Home Opinion How will the next President consider Emergency Management?--Perspective #2

How will the next President consider Emergency Management?--Perspective #2


Last week, my colleague John Pennington penned a thorough analysis of how 2016 presidential candidates might treat the emergency management function if each were to be elected. I'd just like to add that the issue also depends somewhat on the philosophy of the governing party that we choose, and that I believe we can learn from the past to project what we can expect in the future. So what follows here is an an overview of all of the confirmed Directors chosen to head FEMA, who they were chosen by, and how they fared. Information for this report came from the FEMA website and Wikipedia.

History of FEMA

FEMA was established in 1979 under Executive Order by Democratic President Jimmy Carter. He nominated John W. Macy Jr. to be the first Director. He served from 1979 - 1981. Mr. Macy had a prestigious career of public service that spanned six decades, and after his death, the US Army established the John W.  Macy Jr. award to recognize excellence in leadership of civilians.

Republican President Ronald Reagan appointed Louis Guffrida, who served from 1981 to 1985. A career Army officer, he rose to the rank of Colonel. His qualifications to serve as FEMA Director largely centered around anti-terrorism and dealing with civil strife. His Army War College thesis involved planning the details of how to forcibly relocate black Americans into concentration camps under emergency circumstances. He was eventually forced out of the position because he used government money to build a private residence.

President Reagan then appointed Julius W. Becton, Jr., who served from 1985 - 1989. Becton, also a career Army officer, had retired at the rank of Lieutenant General. His distinguished military career spanned the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Not much is written of his FEMA service or his achievements.

Republican President George H. W. Bush next appointed Wallace Stickney, who served from 1990 to 1993. His qualifications involved working up through government service in the environmental protection and transportation fields. He governed FEMA during the closing of the cold war, which brought great change to the agency. Again, not much is written about his service, but what has been written wasn't very flattering. One congressional report described FEMA as a political dumping ground where large numbers of positions existed that could be filled as favors by political appointment. Stickney was described as weak and uninterested in the position. This led to intense criticism when FEMA was tasked to respond to Hurricane Andrew, which is largely considered to have been a failed response.

Democratic President Bill Clinton appointed James Lee Witt, who served from 1993 - 2001. He is credited as being the first Director that brought an extensive resume of emergency  management experience to the position. Witt oversaw what is sometimes called 'the golden age of FEMA'--during his tenure, he streamlined the agency, cut out political-appointee positions, and instilled a culture of professionalism and customer service.

Republican President George W. Bush next appointed Joe Allbaugh, who served from 2001 - 2003. His qualification to be FEMA Director was that he managed Mr. Bush's campaign for Texas Governor and became a top advisor throughout Mr. Bush's career. He was Director during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and came under criticism for slow response and inappropriate denials of service.

President Bush next appointed Michael Brown, who served from 2003 - 2005. Mr. Brown, a protege of Mr. Allbaugh, worked his way up through emergency management by directing the NIMS Integration Center, the National Disaster Medical System, and the Nuclear Incident Response Team. However, this experience did not prepare him to deal with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The hurricane came ashore on August 29th and he resigned on September 12th. The response to Katrina is still considered a failure on many levels.

President Bush then appointed R. David Paulison, who served from 2005 - 2009. Finally convinced that the critical position of FEMA Director required a competent individual, Mr. Paulison had worked his way up through the Fire Service and the Department of Homeland Security. However, by the time he ascended to the position, he was tired and dispirited and attempted to resign many times. He is best known as a transitional leader who prepared the agency for the advent of the next administrator.

Democratic President Barack Obama appointed Craig Fugate, who has served from 2009 to the present. His tenure has rightly been called 'the second golden age of FEMA'. As head of Florida Emergency Management in 2004, he oversaw the responses to four significant hurricanes, and in 2005, three more. As FEMA Administrator, Fugate frequently holds preparedness exercises to ensure readiness. He has been a leader in bringing FEMA into the social media world and utilizing smart technology to assist with notification and assessment.


The evidence indicates a clear difference in philosophy between the two political parties when appointing FEMA Directors. One party has had a difficult time considering the position of FEMA Director to be important, and this has come back to bite them time and again. The other party routinely selects Directors based on experience and a proven track record, which has made all the difference when the hurricane really does come ashore and tests the system.

My conclusion -- scream 'bias' if you will, but I think I've presented a pretty fact-based analysis -- is that if one party is chosen to lead the country, then the next head of FEMA is likely to be chosen due to cronyism; and if the other political party is chosen to lead the country, then the next head of FEMA is likely to be chosen due to competence.

I have a preference. I hope, for the sake of the well-being of the public we serve, that you do as well.

Randall Cuthbert Dr. Randall Cuthbert is a retired APUS Professor of Emergency & Disaster Management. He has also worked as a Red Cross Shelter Supervisor, and spent a 20-year career as a US Air Force Civil Engineer Officer. His blogging interests include: protecting & enhancing the EDM profession in the areas of integrity, honorable public service, and social justice; education regarding the 'big picture' role of EDM in our society; educating our professionals and neighbors with regard to the greatest threat to our civilization--climate change; and in general terms, creating a better world for our children and grandchildren.