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Hurricane Prep Tour Arrives Before FEMA Administrator Does

Trump wants a former Alabama emergency manager in the post

Bob Fenton is the acting FEMA administrator. (Niels Lesniewski/CQ Roll Call)
Bob Fenton is the acting FEMA administrator. (Niels Lesniewski/CQ Roll Call)

ARLINGTON, Va. — When the hurricane hunters and other federal officials came together Tuesday to promote emergency preparedness, there was no Senate-confirmed director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be found.

The acting administrator is Bob Fenton, a longtime FEMA official who has been running the show since January and is the regional administrator for Region IX, based in the West.

“Although we haven’t had a major hurricane hit us in the United States in the last 10 years, we need to be prepared because it only takes one,” Fenton said at Tuesday’s event at a hangar at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The White House announced on April 28 that President Donald Trump intends to nominate Brock Long to be FEMA administrator.

Long served for about four years as the director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency through 2010, and he has been a consultant in the emergency management business since that time. However, the paperwork for the Long nomination does not appear to have been sent over to the Senate as yet.

Neither the White House nor the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee would immediately respond to a query about the status of the nomination, or any concerns about the arrival of hurricane season without that nomination having advanced.

But on Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that the administration was moving ahead with the process for key appointments.

“I think that you’re going to continue to see, whether it’s judicial nominations, ambassadors, other key positions — I think we have a very healthy clip of announcements that continue to go out,” Spicer said. 

Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby, from Long’s home state of Alabama, said he had not heard when a nomination might come up.

New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez said he hadn’t either, adding, “God forbid we have a disaster. … You need a FEMA director.”

Another Democrat from the Atlantic coast said he hoped the nomination ultimately sent over would be for an experienced emergency manager, citing the questions of competence that plagued Michael D. Brown, FEMA chief during the George W. Bush administration.

“Given the qualifications of some of this administration’s appointments, maybe we should be rooting for the acting administrator of FEMA to stick around,” Connecticut Sen. Christopher S. Murphy said. “Given Michael Brown’s disastrous tenure, hopefully this administration will learn that lesson.”

“FEMA is amongst a long list of positions that has not been filled, but that would be the top of my list,” he said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which also lacks a a permanent agency head, was showcasing here Tuesday the hurricane hunter aircraft and the pilots who fly literally into the eye of the storm. Area school groups were welcomed for presentations on topics like the importance of disaster preparedness and of flood insurance coverage.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross toured a hurricane hunter aircraft on Tuesday. (Niels Lesniewski/CQ Roll Call)
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross toured a hurricane hunter aircraft on Tuesday. (Niels Lesniewski/CQ Roll Call)

National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb, who is about to leave the federal post to return to The Weather Channel, called the North Virginia gathering “the biggest, baddest hurricane awareness tour stop we have ever had.”

Spokesmen said that in addition to students, a number of congressional staffers were also expected to be in attendance.

Trump’s fiscal 2018 blueprint proposed a $1.5 billion cut in the Department of Commerce’s budget from the level that had been in effect until recently, but the brief outline stressed the importance of investing in the National Weather Service, saying the request would maintain forecasting capabilities with an investment in excess of $1 billion.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross toured at least one of the hurricane hunter planes while on-site and said his personal experience living in coastal areas made him particularly aware of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s importance.

“As someone who grew up on the New Jersey seashore, lived in New York for many years, and now resides on the coast of Florida when not here in Washington, it’s very, very important to remember that Florida and New York and New Jersey have all been ravaged by storms in recent years,” Ross said. “There’s no telling how much worse the toll might have been if it were not for NOAA’s hurricane hunters and the work of the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service.”

Ross also highlighted the bipartisan weather forecasting legislation that Trump signed into law last month.

“It includes funding for another hurricane hunter aircraft and provides more support for NOAA weather satellites and for the hurricane research improvement program,” Ross said of that bill, which Senate Commerce Committee leadership called the most significant such law since the 1990s.

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