FEMA head Brock Long’s departure leaves another hole in US security

Long briefs Trump on hurricane Florence’s path.
Long briefs Trump on hurricane Florence’s path.
Image: Reuters/Leah Mills
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Brock Long, who led the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) through one of America’s most destructive strings of natural disasters, is unexpectedly quitting to spend more time with his family, the agency said yesterday (Feb. 13).

Long, appointed by Donald Trump in April 2017, headed FEMA through hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Florence, and the California wildfires.

His departure comes after what one former senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official described to Quartz as an “all-out war” with another FEMA official, and as the White House is mulling cannibalizing some US agency budgets to fund the promised wall on the southern border. A bill expected to be signed tomorrow (Feb. 15) will give Trump just $1.4 billion in wall funding, about $3 billion less than he would like (FEMA is a part of DHS).

Unfilled jobs

Long’s departure leaves another big hole in the management of the DHS, which has an annual budget of $50 billion and 230,000 employees. The agency has been operating without permanent appointees in many of its top positions since early in the Trump presidency. The agency is responsible for Americans’ transportation safety, counterterrorism, election security, and border security, but its main focus under Trump has been the White House’s anti-immigration policies.

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who has earned a reputation a willing executor of  the White House’s extreme immigration ideas, has also been considering her own departure for months. She and the president will meet today (Feb. 14), according to the White House.

Long’s deputy, Peter Gaynor, will become the acting head of FEMA, leaving his job open. Meanwhile, multiple top DHS officials are working more than one job at the agency, including the second-highest in command, Claire Grady, and Tracy Renaud, the No. 2 official at Citizenship and Immigration Services. Nathaniel Jensen, the parent agency’s head of Strategy, Planning, Analysis & Risk, quietly told colleagues he was departing last week, former officials said. A DHS task force set up to monitor election security is being gutted, the Daily Beast reported today.

Outside of the DHS, the massive Department of Defense is operating with an acting secretary after the dramatic departure of general James Mattis, who warned Trump was a threat to US security as he resigned in December. Former Marine Corps general Anthony Zinna, special adviser to the secretary of state on Middle East issues, resigned in January.

Fund the wall or bust?

The White House is mulling diverting funds from some other parts of the government, and other parts of the DHS that deal with emergencies, to fund the border wall, congressional aides told Quartz this week.

Last month, the White House started eyeing unused funds in the Army Corps of Engineers budget, (part of the defense department) to build the wall, the Wall Street Journal reported. Also in January, Trump tweeted that he had ordered FEMA to stop supplying aid to California wildlife victims, a command that he couldn’t legally make.

Long’s departure wasn’t connected to concerns that FEMA’s budget could be used to build a border wall, one ex-DHS official said. Others said they didn’t know if that was a factor or not.

Internal clash

However, his resignation comes after repeated clashes with FEMA deputy administrator Daniel Kaniewski, a former consultant who had a close relationship with DHS Secretary Nielsen, according to multiple ex-DHS officials and people briefed on the situation inside the agency.

Long and Kaniewski clashed over approaches to FEMA preparedness. Unlike Long or his acting replacement Gaynor, Kaniewski has no on-the-ground experience reacting to large emergencies, or managing the surge of hundreds or thousands of people who respond to them, and their disputes were said to center around the differences between academic and practical solutions.

Long and Gaynor are “two very experienced emergency managers who are respected throughout the country and frankly have done an excellent job, especially in view of the huge and exceptionally large amount of disasters they have faced since being in office,” one former senior DHS official told Quartz.

An internal investigation found last year that Long had used government vehicles without authorization, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars. Long’s departure comes just over three months before the start of the American hurricane season—a deliberate choice, one DHS employee said, so that the agency would have enough time to find a permanent replacement.