Beyond Hurricane Florence, FEMA faces a PR crisis of its own 

by | Sep 25, 2018 | Public Relations

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Brock Long, is under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security and a congressional committee over the alleged misuse of government vehicles. While Hurricane Florence was tearing apart the Carolinas, the current leadership crisis is one storm the agency may not be prepared to weather.

The future of Long’s role in the beleaguered agency was first thrown into doubt earlier this month, when it was revealed he was being investigated for misuse of resources while travelling to his North Carolina home.

Long, who has travelled frequently the 400 miles between Washington and Hickory, North Carolina, has been accused of regularly leaving his headquarters on Thursdays using a “caravan of federal workers” who stayed in nearby hotels during the weekends in questions. Last year, he allegedly spent a total of 150 days at home.

The FEMA head has consistently denied the allegations, but this has not stopped the White House from discussing his replacement

Long says he is fully cooperating with the ongoing investigation, while he—and FEMA—remain focused on recovery efforts amid the widespread destruction wrought by Hurricane Florence.

A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson similarly insists the agency is more focused on hurricane and response efforts, though the ongoing controversy—and public backlash—cannot be ignored. Worse still, Long is said to be resisting efforts to replace him, with a feud among senior Trump administration officials being made public in recent days.

Of further alarm for the agency is the lack of a seasoned second-in-charge if Long were indeed to be removed from his post

The No. 2 position has remained vacant for some two years now. Trump’s current nominee, Peter Gaynor, is still awaiting Senate confirmation, after Trump’s original nominee, Daniel Craig, withdrew his hat from the ring amid a similar travel claim scandal.

That leaves FEMA’s No. 3, Daniel Kaniewski, readily available to take charge of the agency—at least in the interim. His background, however, is distinctly one of a desk jockey; his lack of hands-on emergency management experience has many worried that an internal reshuffle could not come at a worse time as Carolina waters rise and residents flee.

“Who in their right mind thought this was a good idea to try to take out the FEMA administrator in the middle of a storm?” says one former senior FEMA official, furious that such infighting has played out in the public eye while millions of Americans fear for their security, “Even if that’s your objective, save it for after the hurricane.”

Indeed, the handling of the scandal has been regrettable

Long has kept a low profile since news of his investigation first broke, and current and former FEMA officials have served as unofficial mouthpieces as the drama unfolds. Without a clear line of communication from within the agency, or clarity over the path ahead, this is a PR crisis of disastrous proportions.

Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian founded 5WPR, a leading PR agency..