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Hurricane season starts with nobody in charge at FEMA or NOAA

President Donald Trump speaks before bill signings in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House on Friday. Hurricane season has just started, but the two federal agencies most involved in dealing with hurricanes - Federal Emergency Management Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - are still waiting for political appointees to take over. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Published Jun. 3, 2017

The 2017 hurricane season started Thursday with no Trump Administration appointees running the two federal agencies most involved in dealing with hurricanes.

Five months after President Donald J. Trump was sworn in, no one has taken the reins at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is in charge of preparing for and then dealing with the aftermath of disasters such as a hurricane.

Trump nominated someone at the end of April — Brock Long, former head of Alabama's Emergency Management Agency — but Long has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

Meanwhile, Trump has not appointed anyone to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency in charge of the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service, which provide hurricane forecasts and warnings in advance of a major storm.

SPECIAL REPORT: 2017 Hurricane Preparedness Guide

The last FEMA boss was a Florida man, W. Craig Fugate, who departed in January after seven years on the job.

Fugate was appointed by then-President Obama in May 2009, four months after Obama was sworn in. Fugate, a former firefighter, had previously served as the head of the Florida Division of Emergency Management under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, including during the 2004 season when four hurricanes in a row hit the state.

Fugate told the Tampa Bay Times that both agencies are in good hands with acting administrators drawn from their professional ranks — for now.

But in the long-term, he said the lack of a political appointee at the top takes a toll on the agency's ability to do its job. There are aspects of running a federal agency that cannot be handled by the career employees.

The political appointees are the people who should be taking part in policy debates, making sure the Trump Administration's priorities are being followed and dealing with questions from Congress and the White House, Fugate explained.

The most important part of the job, he said, is playing defense. And once again, that's a role for the political appointee — not the career administrators who are just filling in.

As long as there is no political appointee at the top of the agency, he said "that means not having someone in place to defend the team ...

"When things go wrong, that's when you've got to take the arrows for the team. That's your job. You don't let your team take hits. FEMA's a big target."

Case in point: In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, then-President George W. Bush praised his FEMA boss, Michael W. Brown, by telling him, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

The entire state of Louisiana disagreed, accusing his agency of dragging its feet to help storm victims. "Heckuva Job" Brown was out of a job 10 days later.

Fugate said every time Obama told him he, too, was doing a heck of a job, "I cringed."

He predicted that Long, if and when he's confirmed, will do a fine job, thanks to his background.

FEMA tries to prepare the nation for any disaster, not just hurricanes, and to assist the victims of a disaster to cope with what's happened.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has asked FEMA for monetary help more than 10 times during his two terms in office, including requesting $5 million in emergency aid after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando last year. Fugate turned him down six times, noting that Scott had failed to make a sufficient case that the state could not cover its own expenses.

NOAA does more than keep an eye on the weather. Its scientists study everything from climate change to fisheries management. During the 2010 BP oil spill, the NOAA Fisheries office in St. Petersburg was in charge of dictating which areas of the Gulf of Mexico were off-limits for commercial fishing in order to protect the nation's seafood industry.

NOAA recently predicted an above-average hurricane season this year. Trump's proposed budget has targeted both NOAA and FEMA for cuts.

Nor are those the only leaderless federal agencies in Washington D.C. According to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, the White House has announced nominees for just 117 of the 559 most important Senate-confirmed positions — a far lower number than the previous three presidents at the same point in their first terms in office.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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