Why Trump needs to appoint a pro to head FEMA

Hurricane Katrina: A look back
Hurricane Katrina: A look back

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Story highlights

  • Ben Smilowitz: FEMA administrator's role is crucial as Hurricane Katrina showed
  • Trump should remember George W. Bush's FEMA appointee and look for a pro, he says

Ben Smilowitz is founder and executive director of the Disaster Accountability Project. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Eleven years ago, the shameful response to Hurricane Katrina was dubbed a "failure of initiative." While managing relief sites along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I saw how a country that was capable of "shock and awe" overseas failed to marshal and coordinate the awesome assets of this nation to help Americans during their darkest hours. The post-disaster autopsy pointed to many causes, including inept political appointees at the helm of agencies with life-saving responsibilities.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator is only as strong as her/his relationships, ability to lead under pressure, and understanding of how each of the hundreds of puzzle pieces of public- and private-sector stakeholders come to life from dense paper plans during emergencies. The position should not be a prize for loyalty; it should be carefully entrusted to a professional with experience.
Ben Smilowitz
A governor of a state affected by a major disaster obviously has some understanding of what it's like to speak with emergency managers and even the president. Yet governors have a very different understanding of disaster response because their roles are very public: consoling the public, giving hugs, making promises.
When governors claim to be "experts in disasters," it's because they spoke at a press conferences or greeted a president for a photo-op on the tarmac. Or maybe it's related to public appeals for help or criticizing the federal response when things turn sour. But governors should not be confused with a state's top emergency manager who actually leads the response and understands how the many agencies and organizations are supposed to work together.
How many readers know the name of the current FEMA administrator? Not most, and that's because it's inherently not a political job. The public usually learns an administrator's name when there's a fumble.
As Donald Trump considers whom to appoint to head FEMA, he should look for a pro, not a political appointee whom he might want to reward for loyalty. A "disaster-tested" state or federal emergency manager is a good choice for the FEMA administrator role. These are the people who have connections, understand the complexities of federal and state bureaucracies, and know how to navigate them to make things happen.
The infamous former FEMA chief Michael Brown (he became a household name) who led the agency at the time of Katrina was a political appointee -- not a subject matter expert, save his stint (described by some as an internship) as "assistant" to the city manager of Edmond, Oklahoma, population 35,000, at the time. Brown was appointed by his friend to the top lawyer job at FEMA. The friend, incidentally, served as FEMA director after managing George W. Bush's presidential campaign. From that role, Brown was promoted a couple of times before landing the FEMA administrator job.
In the aftermath of Katrina, Bush said to him, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." Ten days later, Brown resigned.
The current FEMA administrator was appointed because of his credentials as Florida's top emergency manager -- for then-Gov. Jeb Bush. Craig Fugate was never just a "political appointee." His resume touts decades of experience as a volunteer firefighter, paramedic and county emergency manager before working his way up to the lead state role. It's pretty clear Fugate has dedicated his entire professional career (starting in high school) to emergency management.
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As FEMA administrator, his experience and passion for the job paid off. Under Fugate's leadership, FEMA directly confronted some of Katrina's greatest travesties, when people with disabilities suffered and drowned because emergency management was not accessible. Although Fugate's tenure wasn't perfect, and many Superstorm Sandy survivors would certainly agree, a political hack would be set up to fail in this job.
As this new administration decides how to fill the FEMA administrator role, it should remember that a disaster can make or break a presidency. Appoint an inexperienced administrator, and he or she may easily become the next "Brownie."