung success”).
Instead, the controversy arose over allegations of Long’s misuse of a car service. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Administrator Long is the subject of an internal investigation alleging he used agency resources to make weekend trips home to North Carolina.
While it is certainly appropriate and reasonable for suspected misuse of federal resources to be investigated, it is difficult to take the complaints about Long at face value, given the depth of scandal within the Trump administration. Coverage in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post suggest that underlying this investigation is a festering tension between Director Nielsen and Administrator Long.
Effective emergency management requires coordination, cooperation, collaboration, and trust. These reported tensions between Nielsen and Long strongly suggest that these are not features of the relationship between senior officials in the Trump administration and FEMA. Asking for the resignation of the head of FEMA in the middle of a hurricane, particularly when the number two position at the agency has remained unfilled for two years, seems disproportional to the accusation.
For over a decade, many in emergency management have argued FEMA should be separated from DHS and returned to an independent cabinet-level agency as it was pre-9/11. This is one reason why. While record rainfall moves across the Carolinas, the FEMA administrator and director of Homeland Security have allowed conflicts to grow, putting coordination, cooperation, and collaboration at risk. Although the United States’ emergency management system is much larger than just FEMA, the agency is central to our response to major disasters like Florence.
As we look in from the outside, it is not unreasonable to question how these personal tensions may have affected FEMA’s ability to respond to recent disasters, including Hurricane Maria.
I would echo the call that others have made, including a number of Representatives, for Congressional investigations to evaluate the federal response to Hurricane Maria as a follow-up to FEMA’s own After Action Report and the recently released Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. Both concluded that FEMA was not adequately prepared to respond to Maria. Part of these investigation should include the relationships among senior officials in the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, and FEMA.
Following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failure in New Orleans, such investigations were conducted. As they were following the September 11 attacks. It is unconscionable that such investigations have not even begun as we approach Maria’s one-year anniversary. The American public, particularly those in the Carolinas and Puerto Rico, deserve to know in what ways the federal response was inadequate, and what will be done to remedy these inadequacies in the future.
Denying the deaths of thousands of Puerto Ricans and attempting to re-write the response as a success only exacerbates the damage caused by Maria. Accounting for what went wrong and considering how changes can be made moving forward is central to our ability to make our national emergency management system stronger, more effective, and just.
As the extent of destruction from Hurricane Florence becomes known, and as Puerto Rico, Southern Florida, and Southeast Texas continue to rebuild, Congress must investigate the actions of federal agencies in the response and aftermath of disasters. These agencies are charged with protecting American lives during a crisis, and the American public deserves to know if they are doing their jobs.