Is the Trump administration ready for the worst?

(As published in The Hill 1/27/17)

A decade ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was in shambles. Created merely by executive order in 1979, the agency had no Congressional authorization and no clear mission. FEMA was inadequately funded and hindered by a sprawling DHS bureaucracy that buried the agency’s ability to coordinate disaster response directly with the White House. Making matters worse, there was no requirement that the FEMA Administrator have experience in emergency management. The failure of the agency to operate properly — among many other factors — was made painfully clear for all to see after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005.

Today, thanks to the leadership of President Obama and former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, there has been a paradigm shift at FEMA. Their hard work, coupled with post-Katrina congressional reforms supported by members of Congress from both parties, have changed the culture at the FEMA, transforming the agency into a model of effectiveness, service to disaster survivors, and good governance. During the Obama administration, hundreds of disasters have been competently handled, including devastating events like Hurricanes Sandy, Matthew, and the catastrophic tornado that tore apart Joplin, Mo., in 2011. Now, the Trump administration has a responsibility to preserve this legacy and take action to make sure the nation is prepared for the worst. Here’s a good place to start:

First, President Trump must nominate a qualified emergency manager to lead FEMA immediately. Major disasters don’t give presidents the courtesy of waiting for new governments to be ready or agency political leadership to be in place. In fact if history is any guide, some of the most extreme recent events have struck not long after new presidents were sworn in.

The 1993 World Trade Center bombing occurred within days of Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Hurricane Hugo devastated South Carolina just months into President George H.W. Bush’s first year in office. The 9/11 attacks tested President George W. Bush’s leadership shortly into his first term.

If President Trump has time to meet with Kanye West, Steve Harvey, and vaccine skeptics, he should make time to select a qualified leader for one of the most vital agencies in government. FEMA is fortunate to enjoy the service of highly qualified and dedicated career staff. The president owes them leadership to help guide them into the next major disaster, which can come at any time.

Second, the Trump Administration needs to understand that managing disasters is not like running a business. FEMA succeeded during the Obama era in large part because it applied Fugate’s simple, guiding philosophy to disaster response: Think Big, Go Big, Go Fast, Be Smart About It.This meant surging resources — including people and supplies — to potentially affected areas even before we knew for sure they would be needed. We often didn’t wait for post damage assessments. Sometimes, this meant pulling back resources we never used when they weren’t needed. And yes, this cost money. Fugate noted that the consequence for dedicating too many resources for a disaster was having to testify before Congress. The consequence for doing too little? Getting fired.

Unfortunately, Fugate’s approach appears antithetical to the way Trump ran his campaign for president, which was famously lean and run on the cheap. While that might have been enough to win the White House, it won’t square with the reality of how government should respond to disasters.

Finally, President Trump must recognize the unique role FEMA plays in our national security apparatus. The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act deliberately created an open line of communication between FEMA and our head of state, bypassing bureaucratic hurdles that hindered the response to Hurricane Katrina. President Obama understood the importance of this and took a personal interest in the agency. He visited FEMA for briefings every year and even held a Cabinet meeting there. President Obama pulled multiple staffers from the agency to serve in senior administration positions within the White House during his presidency. The Trump administration would be wise to trust the agency, its people, and prioritize the role the FEMA plays in keeping our communities safe and strong.

During the Bush administration, FEMA became synonymous with failure — literally the butt of late night show jokes. Today, it serves as an example of how smart government can make a difference in people’s lives when they need it the most. It’s a simple fact that President Obama has already made FEMA great again. The Trump administration would be wise to keep it that way.

Rafael Lemaitre is the former Obama Administration’s Director of Public Affairs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).