In Hurricane Ian's aftermath, new head of FEMA faces historic challenge

The first woman in the job oversees an agency often questioned in a crisis.

September 30, 2022, 5:40 PM

Deanne Criswell was in Florida Friday with Gov. Ron DeSantis, assessing the historic damage from Hurricane Ian and facing her biggest challenge yet as the new head of FEMA -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Not only is she the first woman to hold that critical job -- the face of FEMA when desperate Americans are demanding help they can't get fast enough -- the agency, before her time, has been roundly criticized for not delivering on its core mission.

Will Criswell make a difference when FEMA is needed most -- and have lessons been learned so it can respond better now?

On Thursday, she voiced confidence when she joined President Joe Biden at FEMA headquarters in Washington to give an update on Ian's path of destruction, saying her "heart aches" for those whose lives have been devastated.

"As many have said, Hurricane Ian is going to be a storm that we talk about for decades. But from the moment Hurricane Ian became a threat, we already had the right teams in place, who were ready to answer the call of those that need us most," Criswell said.

Biden referred to Criswell as the "MVP here these days" and observers have told ABC News that Criswell's background makes her uniquely qualified for the high-stakes job.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis giving a briefing on Hurricane Ian recovery with FDEM Director Kevin Guthrie and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, in Tallahassee, Fla., Sept. 30, 2022.
Robert Kaufmann/FEMA

Criswell served in the Colorado Air National Guard for more than two decades, started her emergency management career in Aurora, Colorado, and was most recently the commissioner of the New York City Emergency Management Department before being appointed by Biden to head FEMA.

"She is someone who actually has responded to threats. She has experience in the field, she knows what it's like to be on the frontlines," said Daniel Aldrich, the director of the Security and Resilience Studies Program at Northeastern University.

But Criswell trails a long list of political appointees who have occupied the high-stakes federal operations post, notorious for its historically difficult nature and outsized prominence during the worst days of calamity around the nation.

Memories are still fresh of the fire and ridicule aimed at Michael Brown, FEMA administrator under George W. Bush, for how critics say he mishandled the Hurricane Katrina response, despite Bush famously telling him, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job,"

PHOTO: President George W. Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (2nd R) get a briefing from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) chief Michael Brown (C) upon their arrival, Sept. 2, 2005, in Mobile, Ala.
President George W. Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (2nd R) get a briefing from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) chief Michael Brown (C) upon their arrival, Sept. 2, 2005, at a US Coast Guard Base in Mobile, Ala., before touring the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

FEMA's past problems

The agency has become nearly synonymous with the federal government's response to all manner of disasters -- floods, fires, pandemics and more. The scale of its work encompasses billions in funding and direct aid, millions of units of food and water and enormous swaths of temporary housing, among other forms of relief.

"Being there to help clear roads, rebuild main streets and so that families can get back to their lives: That's what FEMA does every single day," President Biden said last year as he announced $1 billion for a FEMA preparedness project amid extreme weather fueled by climate change.

"As my mother would say, 'They're doing God's work,'" Biden said.

But that work has not been without intense controversy -- including with Katrina in 2005, an episode epitomized, to critics, when the agency provided temporary trailers as housing which also included high levels of the carcinogenic formaldehyde. That same issue was later documented in some FEMA trailers provided to victims of wildfires in California in 2007.

Major problems have continued since, though the agency has continued to say it strives to best serve those in need.

FEMA has also been strapped, at various points over the years, both by funding problems and what appears to be an accelerating cycle of weather calamities for which it is called upon to respond.

"They need more people and resources," Eric Holdeman, the director of the Center for Regional Disaster Resilience for the Pacific Northwest Economic Region, told ABC News. "The frequency of disasters, think about wildland fires that we've had, the heat emergencies that have been happening, tornadoes -- all of those end up as they become presidentially declared, FEMA's involved."

In 2020, the president of the union for FEMA employees acknowledged, "The only thing we can liken this to is 2017, which was one of our busiest years in decades. This is far eclipsing 2017."

That same year, however, a watchdog found that FEMA had misplaced $250 million in food and supplies for Puerto Rico after it was hit by two hurricanes, Irma and Maria.

The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General found that FEMA "lost visibility" or failed to fully track nearly 40% of shipments to Puerto Rico with a value of nearly $257 million in meals, water, blankets and other supplies. Of the nearly 10,000 shipping containers sent to Puerto Rico, 19 were never recovered.

Aldrich said a major problem for FEMA after Hurricane Maria in 2017 and for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a lack of pre-positioning resources.

"FEMA did not take advantage of weather forecasting and simulation models to place things like food, water, bulldozers, evacuation shelters, in communities near or on vulnerable sites about being hit by a shock like a hurricane," he said.

Motorists travel across the John Ringling Causeway as Hurricane Ian churns to the south in Sarasota, Fla., Sept. 28, 2022.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Perhaps recognizing the agency's past failures to prepare for extreme weather events, Criswell and Biden have gone to great lengths to highlight the agency's prepositioning ahead of Hurricane Ian.

Speaking at the White House press briefing on Sept. 27, the day before Ian made landfall in Florida, Criswell said they'd already staged hundreds of thousands of gallons of food, millions of liters of water and millions of meals, as well as personnel.

"The preparation for this storm has been extensive and it has been coordinated," she said. "It has been a coordinated effort between FEMA, our federal, our state, and our nonprofit partners."

But just as recently as this summer, in aiding Kentucky after flooding there, FEMA was repeatedly criticized by the state's governor, Andy Beshear, for what he said was a stupefying inability to process aid claims.

"Too many people are being denied," Beshear told reporters in August. "Not enough people are being approved. And this is the time that FEMA's got to get it right. To change what has been a history of denying too many people and not providing enough dollars and to get it right here."

In response, a FEMA spokesman said, in part, according to the Associated Press: "We know these are incredibly difficult times, and we want to help you. We will continue to work to ensure that every eligible applicant receives every dollar of assistance legally possible."

The spokesman said then -- echoing a promise made by FEMA officials through the years of disaster upon disaster in the U.S. -- that responders would remain in Kentucky "as long as it takes."

ABC News' Adam Carlson, Alexandra Hutzler, Joshua Hoyos and Quinn Owen contributed to this report.