Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

To prepare for hurricanes, Florida turns to former Walmart executive

TALLAHASSEE — A Walmart executive from Arkansas wouldn't seem the logical choice to lead Florida through a vicious hurricane, wildfire or terrorist attack.

But that's exactly where Gov. Rick Scott found Bryan Koon.

Koon, 39, controlled emergency management operations for Walmart and its Sam's Club stores in the United States and overseas. As ice storms, tornadoes and hurricanes pummeled company stores, it was left to Koon to get afflicted stores back in business.

Now Koon has a bigger stage with even more at stake.

As Hurricane Irene threatened Florida this week, Koon received by-the-minute updates from the National Hurricane Center and briefed Scott. The storm has shifted its course east, for now sparing Florida.

That's good news for the state but leaves questions about Koon, who makes $140,000 annually as the state's emergency management director.

"I know there's a part of all of my counterparts . . . that would want to see him battle-tested," said Wayne Sallade, Charlotte County's emergency management director of 24 years.

• • •

Koon had at least some of the same thoughts. After interviewing for the position in December, Koon called Craig Fugate, the man who ran Florida's emergency operations for eight years before President Barack Obama plucked him in 2009 to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Koon had a simple question: Was he qualified for the job?

Fugate said, "Well, you'd better be because I was the one that recommended you," Koon recalled.

Before joining Walmart, Koon was a watch officer for the White House Military Office, where he developed ways to keep the government going during a disaster.

The scope of Koon's Walmart job was enormous, with more than 4,000 stores in the United States and 8,000 international locations, not to mention nearly 3 million employees and thousands of suppliers.

It wasn't a matter of when a disaster would hit but when and where.

In 2008, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike battered Texas. About 300 Walmarts and Sam's Clubs closed because of Ike alone in the Houston market — roughly 8 percent of the company's U.S. presence, he said.

Koon said running a governmental agency is just as broad and challenging.

Scott told Koon in their first conversation that he does not want to be remembered as the governor who failed Floridians during a disaster.

"He has seen the fate of others rise and fall based upon how well they did with those crisis situations," Koon said.

• • •

Koon, who was registered to vote as a Democrat in Arkansas, served on Scott's emergency management transition team and briefed the governor-elect on disaster response from the private sector's point of view.

Scott offered him the director job days after the briefing.

County emergency officials couldn't help themselves from making obvious wisecracks when they heard the news. Would they have to wear blue vests and greet visitors at the door?

Some wanted Scott to consider an experienced peer instead of a private-sector outsider who grew up in North Florida, Sallade said. But those views "were quickly swept away," Sallade said. "(Koon) is making a sincere effort to get around to all the counties and see what the setup is."

He stopped at Sallade's emergency operations center three weeks ago and will travel to three more counties today, marking 31 visits since taking the job.

For all of his disaster experience, Koon admits he started knowing little about the state Legislature, which controls his agency's $278 million budget. So he had David Halstead, Koon's immediate predecessor, stay on as deputy director.

He persuaded a few more former agency officials to return, including Mike DeLorenzo, State Emergency Response Team director; Leo Lachat, Bureau of Recovery chief; and John Cherry, who takes on a newly created title that focuses strictly on coordinating with the private sector.

The institutional knowledge helps Koon sort out what worked and what didn't during previous major storms. One thing he's learned: The state and counties can't do everything.

During the 2004 and 2005 storms, he said, state workers set up distribution areas for food, water and ice in the parking lots of grocery stores. That wasn't very strategic, Koon said, as the government used scarce resources to compete with stores that had power restored and already had supplies available.

Working with private businesses will make it faster to restore communities and a tax base, he said.

• • •

Irene became a hurricane on the same day as Hurricane Andrew 19 years ago.

At the time, Koon was 20, living up north and working on a bachelor's degree in natural resources at Cornell University.

"If I had known at 20 what I know at 39, I would have paid attention," he said.

Still, Florida has improved its building standards so much that "the impact would be much less than it is now," he said.

Not that he's asking for a test.

Katie Sanders can be reached at

To prepare for hurricanes, Florida turns to former Walmart executive 08/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 24, 2011 12:13am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Review: Arcade Fire open hearts, play with passion at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa


    Gloves off, hearts open and disco balls glittering, Arcade Fire scaled the stage for the first time ever in Tampa, pouncing and flailing and performing with all the passion that’s made them one of the world’s most celebrated rock bands this century.

    Arcade Fire performed at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa on Sept. 22, 2017.
  2. Lightning's Steven Stamkos looks close to top form in first game since November

    Lightning Strikes

    TAMPA — The wait felt like forever for Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, having gone 10 months without playing in a game.

    A scramble in front of the Lightning goal has Matthew Peca, far left, and Erik Cernak, middle, helping out goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy during the third period of a 3-1 win against the Predators. Vasilevskiy, who made 29 saves, was “exceptional,” coach Jon Cooper says.
  3. Rays journal: Alex Cobb may have pitched last game in Rays uniform (w/video)

    The Heater

    BALTIMORE — RHP Alex Cobb pitched well enough to lead the Rays to an 8-3 win over the Orioles on Friday.

    Wilson Ramos gives thanks after hitting a grand slam during the second inning, putting the Rays up 4-0.
  4. Steven Souza Jr. vindicating big trade for Rays

    The Heater

    BALTIMORE — There was a time when the three-team, 11-player transaction the Rays orchestrated to get Steven Souza Jr. from the Nationals looked liked a bad deal.

    The Rays’ Steven Souza Jr. has 30 home runs this season while improving his defense and baserunning but wants to improve on his .236 batting average.
  5. Fennelly: Lightning's Manon Rheaume made history 25 years ago Saturday

    Lightning Strikes

    The name is part of Lightning history, hockey history, sports history.

    Lightning goalie Manon Rheaume became the first woman to play in an NHL game 25 years ago today.