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Friday, October 7, 2022

PERSPECTIVE: Favored Southern Candidates Pass Tests for Top FEMA Job

The job of FEMA Administrator is by far one of the most challenging leadership posts anywhere in the world. You are called upon at the most stressful of times – a disaster – to bring order, discipline and focus to the response and recovery operations that have to take place. It is not a job for the fainthearted or thin-skinned because no good deed will be remembered, and no misstep will be forgotten.

As FEMA begins its leadership transition from Brock Long to Acting Administrator Peter Gaynor (the current deputy administrator), and then to Jeffrey Byard, President Trump’s nominee to be Long’s replacement (who currently serves as FEMA’s Associate Administrator for the Office of Response and Recovery), I took a look at all of the people who have served as FEMA administrator since the beginning of the Clinton administration, Jan. 20. 1993.

In reviewing those 26 years, a couple of things stood out.

First, with the exception of Nancy Ward, who served as FEMA’s acting administrator for five months in 2009, all of the 12 confirmed or “acting” administrators were men.

Secondly, with the exception of four people – John Magaw (Ohio), Nancy Ward (California), Bob Fenton (California) and Peter Gaynor (Rhode Island) – all of the FEMA administrators (acting and Senate-confirmed) from 1993-present have come from the southern United States or served in emergency management positions there.

FEMA Administrators 1993-Present

Administrator From To State
William Tidball
January 20, 1993 April 5, 1993 Arkansas
James Lee Witt April 5, 1993 January 20, 2001 Arkansas
John Magaw
January 20, 2001 February 15, 2001 Ohio
Joe Allbaugh February 15, 2001 April 15, 2003 Texas
Michael D. Brown April 15, 2003 September 12, 2005  




David Paulison
Acting/later Senate confirmed

September 12, 2005 January 21, 2009  



Nancy L. Ward
January 21, 2009 May 19, 2009  



Craig Fugate May 19, 2009 January 20, 2017  



Bob Fenton
January 20, 2017 June 23, 2017  



Brock Long June 23, 2017 March 8, 2019  

Alabama & North Carolina


Peter Gaynor
March 8, 2019 Acting  

Rhode Island


Jeffrey Byard Nominee  



In sharing this observation, I am in no way trying to infer a “Southern Lock” on the top spot at FEMA but it is an interesting fact to keep in mind on where the proving and training ground has been when presidents and their administrations consider the pool of talent from which to select.

The FEMA administrator position has dramatically evolved since 1993 with the events of Hurricane Andrew (1992), the Sept. 11 attacks (2001), and Hurricane Katrina (2005) all being the principal catalysts for changes. The agency’s purview is not just one of hurricanes, floods and fires but also terrorism, industrial accidents, infrastructure failings and more – which is why finding experienced and proven leadership talent capable of taking on the job is not as easy as one might hope.

The agency is fortunate to have supporting networks such as the National Emergency Managers Association and the International Association of Emergency Managers. But as valuable as those organizations might be, there is nothing that compares to the hands-on, real-world experiences of emergency management. In that arena, the American South is a tremendous proving ground. Hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, fires, ice, floods and more are always on the menu.

The only other state that comes close to comparing to that environment is California, which unto itself should be categorized as “biblical” in the disaster department. In the Golden State there isn’t as much a defined disaster season with frequent fires and coastal storms; it could best be described as perpetual and nonstop.

I don’t have a reason or any profound insight on why we’ve not seen more than California’s Ward and Fenton in the FEMA administrator’s chair. In the end, the selection of a FEMA administrator is a political decision made by executive branch leaders who hold power for a period of time as well as the tumultuous confirmation politics of the U.S. Senate. Presidents as well as confirming U.S. senators know how important the FEMA position can be to their electoral fortunes. All it takes is for a disaster response and recovery to not go well to find yourself tarred and feathered in an election cycle and booted from office.

Having talent who can operate in that environment is hard because for all of the challenges the position calls for, it also comes with enormous personal sacrifice. Long hours, competing interests and time away from your family are hard enough, but take a moment and read through the public comments of FEMA and its leadership to appreciate how thick your skin has got to be to do that job.

Maybe all that sweet tea, barbecue and sweltering summers – along with the always timely disasters and emergency incidents season – prepare you just right to do the administrator’s job. But if we’ve learned anything over the past 26 years and the past four presidential administrations, the South has taken root in the FEMA administrator’s suite and those roots run pretty deep.

While not nearly as comparable as the lock that the Italians once had on the papacy of the Catholic Church, or the New England Patriots in Super Bowl appearances, it’s still formidable and impressive.

So, if you’re a betting person and want to handicap the odds-on future FEMA administrator prospects, all you have to do is look South for candidates. The odds are, you’re going to find who you’re looking for, along with some other great, seasoned prospects.

Rich Cooper
Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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