FEMA Chief prepared for COVID-19 challenge, former colleagues say

Former colleagues and bosses spoke of Gaynor's actions during crisis.

March 25, 2020, 4:00 AM

It was John Pagliarini’s first day on the job as former Providence, Rhode Island Mayor Angel Tavares’ chief of staff.

One of the first people to walk through the door was the then Providence Emergency Management Agency Director Peter Gaynor.

Gaynor came bearing gifts for Pagliarini– a duffel bag with “executive one” written on the front, filled with emergency management supplies.

“I look inside and it's a fire suit, emergency frequency radio and all the things you would need for Armageddon,” Pagliarini, now in the private sector, told ABC News.

After Gaynor was confirmed as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director by the Senate in January, Pagliarini’s boss, Tavares, took to Twitter to congratulate his former colleague.

Tavares said of Gaynor he is a “Marine who has never stopped serving our country.”

For many, Gaynor is not known, but he is now the head of the agency tasked with leading the nation through one of the worst pandemics ever -- novel coronavirus. Former colleagues and bosses spoke of Gaynor's actions during a time of crisis.

A former DHS official who worked with Gaynor, and spoke on the condition of anonymity, told ABC News that Gaynor did not seek out his position, first as acting administrator and then administrator. Instead, when the agency was in chaos with resignations and acting positions, he stepped up.

This official said that Gaynor’s agency was “thrust into this, after many of these decisions and some missteps were made, now it's on Pete and FEMA to try to overcome some of those early missteps.”

The former DHS official told ABC News that Gaynor could have very well thrown the Department of Health and Human Services “under the bus” but he chose not to when asked some tough questions during Sunday show interviews over the weekend.

On ABC News' "This Week," Gaynor couldn’t give specific details about how many N95 masks are being shipped from the FEMA stockpile.

"I mean, it is hundreds of thousands of millions of things that we're shipping from the stockpile. I can't give you the details about what every single state or what every single city is doing," Gaynor said. "But I'm telling you that we are shipping from our national stockpile, we're shipping from vendors, we're shipping from donations. It is happening. The demand is great,” Gaynor said in response to questions from "This Week" anchor, Martha Raddatz.

“That says more about Pete as a leader than anything. He's willing to take the bullets on behalf of others,” this official continued of Gaynor’s TV appearances.

John Cohen, a former acting undersecretary of Homeland Security, who used to work closely with FEMA, said he has been concerned watching a lethargic national response to the pandemic and said he was surprised to see FEMA moving so slowly.

"FEMA has developed an emergency-planning and preparedness process that has been successfully used to deal with disasters for decades," said Cohen, now an ABC News contributor. "There’s real concern among emergency management officials that that process isn’t being used today to deal with the public health crisis."

Democratic governor of Rhode Island Gina Raimondo, said the response has been slow, but they are getting better.

“It's getting better, I would say, but they've been slow to respond. It's been disorganized and sluggish at times. And they are just playing a lot of catch up. But, I think the move to centralize the response to FEMA was a very smart move,” she said.

Before Gaynor was thrust onto the national spotlight, Raimondo was his boss when he was the top emergency management official in his home state.

“He's the guy that I would call at one in the morning or five in the morning or five on a Saturday,” Raimondo told ABC. “And when it seemed like we were in a moment of panic, he would always respond. Sometimes leaders get paralyzed in crisis, not Pete, He always responded. If he didn't have a good answer, he will go get some data and come back with a good answer.”

Gaynor’s first boss, former Providence mayor and current Democratic congressman David Cicilline, called Gaynor a “humble public servant and the right man for the job, so long as the President stays out of his way and allows him do his job.”

Cicilline, who is the Chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, the messaging arm for Democrats, added he’s the “best emergency preparedness professional I know.”

Those who know him say that he is a hard worker, but is better behind the scenes than in front of the cameras.

“He's not a flashy guy, he's a leader,” Raimondo said. “But he's the guy you want the trenches, calling the shots, building systems, managing the team, motivating people making sure every day he's all about continuous improvement. I promise you with him in charge tomorrow will be a little bit better than today.”

PHOTO: Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor appears on "Good Morning America," March 24, 2020.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor appears on "Good Morning America," March 24, 2020.
ABC News

Allan Fung, the Republican Mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island said that Gaynor is prepared and “has the respect of many in the state, including myself.”

Pagliarini recalled that in 2008, when there was a snowstorm that was only supposed to be a few inches turned out to be almost a foot of snow. Cicilline, who was then the mayor, tasked Gaynor to come up with a plan to get all of the students in the Providence School Department safely home.

“He did and he came up with a great solution and things were much better after he took over,” Pagliarini said.

Andre Thibeault, then director of operations in the Providence school district, remembers Gaynor as being prepared for anything and respectful of the chain of command because of his military experience.

He showed the same leadership after Providence was hit with a hurricane, in 2009, Thibeault said

Before his time in emergency management – Gaynor spent more than 20 years in the Marine Corps.

“He commanded Marines in Iraq. And that's not something he's ever talked to me about,” Tavares said in an interview with ABC News.

“I think no doubt his experience in Iraq will be helpful to him as well. Because if people realize, when you bring troops into a country, you basically have to supply them everything.” Tavares explained. “And so I have no doubt that'll be helpful. So this is a leader and someone who America will look back on and be grateful that he was in command When this is over, I've no doubt about that.”

When Gaynor was nominated to be the number two at FEMA, he told WJAR it was a “big step, big job and lots of responsibility.”

Gaynor said his approach started at a local level.

“One of the hardest things to do is to get people to prepare. Whether you are preparing for a hurricane or for floods, it really starts at the individual level, to the neighborhood level, to the city and town, to the state to the federal government,” Gaynor said in that same interview.

At a federal level, he earned the confidence of people around the country.

“Pete has the respect of state and local emergency managers, because he was one of them. And, that mutual respect and those relationships are going to prove critical during the coronavirus response,” Daniel Kaniewski a former Acting Deputy Administrator at FEMA told ABC News.

“I think what he brings uniquely to this role is that understanding of what it's going to take to for state and local governments to successfully respond to this disaster and what he and FEMA and the federal government can do to best support that response,” Kaniewski added.

Asked if Administrator Gaynor is up for the job, Tom Bossert former White House Homeland Security Adviser said, “Damn right he is. He better be, and he has my full, unwavering support—along with every emergency manager in this great Nation.”

The Department of Homeland Security referred ABC News to a January statement by Acting Secretary Wolf.

"Pete guided FEMA through some tremendous challenges to provide much needed assistance to disaster survivors across the country. Pete’s experience as both a state and local emergency manager, combined with more than two decades of service in the U.S. Marine Corps, have made him an invaluable leader of the agency. I look forward to continuing to work with him to support the men and women of FEMA as they carry out their incredible work,” the Acting Secretary said.

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