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How FEMA’s Focus is Shifting

FEMA Administrator Brock Long - How FEMA’s Focus is Shifting
Podcast Series: 

FEMA Administrator Brock Long gives listeners insight into FEMA’s mission, vision and the role of emergency management.  Administrator Long also talks about his first 8 months on the job, FEMA’s large-scale response to the historic 2017 hurricane season and FEMA’s strategic goals to more effectively serve the American public before, during and after a disaster.


{Intro Music} [Mark Peterson] I'm Mark Peterson and this is the FEMA podcast. At the two month mark of a new job, most people are still getting acclimated to their roles, their responsibilities and the workplace culture. In FEMA Administrator Brock Long's case, he was confronted by a category four hurricane barreling towards the fourth largest city in the country. Within the next month, three more hurricanes made landfall in the United States, making it one of the most devastating storm seasons in our country's history. To put it into perspective, Administrator Long had the daunting task of coordinating the response and recovery efforts of tens of thousands of personnel from FEMA, and its partners, to assist nearly 26,000,000 people across the United States- two months into the job. Now at the eighth month mark of his tenure at FEMA, with disaster recovery still a top priority, the focus is shifting to lessons learned from the 2017 hurricane season, and the California wildfires, and how the agency is reshaping its approach to effectively help people before, during, and after disasters. {Music} On this episode of the podcast, we'll talk to Administrator Brock Long about his vision for the agency and how it moves forward in the years to come. [Mark Peterson] Administrator Long, thanks so much for joining us here on the inaugural FEMA podcast. I think it's really important that you're here because after all this podcast is about telling FEMA’s story. It's the story of our partners and the survivors we serve. We have an important mission and there's so many stories that revolve around the dedication of our agency in the face of very difficult disaster situations, but also their stories of resilience in our communities. So that's what this is all about. It's about giving podcast listeners an inside view to this important work that we do. I just want to start off by asking you, you know, back in the Midwest, where my FEMA office is located, I guess that most Americans don't really know what emergency management is. You know, they think of fire and they think of police, but they don't really know the role of emergency management in their lives and their community. You've talked in the past and some of your national interviews about changing the face of emergency management, that you're ready to do that. What does that mean in the larger sense and what does it mean to the communities and the people here? [Brock Long] Mark, you're exactly right. So I don't believe that a majority of citizens across the country understand the complexity of FEMA’s role, but more so what we actually do. I think we do two major things. We coordinate and we hand out a massive amount of grants to help communities prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters. So when it goes back to what we just saw in 2017, for example, my job as FEMA administrator, is to make sure that I harness the firepower of the federal government and that we appropriately and effectively put it down through our governors to ultimately get to the local level to help local officials and governors achieve their response and recovery goals. We coordinated the assets of over 32 different federal government agencies, but we also have to reach out to our private sector partners and non-governmental organizations to be able to call upon their assets as well to put them down and ultimately do the greatest good after disaster strikes. [Mark Peterson] So given that, a few weeks ago, you set forth some strategic priorities which will eventually get rolled into the strategic plan, which is releasing soon. So, as a FEMA employee, the thing that strikes me about those priorities is that they're pretty simple, but they're also really ambitious and so they will lay down three things: instilling a culture of preparedness in the nation, readying the nation for catastrophic events, and making FEMA more simple. So how much of the 2017 hurricane season played into that thought process and building those, that vision? [Brock Long] So Mark, I’m rare because I've spent my entire career, 17 years in emergency management, and one of the things that's frustrated me is that while we put out doctrine and different things trying to tie us all together and during the incident commander response phase, that's there, we've never had a unifying strategic plan that all levels of government or private sector, non-governmental organizations are working together to solve problems and you know, for example, I did not want to create a strategic plan for FEMA or the field of emergency management that was created in a vacuum. So what we did is we went through an exhaustive process which I like to call discovery change where we basically ask three questions, where are we, where do we need to be, how do we get there, and we open it up beyond the walls of FEMA and asked our constituents at the state and local governments, as well as private sector partners, to weigh in if FEMA is going to be effective in the future, what do you need the agency to be truly good at? And as a result of that, we've got 2,300 comments back that we filtered through and after a trend analysis, we arrived at those three goals. We have to build a culture of preparedness, ready the nation for catastrophic disasters, and reduce the complexity of FEMA. Now, the third goal is really important because there's two parts to that third goal of reducing the complexity of FEMA. We have to fine tune and clean up some of our internal business processes and make sure that our workforce is ready to serve others, but we also have to streamline a very complex process of rendering assistance to disaster survivors, grantees, and sub-grantees. [Mark Peterson] I'm glad you brought that up. So on the topic of simplifying FEMA, because I don't think that most people think that they will go through a disaster and then eventually have to avail themselves of FEMA in some situations so they might not be aware of the sort of the complexity of going through the disaster assistance process. So, you know, have you been talking to the public? Have you heard things throughout your career that you know, makes you feel like this is something that we really need to focus on? [Brock Long] So Mark, let’s take first the disaster survivor, you, the individual that may have been impacted by a disaster. I think that we have forgotten how we live in the greatest nation on the globe when it comes to the amount of assistance that the federal government provides down through our governor's and ultimately to the local level. It is unprecedented and it is unmatched across the globe in my opinion. And the amount of assistance that we provide, while we cannot make you whole, does serve as a bridge to help most citizens recover, particularly if they're uninsured, or if they've lost their job. You know, our assistance is designed to help them find transitional sheltering and temporary housing. In some cases, you can actually do dental work if somebody, you know, received damage from the event that was going forward. So it's unprecedented when it comes to the level of survival assistance that we provide. The problem is, is that it can result in a multitude of agency representatives coming down to that disaster survivor in a fragmented fashion. So for example, if you were uninsured, Mark, and you've lost pretty much everything, you could potentially get 15 different knocks at the door from not only FEMA, but other government agencies and non-governmental organizations trying to render assistance. Often it is too confusing. The inspections process that we went through, we had to perform over two and a half million inspections in 2017 and not only, you know, I think that we have, that's a process that we could clean up. We could streamline, it should be one, one inspection that cuts across the entire array of federal government programs that puts forward so that we minimize the burden of time on the disaster survivor that we quickly and effectively get them the assistance that they needed entitled to. [Mark Peterson] How difficult is that task. How monumental is that task of bringing other agencies to kind of streamline that process? [Brock Long] Well, let's look at the other side. Let's look at what the sub grantee and the grantee goes through when it comes to us. Let's just say Mark, you are the mayor of one of the communities that was heavily damaged by one of the hurricanes or the catastrophic wildfires that we saw out in California. Government assistance can come from 17 different agencies and when it comes down it hits at different points in time along the disaster recovery process. And the bottom line is, is that the funding comes down with different rules attached to it. And in many cases, you know, for example, in FEMA alone, we have what's called the grants modernization process that we're pushing through, because each one of the grants that we push out may require a different software tool that you have to utilize or tap into to execute the grant. I think we've got to get it down to one tool that cuts across all of the grants that we push forward. And then how do we streamline fragmented disaster recovery and clearly articulate to you, the mayor, of saying you've been hit, let's figure out what your recovery outcomes are and what your recovery goals are. Let's show you what you're entitled to from 17 different federal government agencies. And how to put that money to work to do the greatest good to ultimately become more resilient in the future. [Mark Peterson] So, this is sort of a conversation about after a disaster occurs, but you know, even before a disaster, we need to really encourage our citizens to get prepared and that's another one of your priorities. And it's not as though FEMA hasn't been doing preparedness, but you have a little bit different take on what you see, preparedness and cultural preparedness to be. [Brock Long] Sure. So before I get to the citizens, let's go back to that grantee, sub-grantee based on the example I just provided. Do they have a disaster cost recovery plan in place that shows the details out, not only their finance officer but their procurement officers, all of their emergency support function agencies are, you know, if they're going to be able to correctly account for all of their expenditures during the different phases of response and recovery and making sure that they understand how to utilize the grant funding and tie it all together to do the greatest good. And I don't believe those plans are very prevalent out there. And I think we've got to do a lot of work in that regard. [Mark Peterson] Yeah and that may be the case. I'm thinking about even situations that, you know, as you're talking where, you know, when public assistance, which is the grant program that FEMA offers that provides infrastructure assistance grants for infrastructure repair, when that program isn't available, a community still needs to be prepared to sort of weather the storm. Right? [Brock Long] Exactly. And uh, you know, one thing that bothers me is that there are a lot of states without a rainy day fund that if FEMA disaster assistance is not coming to town, if the disaster and a majority of the disasters that state and local governments go through, FEMA does not support, because it just does not meet the thresholds, the numeric indicators, that would suggest that federal support is warranted. So my question to local governments and state governments are, do you have a rainy day fund that's established in a manner that you can render your own version of individual assistance and public assistance to those communities or those citizens that have been impacted by events where FEMA assistance is not warranted or has been denied for whatever reasons. Now, on the citizens’ side, I believe that we've got a long way to go to build a true culture preparedness. I've said it many times. I've seen it firsthand. I believe that the citizen is the true first responder. We've got to stop looking at citizens as liabilities and start understanding how to better incorporate them in all phases of emergency management from mitigation to the recovery phase. But I think it's also time to reflect back on are our efforts through ready campaigns or whatever else and asking people to be prepared for whether it's three days, five days or in Hawaii, you should really be prepared for 14 days. Is it financially a realistic ask of where our citizens are? And so, um, it's one thing, you know, I think that it's disaster response and recovery is always toughest where the poverty rate is high, but what we're experiencing in this country, in my opinion, is what's called asset poverty. You may have a great job, Mark, but you have not budgeted your money to have your own personal disaster relief fund or money in the bank. You can't put your hand on $500 cash. So it's hard for you to overcome the simple medical emergency, much less losing your house and activating insurance. And we see this every day and that problem is unfortunately growing. [Mark Peterson] So on that point in financial preparedness is not something that we've really focused on in FEMA, in our preparedness campaigns. So I'm wondering, you know, in your, in your career, what led you to make this such a priority as you come in as a FEMA administrator and you know, want to incorporate this into your vision? [Brock Long] Well, because, uh, you know, um, a couple of things. If you don't have, you know, if you can't put your hand on $500, bottom line is you're probably most likely not properly insured either. And the insurance gap is far too great in this country that we have to overcome. Uh, I don't, um, I think we have to double the amount of insurance coverage that is there, but yet I question whether or not, you know, our citizens have the working capital to actually do that and this is a far greater problem than FEMA can handle. This is something where we've got to transform the Ready campaigns to cut across to the Department of Education, maybe the Department of Commerce, and other agencies to say, hey, we've got to address some fundamental issues to ultimately reach resiliency. Resiliency is more than hardening infrastructure. It is making sure that our citizens have the proper skills and tool sets individually to be able to, you know, reduce the impact of disasters in the future as well. [Mark Peterson] So, you know, a lot of what FEMA does in the preparedness space are sort of like campaigns or like, you know, messages where we're communicating it through the professionals. But I'm curious, as the administrator, when you are in your community, when you're having conversations with your neighbors in your yard, or having a, you know, at a dinner or even at your son's basketball game, um, what are those conversations like with people? How are you convincing your neighbors to get prepared? [Brock Long] In some cases, I think we've got to go back and train Americans to be like boy scouts and girl scouts, per se. Are we giving them the tangible skills to do things like CPR? Do they understand how to shut off water valves and gas valves to their homes after disaster? And Mark, in Alabama, if a tornado went barreling through your community, who is most likely to do search and rescue right off the bat? Probably your neighbor, you know, and spawning the conversation again of get to know your neighbor because neighbor helping neighbor is probably the most critical tool after disaster that has to come into play that we must rely on to help people. If you look at the majority of the shootings that are taking place, the active shooter events are over half the time, FBI statistics, which suggests that these events end before police are on scene. So how are we transforming the way that we train teachers and business owners and leaders within government organizations to fine tune their protective action procedures to incorporate for these statistics and in a meaningful manner. Now coming back to building a culture of preparedness it's, you know, one part of it is, are we appropriately training our citizens and incorporating them into our response and recovery rather than looking at them as a liability. But also, we've got a lot of work to do on the pre-disaster mitigation side. We have to, as I said earlier, close the insurance gap. Any house can flood. Mother Nature does not recognize flood zone on maps. We learned that in Harvey. We learn that in Florida in 2017. That is a lesson that we learn over and over again. You know, consider insurance. Don't let your insurance lapse, particularly your fire insurance after you've paid off your mortgage. You know, there are a lot of things that we have to correct behaviors that we have to correct, but FEMA can't do it alone. It's going to require unique partnerships, which is what I'm hoping the strategic plan will set us off on the right path to do. It's a unified approach to solving these three problems and I think if we can solve the problems of truly creating that culture of preparedness, the catastrophic readiness piece, truly being ready for the low to no-notice massive event like the New Madrid, Wasatch or Cascadia earthquake event, to reducing the complexity and streamlining our programs that we will be better off as a nation and more prepared and resilient. [Mark Peterson] So I recently participated in some focus groups for the Ready campaign. And in those conversations we talked about financial preparedness. And I think a lot of people were initially thinking, well, I'm financially prepared because I have insurance, but when you sort of dissect that conversation and say, OK, well you have insurance, and there's a deductible, but there's a period of time between when your home is either partially destroyed, totally destroyed, whatever it may be, whatever your situation is, and that insurance payment comes in, comes to you. And so how are you covering yourselves in those immediate days afterwards? You have to buy maybe all new toiletries and clothes and food. So it's expensive. And I think people don't consider that as part of financial preparedness. [Brock Long] And not only that, but you may lose your job. So I personally believe that, you know, a personal goal, of those that can do it, you should have three to six months of operational salary in a savings account and hopefully you're investing after that. You know, that's the bottom line is we’ve got to help set some baselines and get into the education system again and teach our kids how money works. [Mark Peterson] And you can see why maybe things that aren't massive hurricanes that are hitting the golf coast, or a major earthquake, even disasters, severe weather disasters that damage somebody's home can be catastrophic to them. But when you're talking about readying the nation for catastrophic events, you're talking about things that are much larger. So can you talk about like some of the scenarios that you are considering in that way? [Brock Long] Readying the nation for disasters, you know, for the catastrophic disasters is we've had plenty of experience when it comes to responding to events where you've got a five to seven day notice, such as hurricanes. It's been a long time since we've seen a truly tragic New Madrid type of event where, you know, no notice earthquake occurs and I think that we have a lot of work to do to make sure that the logistics aspects from not only the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the logistics of being able to render life-saving, life-safety commodities at the state and local levels is also shared or is in place so that we have redundancy in our ability to serve Americans in times of their greatest need. I believe that we have to work with our local communities to make sure that they have a baseline capability to do life-saving commodity distribution in their community, because if the infrastructure is wiped out, FEMA may not be able to get in as quick as people would like us to. And so I would ultimately like to see local and state governments set up innovative vendor managed concepts where we reduce expiration. We're not just buying food and, you know, in waiting to possibly use it over a two year period and then it expires and we throw it out, but that they're actually engaging the private sector, and going to private water bottle companies and saying, hey listen, you know, I know you're in my community can I sign an MOU with you that says, hey, for the first 48 to 72 hours, you would provide us this amount of water, or this amount of food. And so that if that can be kick-started and pushed forward, maybe it runs seamlessly throughout the rest of the response, but if it doesn't, then at least give me a two to three day window to get the logistics system flowing so that I can backfill and support your efforts at the Incident Command level. [Mark Peterson] You know, this whole conversation is really about changing aspects of FEMA and the business that we're in and the work that we do, to move to be better for the American people. And so, you know, we've all watched the media coverage over the last several months and there's clearly a number of misconceptions about FEMA out there in the public. So, you know, what are some of the things, if you could change one misconception about FEMA, what is that thing for you? [Brock Long] Emergency management is a partnership and, here again, we coordinate the assets of 32 different agencies and we mission assign different agencies to do different things. You know, for example, we mission assigned the Army Corps to do emergency power. Unfortunately, because of the situations that we're seeing in Puerto Rico, they're being mission assigned to rebuild a power grid, which is not an optimal situation by any means. We depend on the other agencies, like the Army Corps of Engineers, or DOT, or others for transportation assets. We depend on our military. It is a partnership. Your plan cannot be to expect FEMA to come in and make your community whole and put it back together to the manner it was before the disaster hit. It requires everybody, from the citizens, to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to help save lives in put communities back together in a more resilient fashion. In 2017, for example, I don't think people realize the magnitude of what this country just went through. In some cases, there are statistics that I've seen that suggests that FEMA did more in a three month time period than the agency did over the past 12 years. And I mean, wrap your mind around that. That's a lot of assets. We mobilized thousands of people into the field, tens of thousands of people actually, in one of the most amazing statistics, and I always go back to say we live in the greatest country on the globe, is that those who lost their homes, or their home was inhabitable for a short period of time, over 4.6 million hotel stays, nights in hotels, was coordinated by this agency to put people in hotels. 4.6 million nights. That's roughly 12,000, over 12,000 years. If you wanted to stay in a hotel, four point 6,000,000 nights, Mark, that would take you over 12,000 years to do it. Impressive. We've kicked out nearly $10,000,000,000 of NFIP flood loss claims over eight percent of the population and 26, 25 to 26,000,000 Americans were impacted. And we dang near touched that many people through not only traditional phone calls, through the 1-800-621 FEMA process, where we've taken almost five and a half million calls. We're still getting 13,000 calls a day at this point, even today. And then online, we had over 14,000,000 interactions with those seeking disaster survivor assistance. So if you look at that, we dang near touched 25,000,000 people in a very short window of time and we have made incredible improvements since Katrina. The other thing, too, is that often, and look, I recognize that FEMA needs a healthy relationship with the media, most importantly because we need the media on our side to be able to put forward lifesaving, life safety information. But in the recovery realm, many of the articles that I see are often incomplete. And I think that, you know, we have to do a better job of informing not only the media, but here again, you know, Americans, as to how processes work. We've been in the news unfortunately about contracting, but I would argue that our disaster contracting capabilities and what we just did in 2017 would show that this agency may be actually a best practice. So if you take this into context about the magnitude of this season going into Harvey, we typically had roughly 60 standby contracts ready to go to push out response lifesaving, life safety supplies from food, water to generators, whatever it may be that people need, hygiene kits. We had roughly 60, I think it's 59 to be exact going in. Once Harvey hit, and Irma, and Maria, and the California wildfires piled on, we executed over almost 2,000 emergency disaster contracts. [Mark Peterson] These are with the private sector? [Brock Long] 2,000. Yeah, with the private sector. Only three of those were canceled. Two of those zero tax dollars went towards the one that's been in the news about the hundred and $56,000,000 contract. We actually expended $225,000 and received roughly 50,000 meals for that at market rate and the contract, you know, there were just differences in the way that the contract was being delivered and we did our due diligence and we cancelled them. [Mark Peterson] I mean, I think some of those facts really highlight what we've been through already and what we're up against as we go forward and what you're up against as the administrator and how this vision is really working towards applying those lessons learned and moving us forward. [Brock Long] But Mark, you know, the other thing, too, that's really impressive is that, at the end of the day, of the 25,000,000 people, roughly 5,000,000 were entered into the individual assistance program that FEMA offers and being able to push forward assistance to, whether it's financial assistance, housing assistance, you know, other needs assistance, as maybe in some cases, we pay for funeral expenses. Five million people. We did more in basically a three month time period of registering citizens in our entire systems then was achieved during Hurricane Sandy, Rita, Wilma and Katrina combined. [Mark Peterson] That's an astounding fact. Mr, Long, I really appreciate your time with us. I wanna finally end with this question and I want you to fill in the blanks. The American people would be surprised to know that FEMA is blank and is not blank. [Brock Long] That's a great question, FEMA is filled with some of the most dedicated staff within the entire federal government. I watched our staff work non-stop around the clock for 78 days and many Americans believe that we've left many of the communities that have been impacted from the three hurricanes, or the California wildfires. However, we're still there and not only are my dedicated staff working those four major events, but we're working right now in over 14 different states. We're working disasters and I don't think people understand the complexities of what this agency deals with on a daily basis. Last year, a 127 different events occurred. So that is emergency declarations, major declarations and fires every three days basically, this agency picked up a new event that we had to work through to support our governors and local communities. What this agency performs every day is monumental and Herculean and I'm proud to be a part of. [Mark Peterson] What would people be surprised to know that FEMA does not do? [Brock Long] FEMA does not make you whole. I often get asked the question of, if FEMA is going to come in and render assistance, then why should I be insured? The average amount of assistance that people typically qualify for is between four and $5,000. It's designed to be a bridge to kick start your recovery. I can't make you whole. You have to be properly insured. You have to understand the risk based on where you live and where you work, and then you have to properly have your own plan in place to be able to reduce the impacts of future disasters. {Music} [Mark Peterson] Administer Brock Long, thanks so much for your time with us on the podcast and we look forward to your service. [Brock Long] Thanks, Mark. [Mark Peterson] We've linked to this episode on our FEMA Facebook page and we invite you to join the conversation in the comments. If you have ideas for a FEMA podcast topic, send us an email at If you would like to learn more about this episode, or other topics, visit
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