As Hurricane Michael barrels into Florida, the agency charged with protecting Americans from the storm has large numbers of senior positions vacant or without permanent staff.
At least 22 senior leadership roles at the Federal Emergency Management Agency are vacant or occupied by staff temporarily filling those positions. Jobs listed on the agency’s website as open include the assistant administrator for risk management and the director of resource management. One other senior official was suspended last month.
Brock Long, FEMA’s administrator, complained about one of the openings during a press briefing on Hurricane Michael.
“One thing that would help is getting my deputy confirmed,” Long said at the briefing Wednesday morning when asked if his agency had the resources to respond to back-to-back hurricanes. “It would be nice to go through a hurricane season with a deputy director inside FEMA.”
President Donald Trump nominated Peter Gaynor to be Long’s deputy in June. Congress has yet to approve Gaynor’s nomination.
Many other leadership roles remain filled in an “acting” capacity, meaning the duties of that role are performed by somebody who wasn’t hired for the position.
“It is alarming that given the active 2018 Hurricane season and other devastating natural disasters across the country, numerous top leadership positions at FEMA remain vacant or without permanent leadership,” Representative Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, said in an email. “While some staffing challenges and delays are inevitable, with FEMA’s critical mission it should be clear to the Administration that filling these positions should be a priority.”
The roles filled by acting staff include the director of national preparedness assessment; the associate administrator for policy and program analysis; the associate administrator for mission support; the chief information officer; the chief security officer; the deputy chief security officer for emergency operations; the deputy assistant administrator for recovery; and the regional administrator for New England.
The top human resources job is also being filled on a temporary basis, after the previous head left when an internal investigation revealed alleged misconduct.
Michael Coen, chief of staff to former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, said that filling the agency’s leadership roles with permanent staff was crucial to its mission.
“Getting the senior positions filled is critical,” Coen, who is now a senior adviser for homeland security and emergency management at IEM, said in a phone interview. “To have people acting in senior executive positions is a challenge, because those people had jobs that they were hired to do and now they’re acting in another position.”
That sentiment was shared by Steve Reaves, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 4006, which represents about 5,000 dues-paying FEMA workers. He said that senior staff in acting roles are often reluctant to pursue new policies or ideas.
“They’re not willing to rock the boat,” Reaves said in a phone interview. “If we had more of these vacancies filled with full-time employees, it would make these emergencies a lot easier to react to.”
The openings at FEMA reflect a broader trend within the Trump administration. Of 702 positions that require confirmation by the Senate, only 366 have been confirmed, according to data collected by the Partnership for Public Service in collaboration with the Washington Post. At the Department of Homeland Security, which includes FEMA, just 59 percent of key positions have been filled.
FEMA’s press office didn’t respond to a request for comment. In May, in response to questions about the agency’s open positions, Long told Bloomberg that the vacancies wouldn’t get in the way of his ability to respond to hurricanes.
“I’ve got very talented, very experienced people,” Long said in an interview.
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