President Biden’s nominee to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency stressed that “mitigation is so critically important in today’s time as we see an increase in the number and severity of disasters,” telling senators at her confirmation hearing that “the best way for us to protect against that is to try to reduce risk.”
Deanne Criswell, who was appointed commissioner of the New York City Emergency Management Department in 2019, was nominated as the next FEMA administrator on Feb. 22. Bob Fenton has been leading the agency as acting administrator since Pete Gaynor left at the end of the Trump administration.
Criswell is a FEMA veteran, having led one of the agency’s National Incident Management Assistance Teams and serving as a federal coordinating officer. She is also the former head of the Office of Emergency Management in Aurora, Colo., and served 21 years as a firefighter and deputy fire chief in the Colorado National Guard.
If approved by the Senate, she would be the first woman confirmed as FEMA administrator.
“I believe in FEMA’s mission of helping people before, during and after disasters, particularly as we seek to bring an end to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Criswell told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday. “The pathway to a ready and resilient nation requires a shared vision and takes proactive mindset. We must reduce risk through system-based mitigation. We must increase the resilience of our communities so they can adapt as threats change. And we must scale our response to minimize the consequences of disasters and emergencies.”
“I understand this is a challenging mission, and if confirmed, I welcome the opportunity to meet this challenge and lead FEMA in its efforts to create a more prepared and resilient nation,” she continued. “This last year has been the most challenging of my career. As a New York City responded to the impacts brought on by the COVID-19 global pandemic, I led a team that worked tirelessly to prevent the collapse of a healthcare system.”
“We worked to ensure no one went hungry. We stood up a first-of-its-kind program to provide sheltering operations for vulnerable populations. And, sadly, we also implemented a mass-fatality operation to meet the scale and severity of the impacts of COVID-19.”
Criswell called “the ability to make decisions with imperfect information and pivot as more information became available” a “critical skill that emergency managers across this country bring to bear every day.”
“As FEMA responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, it must also support communities in preparing for future challenges in adapting to a changing world,” she said, citing the record 2020 Atlantic hurricane season and massive wildfires. “I believe the best way to balance the competing demands is to make risk reduction investments, to build more resilient communities and infrastructure, including against the threat of climate change. FEMA has developed a robust preparedness and response capability, and now we have an incredible opportunity to invest in our ability to reduce risk.”
Emergency management across the nation “is at a pivotal point,” Criswell told lawmakers, committing to working closely with Congress “to make sure FEMA is responsive to your communities and the people you represent.”
“I have appreciated the opportunity to speak with members on both sides about the importance of emergency management and, if confirmed, commit to working in a bipartisan manner at all times,” she said.
Responding to concerns about fraud prevention at FEMA, Criswell declared she is “certainly committed to making sure that we have the appropriate internal controls and measures in place to audit the programs while being very good stewards of the taxpayer.”
The nominee also stressed that FEMA’s workforce is the agency’s “most valuable resource.”
“The women and men of FEMA do incredible work every day. And they’ve been responding to multiple disasters for several years now,” she said. “And so I do look forward, if confirmed, to understanding the current status of FEMA’s workforce, what challenges they may be having and what improvements we need to make to ensure we’re ready for this upcoming flood and hurricane season.”
Criswell was asked multiple questions about Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directing FEMA to support efforts over the next 90 days to handle the wave of unaccompanied migrant children at the southwest border.
“FEMA is an all-hazards agency, and they are one part of the team. They have continued to provide support to other federal partners. And as in this case, providing support right now to HHS and CBP and the execution of their mission,” she said. “I have not been briefed on the specific activities of what FEMA is doing, but if confirmed, I look forward to getting a better understanding of FEMA’s current role.”