President-elect Joe Biden demonstrated his intent to give the Federal Emergency Management Agency a major role in his administration by quickly nominating an agency leader and selecting a widely praised emergency manager who has dealt with hurricanes, wildfires and pandemics.
Biden’s nomination Friday of New York City Emergency Management Commissioner Deanne Criswell marks the first time a woman has been selected to lead FEMA since its creation in 1979.
Criswell has spoken openly about the threat of climate change and its role in exacerbating disasters, telling an interviewer last year that “sea rise is definitely a concern” in New York City.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is expected to become Senate majority leader shortly, called Criswell “an experienced climate champion.”
Criswell is the first nominee whom Biden has selected to run an agency that falls under a federal department. Biden has nominated Cabinet secretaries for each of the 15 federal departments and administrators of a few independent agencies such as EPA and the Small Business Administration.
Criswell is the only person Biden has named to run an agency within a department, and she was picked before Biden has nominated anyone to run higher-profile departmental agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, NOAA, and the Internal Revenue Service. FEMA is in the Department of Homeland Security.
Biden’s speed in nominating a FEMA administrator follows his vow that the agency will play an “enormous part” in distributing COVID-19 vaccines and that his administration will “make full use of FEMA’s domestic reach and capacity in managing our COVID response.”
Brock Long, who was President Trump’s first FEMA administrator, wasn’t nominated until more than three months after Trump took office and wasn’t confirmed by the Senate until June 20, 2017.
Craig Fugate, who ran FEMA in the Obama administration, was nominated a month and a half after President Obama took office.
Biden takes office tomorrow.
“I’m very happy,” said Judson Freed, president of the International Association of Emergency Managers, which had urged the Biden transition team to name a FEMA administrator quickly and to select someone with a wide range of experience. “To Mr. Biden’s credit, he’s appointed somebody who really knows what she’s doing.”
Criswell’s 16-year emergency-management career includes a stint at FEMA from 2011 to 2017. She joined FEMA as a Denver-based federal coordinating officer—a job in which she led the agency’s on-the-ground response to disasters in North Dakota and West Virginia.
In 2014, Criswell moved to FEMA headquarters in Washington to run one of the agency’s national incident management assistance teams, which are dispatched to the nation’s worst disasters to bolster response and recovery.
“Deanne is an amazing woman leader. She can go in and she can take control of a situation, get coordination going,” said Elizabeth Zimmerman, a former senior FEMA official in the Obama administration. “She’s very well-liked by people. She’s very smart, and she has a great passion for helping people in times of disaster.”
Criswell told an interviewer in late 2019 that in her time at FEMA, she “led responses to hurricanes and wildfires, severe storms, and tornadoes across the country.”
Matthew Travis, a Trump appointee who served until recently as deputy director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, called Criswell’s nomination a “fantastic decision” and wrote on Twitter that “she has the experience, smarts, poise, and key relationships to excel in this critical role.”
New York State Assistant Health Secretary Tina Kim wrote on Twitter that with Criswell running FEMA, “our nation couldn’t be in better hands.”
Criswell started her emergency management career in Aurora, Colo., in 2005 and served as the city’s emergency manager until her move to FEMA. Aurora is Colorado’s third largest city, with a diverse population of nearly 400,000 people.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who is vocal about climate change, named Criswell to run the city’s Emergency Management Department in July 2019, hiring her from the Cadmus Group consulting firm, where Criswell had been a principal since 2017.
In New York City, Criswell plays a leading role in responding to the pandemic and has been blunt about the importance of individuals in containing the virus.
“Massive social distancing is what’s needed to slow the spread of this disease,” Criswell said in a CNN interview March 19 when New York City was the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic. “We need people, especially those that are the most vulnerable, to stay inside, not go out.”
Criswell also has been candid about climate change. At a security conference in late 2019, Criswell said disasters are multiplying because of “climate change, social and economic inequity, aging infrastructure, reliance on technology, cyberthreats, and domestic terrorism,” according to an article in the Brooklyn Eagle.
In an October interview on the “Disaster Zone” podcast, Criswell said that sea levels in New York City had risen by about 1 foot since 1900 and that “our current climate change projections show they could rise another 30 inches by 2050. This is a big concern for us.”
Freed, the president of the emergency managers association, said Criswell’s experience in Aurora and responding to disasters around the country assuages his fear that FEMA would be run by “a dilettante or career politician.”
“This is an emergency manager who knows her way around emergency management,” Freed said.
The Senate must confirm Criswell. No date has been set for a confirmation hearing.
Criswell would become the first woman to lead FEMA, which has faced turmoil over workplace sexual harassment. A recent consultant’s report found widespread sexual and racial harassment and discrimination. FEMA commissioned the report in 2018 after the agency’s personnel chief resigned amid complaints that he sexually harassed and had inappropriate relationships with subordinate female employees.
Zimmerman, the former FEMA official, said Criswell could help change the agency’s culture and the male-dominated image of emergency management.
“Being able to see that face of FEMA as a female is going to be very beneficial to the workers and to people looking for careers in emergency management. They’re going to be able to say, yes, a woman has done this,” Zimmerman said. “A lot of good can really come from her being that face of FEMA.”
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.