When the federal emergency management office circled around Thursday to prepare for hurricane Florence, the office's top official fought against charges of misconduct and President Trump resurrected a controversy over FEMA's response to the deadly storm that devastated Puerto Rico a year ago.
In recent days, FEMA has been confronted with increasing criticism of her reaction to hurricane Maria after the publication of two federal reports describing how the office is thin, overwhelmed and lacking in skilled personnel, and a university study that reduces the death toll in Puerto Rico. nearly 3,000. Meanwhile, FEMA administrator William & # 39; Brock & # 39; Long spent part of the Thursday trying to ward off questions about an internal investigation into his use of government vehicles and accusations that Minister of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen tried to sell.
The day started with tweets from the president who mistakenly claimed that the number of deaths attributed to Maria had been blown up by the Democrats to "make me look as bad as possible." For a long time he said that despite the distraction, he and his desk "100 percent" are focused on the hurricane. "That is exactly where our attention should go from the perspective of the life-safety mission," he said during a media message.
Current and former FEMA officials said it was alarming to see the top officials of the country engaged in political skirmishes, because Florence would come ashore with the potential to expel millions of people and destroy devastated parts of the southeast. The news, first reported by Politico, was initially advertised by current and former Trump policy officials, which fueled the sense of frustration felt by people with ties to the agency.
"The fact that someone in the board is photographing FEMA in the middle of a hurricane is insane," said a former FEMA senior official, who, like others, spoke about the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive personnel case. "Life is at stake: people work day and night to get resources and assets in their place … Why would you do that?"
The former FEMA official said that although the investigation was announced on Thursday, its existence has been known for months, making its unveiling in the middle of the storm untimely and bizarre.
The Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security examines Long for alleged use of a government vehicle to travel between Washington, DC, and his home in Hickory, NC, where a woman and two young children live, according to a DHS official who knows is with the situation.
During a media message on Thursday morning, Long denied that he was doing something wrong, saying: "I would never purposely run a program incorrectly … Doing something unethical is not part of my DNA and has not been part of my entire career track record. "
Lang said: "We will continue to cooperate fully with any research that is going on, and make mistakes and push ahead and keep going, keep on going, but here's the thing, no matter what an article, at the moment I'm 100 percent focused on hurricane." Florence.
A DHS officer who knows him said that Long was considered a mess by the investigation and that Long refused to resign last week when Nielsen asked him to resign. The official said that Nielsen has been trying to push him for months, "haunts him" because he is no longer in the office because he goes back to North Carolina at the weekend and that Long believes that Nielsen wants to replace him with someone who is loyal to her.
& # 39; This is someone who goes to church in Hickory, North Carolina, & # 39; said the official. "He is a Boy Scout, a man with a young family trying to get home to see his child's baseball games at the weekend, this is not a Scott Pruitt type."
Pruitt, who led the Environmental Protection Agency, resigned in July under the control of his expenses and travel.
Another DHS official working with Nielsen denied that she asked Long to resign or push him out. But several current and former officials of DHS and FEMA said that the argument put a leadership battle in the public spotlight.
DHS spokesperson Tyler Q. Houlton referred questions to the office of the Inspector General of the agency, saying: "At the moment we are fully focused on preparing, responding to and restoring hurricane Florence and the storms in the Pacific The Secretary has confidence in the leadership at FEMA and their proven capacity in the field of disaster management. "
A spokesperson for the inspector general's office did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Current and former FEMA officials said that for one reason, it was probably a government SUV, driven by a government official, traveling to home to North Carolina, the specialized communication on board that enabled him to maintain contact with his office and the White House – an important consideration for the official top ambitions of the nation. Other operators said that they have also used such vehicles on trips in the past, although less often.
R. David Paulison, former FEMA manager under President George W. Bush, said that during his work he rarely flew to Florida because the relentless pace kept him in Washington. "But I missed meetings with governors a few times because I flew commercially, so the White House put me on private jets in a few cases," he said. "The communication device has also changed enormously since then."
W. Craig Fugate, President Obama's FEMA administrator, said he largely drove his personal vehicle or flew at his own expense when he visited his home in Gainesville, Florida, but there were also six or seven times during his ten-year term of office. years when FEMA staff put in a government SUV, usually to keep him in safe communication with Washington.
The appointment of Long was widely praised by other auxiliary staff because of his previous experience. He was director of emergency for the state of Alabama and, before that, a FEMA regional hurricane program manager and FEMA hurricane and evacuation connection team leader.
"He is very popular in the office because he has taken many arrows for FEMA When people wanted to criticize what had happened to Harvey or Maria, he was the one who appeared on TV to take those arrows," said a former top official at FEMA.
After an internal investigation into suspected sexual misconduct by FEMA & # 39; s former chief for human relations, Long started a campaign against sexual harassment, including the creation of various committees to change the culture of the agency, what different current FEMA staff members said he had given him credibility and admiration in the ranking.
In his tweets Thursday, Trump wrongly claimed that Democrats had conspired with researchers from George Washington University to increase the estimated number of deaths of Mary. The researchers pushed back and said they were not exercising political pressure and using scientific rigor to reach their estimated 2,975 "extra deaths" from Mary and its aftermath.
Trump has also said in recent days that the FEMA action in Puerto Rico is an incredible, brash success & # 39; was, but FEMA's own prosecution report and a separate report from the Government Accountability Office have painted a bleaker picture.
FEMA's internal report acknowledged that the agency had never planned a hurricane that was as powerful and devastating as Mary, or expected two hurricanes to meet, revealing that a distress warehouse in Puerto Rico had largely been depleted of supplies such as cots. , tarpaulins and water that were sent to the US Virgin Islands to deal with the consequences of Hurricane Irma.
The GAO report described FEMA as "overwhelmed" by Maria and noticed large numbers of FEMA employees who were not qualified to do their job and in some cases were not physically fit to handle the hard work environment.
Emergency officers said that staff members of FEMA are trying to ignore the controversies.
"You have people who have worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and you have a season ahead, that means working for 40, 50 consecutive days without a break," said a former FEMA official. "People at this agency are at their best when responding to disasters, but fortunately, morale is not really a problem at the moment, people just focus on everything they can to save people's lives."
Joel Achenbach and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.