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FEMA Chief ‘Adds a Human Touch’ to Disaster Response

WASHINGTON — In the last 10 days, Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, logged 13,000 miles in air travel, flying to Puerto Rico after it was battered by Hurricane Fiona, then later to western Alaska, where officials were feverishly working to recover from damage wrought by Typhoon Merbok.

And yet, it is only in recent days that most Americans will have likely become familiar with Ms. Criswell, as the face of the federal government’s response to Hurricane Ian.

On Tuesday, she appeared at the White House press briefing, urging Floridians to take the storm seriously. On Wednesday, Michael Coen, her chief of staff, said she hunkered down in a conference room at FEMA’s headquarters in southwest Washington, surrounded by television screens streaming coverage of the storm’s trajectory, with staff members filing in with regular updates, taking breaks for cable news interviews.

She left the building at 10:30 p.m. and took her last call from officials updating her on the storm slightly before 1 a.m. She was back in the building six hours later and appeared in a series of television interviews on Thursday morning, in her navy full-zip FEMA fleece, giving sobering updates on the damage Hurricane Ian had so far caused.

Her staff says she is eager to get on the ground in Florida, where she is expected to visit hard-hit areas on Friday and will try to reach shelters to speak with disaster survivors about the federal support available to them as they try to rebuild their lives.

It is a grueling schedule by any measure, but one she has kept throughout her career, which began in1994 at a local fire department in Aurora, Colo., and landed her at the helm of FEMA — making her the first woman nominated to lead the country’s top disaster response agency.

President Biden with Ms. Criswell at FEMA headquarters in Washington. He called her the “M.V.P. here.”Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

“She needs to be out there where the action is, where the people are, where the local officials are,” said Marty Bahamonde, a 30-year FEMA veteran and the director of disaster operations in the agency’s external affairs division. “She is out the door at a moment’s notice that something is happening.”

For Ms. Criswell, a firefighter for more than 20 years and a triathlete with three Iron Man competitions behind her, responding to complex disasters has been a mainstay of her career. In one of her postings with the Colorado Air National Guard’s fire department, Ms. Criswell oversaw more than 500 firefighters on military bases across nine countries in the Middle East.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Ms. Criswell deployed to al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait as a senior fire official assigned to crash rescue. In 2002, Ms. Criswell became the first woman to hold the position of fire chief in the Colorado Air Guard’s wing. She later led New York City’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic, in her role as the commissioner of the city’s emergency management department — also the first woman to serve in that role.

More on Hurricane Ian

  • The Aftermath in Florida: From the coastal cities of Naples and Fort Myers to inland communities around Orlando, the extent of Hurricane Ian’s destruction was difficult to comprehend, even for residents who had survived and rebuilt after other powerful storms.
  • Lack of Insurance: In the Florida counties hit hardest by Hurricane Ian, fewer than 20 percent of homes had flood insurance, new data show. Experts say that will make rebuilding even harder.
  • Ron DeSantis: The Florida governor, who as a congressman opposed aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy, is seeking relief from the Biden administration as Hurricane Ian ravages his own state.

Since Ms. Criswell began leading FEMA, she tends to visit disaster sites multiple times to ensure that the community is getting what it needs from the federal government.

“She is very hands on, very present,” Gov. Pedro Pierluisi of Puerto Rico said, noting that she has made three trips to the island since she took the helm of the agency in April 2021 — the most recent visit being one day after Hurricane Fiona hit the southwestern coast. “She adds a human touch to what she does.”

President Biden also praised her on Thursday, calling Ms. Criswell the “M.V.P. here.” Complimenting FEMA is not without peril, given that the agency has often been synonymous with maddening layers of bureaucracy, red tape and, at times, botched responses — most infamously with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In fact, Mr. Biden’s compliment will have most likely rekindled memories of former President George W. Bush praising his FEMA director, Michael D. Brown, just days after Hurricane Katrina left a trail of destruction in New Orleans: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” — a remark that is forever attached to the government’s ultimately bungled response.

The challenge facing FEMA and Ms. Criswell from Hurricane Ian is only beginning. It also comes at a time when the two top politicians concerned with the hurricane’s response — Mr. Biden and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican — are locked in a feud over immigration policy.

Ms. Criswell has tried to steer clear of that dynamic. She spoke with Mr. DeSantis days before the hurricane made landfall in Florida and has been responding to the governor’s concerns.

Without lavishing praise on FEMA, Mr. DeSantis has acknowledged how well the preparations for the storm have been.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen an effort mobilized for this many rescues this quickly,” he said on Thursday.

That has a large part to do with Ms. Criswell’s coordination efforts behind the scenes.

“She really has to be the domestic diplomat,” said Rebecca Rouse, the associate director of emergency and security studies at Tulane University.

Ms. Criswell’s collaborative persona has been a marked departure from past FEMA administrators, who were more willing to criticize local governments.

Craig Fugate, who ran FEMA during the Obama administration, faulted local governments for allowing construction in high-risk areas.

Brock Long, the FEMA administrator under President Donald J. Trump, was also willing to call out state and local governments for failing to take more responsibility for protecting people against disasters.

People who have worked with Ms. Criswell say her broad experience at many levels of emergency management is perhaps her biggest asset. She can work with officials at the local level because she was once one of those officials.

Mr. Bahamonde, who has worked for eight FEMA administrators, said Ms. Criswell was the most proactive yet.

In between briefings and media interviews on Monday at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Ms. Criswell called the governors of Georgia and South Carolina, where Hurricane Ian’s impact is expected to reach, to make sure they had her cellphone number.

“I’ve never worked with another administrator who has talked to more governors and more local officials than she has,” Mr. Bahamonde said.

Still, Ms. Criswell faces enormous challenges to reform policies within FEMA.

Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, gave Ms. Criswell credit for tackling a number of policy challenges, including trying to improve racial equity in disaster aid and making it easier for smaller communities to get funding for climate resilience projects. (Disaster programs disproportionately favor white disaster victims compared with their Black and Hispanic counterparts, research shows.)

At the same time, he cited a number of areas where FEMA could make progress but has not. For example, he said the agency could require cities and towns to impose safer building standards to add better protection against storms like Hurricane Ian; the agency sought proposals on that idea, but has yet to act on them.

“We’re rapidly approaching the halfway point of the Biden administration,” Mr. Moore said. “If you don’t have some of your big regulatory changes in the pipeline at the halfway point, you run a very real risk of them not being completed.”

Christina Farrell, the first deputy commissioner of New York’s emergency management department, worked with Ms. Criswell in New York. Ms. Farrell described her as a “very decisive leader” who brought a humanizing element to her employees as they worked draining hours during the city’s early response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Ms. Criswell would often share pictures of her golden retriever, Wilson, on an internal messaging platform she had started for cute pet pictures.

“If the commissioner is showing a picture of her dog during serious times,” Ms. Farrell said, “it kind of lets other people feel like they can open up.”

Those who have known her most of her life say she has always been the same witty, down-to-earth, hard-working person. When she was growing up in northwestern Michigan, everyone called her “Cookie.” Now Ms. Criswell, a 56-year-old grandmother of three, goes by “Grandma Cookie,” Mr. Coen said.

Cindy Martinelli, who fought fires with Ms. Criswell during her days at the Aurora Fire Department and remains a close friend, said she was texting with Mr. Criswell late Wednesday night, relaying how friends were sending clips of Ms. Criswell on television. “It’s always ‘hometown girl made it big,’” she said.

Christopher Flavelle contributed reporting.

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