Brock Long knew it was just a matter of time.
“We’ve gone 11 years without a major hurricane land-falling in the U.S.—that’s a one-in-2,000 chance,” said Long, President Donald Trump’s administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in an interview at his office on Monday. “We’re gonna get hit by a major hurricane. I worry that a lot of people have forgotten what that’s like.”
The country is about to be reminded. As of Thursday afternoon, Hurricane Harvey was expected to hit the Texas coast as a Category 3 storm, with top wind speeds of 85 miles an hour and flooding as high as seven feet. The storm will be Long’s first challenge as FEMA director. He was sworn in just two months ago.
Long’s appointment was welcomed by experts on extreme weather, who praised him as neither overtly ideological nor hostile to the mission of the agency he was chosen to lead. Before being appointed to the top job, he was director of Alabama’s Emergency Management Agency from 2008 to 2011, as well as a regional hurricane program manager for FEMA.
“He is a rare Trump appointee who is a well-known professional in the field in which he was appointed,” said Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute, a Washington research group that promotes market-based solutions to climate change. “Every part of his reputation suggests he’ll take a careful, deliberate, technocratic approach to the job.”
If Hurricane Harvey is as severe as predicted, the toll will certainly test Long and his agency. It could even pose a political risk to the Trump administration, whose first budget proposal sought to cut FEMA’s funding by 11 percent.
President George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed almost 2,000 people and from which New Orleans is still recovering, pushed his approval ratings to the lowest level in his presidency. “Can I quit now?” Bush’s FEMA director, Michael D. Brown, wrote in an email to his spokeswoman on the morning Katrina struck. Three weeks later, he did.
Demonstrating preparedness during Hurricane Harvey isn’t Long’s only challenge. The storm could also get in the way of his goal of reducing the federal government’s financial exposure to extreme weather.
In the interview Monday, Long told Bloomberg News he wants Congress to limit federal flood insurance for homes that flood time and time again. He also expressed support for a proposal—first devised at the end of President Barack Obama’s administration—to push more of the costs of disaster recovery onto state and local governments. That shift could encourage local officials to adopt tougher building codes, restrict construction in vulnerable coastal zones and generally do more to protect residents from natural disasters.
“I believe in guarding the taxpayer dollar as much as I can,” Long said. “I don’t think the taxpayer should reward risk going forward.”
Long’s agenda for FEMA already faced tough odds in Congress. Legislators cut subsidies to the National Flood Insurance Program in 2012, only to retreat in the face of public anger. The program must be reauthorized by the end of next month. If severe and expensive flooding occurs in Texas, it could halt momentum for serious reform.
A major hurricane could also remind the rest of the country why federal disaster policy needs to be changed, so that coastal communities become less vulnerable and less expensive to rebuild over and over again.
“There are a handful of properties that create a large portion of that cost,” Long said this week. “We’ve got to start there, and at some point cut that off.”
Hurricane Harvey, and Long’s response to it, could test whether the country is ready for that conversation.