Deanne Criswell and the disasters she’s managing as FEMA administrator
Deanne Criswell, the first woman to head the agency charged with coordinating the federal government’s response to disasters, waded into a flood of emergencies as soon as she was confirmed, including coordinating the delivery and administration of millions of COVID vaccines and helping those whose loved ones died of COVID. And now, she’s addressing a ransomware attack that has slowed gas supply along the East Coast — all of this, on top of FEMA’s usual preparation for hurricane and wildfire season.
In her first interview as Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, Criswell told CBS News the agency has been in “frequent communication” with all seven states suffering fuel shortages after a ransomware attack forced the shutdown of Colonial Pipeline, prompting a mass scramble to the gas pumps. “Right now there are no unmet needs that require FEMA’s assistance,” Criswell said. “But be assured that we will continue to communicate with them and be able to support as needed.”
FEMA has stood up dozens of mass vaccination sites nationwide to get COVID-19 shots into the arms of adults. As health officials gear up to vaccinate children as young as 12 years of age, FEMA says it will pivot its strategy from mass vaccination to a “hub-and-spoke model” that allows the disaster agency to reach Americans in more remote areas.
Only three states have administered more than 90% of their first-dose vaccine supply, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raising questions about how effective mass vaccination centers have been in reaching vaccine-hesitant populations. Criswell said FEMA would take its cues from state and local governments, although she also said that FEMA would wind down the large, federally-run vaccine sites “based on the needs of the state.” She added, “As the need diminishes, we will certainly ‘right-size’ so we can readjust, but really, we’re taking the lead from our state and local partners.”
As of Tuesday, FEMA is responding to 121 major disasters nationwide, including 54 stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Current response efforts range from housing assistance after Texas’ February freeze paralyzed the state’s power grid to opening mass vaccination sites in two dozen cities nationwide. Most recently, FEMA launched response efforts in Kentucky after severe storms caused springtime flooding and landslides.
According to the disaster agency, 74% of emergency managers are currently deployed to disaster zones, sparking concerns about personnel burnout just days away from tornado, hurricane and wildfire seasons. In a letter to lawmakers last month, FEMA’s union chief Steve Reaves, who backed Criswell’s nomination, appealed to senators for more agency resources, noting FEMA’s mission is “at times exhausting” and “require[s] frequent personal safety questions for our employees and their families as it relates to COVID-19.”
“Yeah, you can see it,” Criswell said, acknowledging the states’ practically unrelenting need for federal help. “We’ve been responding to a number of disasters over the last several years. But I got to tell you that we have the most dedicated and committed workforce here. True public servants,” Criswell added of FEMA’s 21,000 personnel.
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season brought a record 30 named storms. The FEMA administrator stopped short of predicting another record-breaking season but noted that “it just takes one storm to have a significant impact on a community.” The disaster agency plans to follow new COVID requirements set forth in 2020 to “pandemic-proof” its disaster response in the coming months.
But to handle the intersecting crises that have arisen as climate change fuels an uptick in wildfires, Criswell says the agency must refocus on risk reduction. Rebuilding after natural disasters cost the U.S. $95 billion in 2020 — twice what it cost in 2019.
“There’s no question that we’re seeing an increase in the number and severity of disasters across the country. Right now, we have such a great opportunity to start to focus on risk reduction. That’s the only way that we’re gonna be able to keep up with the demand is to try to reduce the impact that we’re seeing,” said Criswell, a former firefighter based in Colorado. “All of the money and investment many years ago that was put into fire prevention really had an impact on the number of fires that departments across this country were responding to. Today, we have that same opportunity to really take a look at how we can invest in systemwide mitigation and systemwide risk reduction so communities can increase their own resilience.”
To do that, Criswell says the agency plans to partner with the Army Corps of Engineers, along with states and local communities to build resilient infrastructure.
But intersecting crises are nothing new for the disaster agency’s new head. In her last job before FEMA, she lead the New York City Emergency Management as commissioner, which involved overseeing much of the city’s COVID-19 pandemic response. The former FEMA veteran also led incident command at the disaster agency under the Obama administration and served in the Colorado Air National Guard for 21 years with deployments to Qatar, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq.
In March, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directed FEMA to support the government’s race to shelter unaccompanied migrant children, resulting in the deployment of 81 FEMA personnel deployed to Midland, Dallas, and San Antonio, Texas; San Diego, California; and Washington D.C. The agency plans to keep a small footprint at existing HHS shelters. But now, Criswell says that FEMA’s assistance in constructing emergency intake facilities, “is winding down so we can reset our personnel and get ready for hurricane season.”
And while FEMA has a budget of $74 billion, an advisory council assembled by Congress last year found that key FEMA programs are far more accessible to those with time, income, and access. Criswell noted that in her previous job in New York, she witnessed the “disproportionate impact” of natural disasters on underserved communities, which has only been made worse by the pandemic. “We’re going to take those lessons learned into the next hurricane season.”
Last month, FEMA launched the nation’s largest funeral reimbursement program to date. As of May 12, the department has received more than 178,400 funeral assistance applications and awarded more than $20.2 million in reimbursement. With $2 billion in funding behind it, Criswell says the disaster agency is on the lookout for people who will try to cheat the program, but concedes there is always “opportunity for fraud, waste and abuse” in disaster relief programs.
A watchdog report last year found FEMA has issued more than $3 billion in improper and potentially fraudulent payments for home repair assistance since 2003.
“There’s this balance we need to strike,” Criswell said. “We need to be able to get money out into the hands of survivors quickly to help them recover, as well as making sure that enough auditing mechanisms are in place. One can delay the other.”
Inside the agency, FEMA’s chief says she’s committed to creating a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion after a survey released in December 2020 by RAND Corporation revealed more than a quarter of FEMA employees polled said they were harassed or discriminated against based on their gender or race. “It’s important that [our staff] feel safe and have the ability to do their job, so we can help the American people,” Criswell said, adding that the agency will implement additional training for supervisors, moving forward.
Criswell also takes the agency’s helm as the first woman to be confirmed as FEMA administrator since the disaster agency’s inception in 1979. Reflecting on her history-making confirmation, Criswell said her confirmation “provides an opportunity for others across the emergency management field at the federal, state and local level to see that this is a great career.”
“There’s nothing that I enjoy more than helping the American people,” she concluded.