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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 ksanders@sptimes.com.

To prepare for hurricanes, Florida turns to former Walmart executive 08/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 24, 2011 1:13am]
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