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Trump’s FEMA director is facing his first big challenge with Hurricane Harvey

The agency also faces staff shortages and potential budget cuts.

President Trump Visits Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Headquarters
Trump visits FEMA ahead Hurricane Harvey.
Photo by Michael Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images

President Trump’s administration is facing its first major natural disaster with Hurricane Harvey, the massive storm that’s pummeling southern Texas. Harvey was downgraded to a tropical storm on Saturday afternoon, but it’s still expected to dump up to 40 inches of rain on parts of Texas and cause severe flooding.

Trump filled the spot of FEMA director in June, after it was vacant for 6 months. So far, his choice of Brock Long is inspiring confidence in state emergency officials, in large part because Long spent many years as a state emergency official.

FEMA has bounced back from its diminished reputation under the George W. Bush administration, when former FEMA director Michael Brown was blasted for the lack of government response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Obama FEMA director Craig Fugate has been widely credited with turning the agency around, focusing on community preparedness. Many hope Long will continue the same work. Still he’s taking over an agency that’s missing key staff and facing steep cuts under Trump’s proposed budget.

Here are five things to know about Long, the man who is heading up the US response to Hurricane Harvey:

He’s been in emergency management a long time

Long directed Alabama’s Emergency Management Agency from 2008 to 2011, where he worked on numerous natural disasters and coordinated the state’s response and cleanup after Deepwater Horizon, the largest marine oil spill in US history.

Long is widely respected by state emergency management officials and policymakers. “He’s got the relationships throughout emergency management, throughout the states. He has the respect of the people who do this every day, which is vitally important,” former FEMA administrator Barry Scanlon recently told NPR’s Brian Naylor. Long was confirmed by the Senate in June on a 95-4 vote.

He still doesn’t have key staff

FEMA is part of the Department of Homeland Security, which is currently without a leader after former DHS secretary Gen. John Kelly became President Trump’s new chief of staff late last month, amid a staff shakeup there. Elaine Duke is currently serving as the acting secretary for DHS. There are plenty of rumors flying around about who Trump might nominate to replace Kelly, but the president hasn’t formally put forth a name. There are plenty of other vacancies at DHS too, including Long’s own deputy administrator.

He’s heading up an agency that’s facing budget cuts

Being part of DHS is somewhat of a double-edged sword for FEMA. On the one hand, immigration-focused DHS is one of Trump’s favorite agencies, and he wants to give it more money. On the other hand, the White House has actually proposed cutting money from FEMA and instead shifting it to his proposed border wall, and to US border agents. While Trump’s 2018 budget proposal contains more money for disaster assistance, it would also cut grant money to help states prepare for a disaster by $667 million.

Long wants state and local governments to pay more

Despite protests from state officials, Long has been vocal that state and local entities need to contribute more to disaster preparedness and recovery.

“We can’t afford to completely sustain or supplement programs through federal grants alone,” he told the Washington Post in a recent interview. “This is a partnership. We have to have an honest conversation with states, with state and local governments, as to what is the right balance for sustaining programs in responding and recovery.”

He’s not alone in this, his Obama-era predecessor Fugate argued for the same thing, saying state and local government should shoulder more of the cost after a natural disaster. The idea behind it is, if states and municipalities have to pay more, it will incentivize them to get buildings up to code, have smarter regional planning to prepare for future disasters. Fugate and Long have both floated a so-called “disaster deductible,” where states pay a chunk of up-front costs before the federal government steps in to help out.

He has side-stepped the climate change issue

For someone whose job is to deal with natural disasters, Long has so far declined to say whether he thinks climate change is caused by humans (the overwhelming scientific evidence says it is).

In a recent interview with Bloomberg’s Christopher Flavelle, Long pointed to “deep water ocean currents, El Nino and other ‘intrinsic cycles’ as reasons for changes in weather patterns.” He added that his job wasn’t to determine what the cause of natural disasters is, but to help states, cities and towns deal with them.

“The term climate change has become such a political hot button that I think it keeps us from having a real dialogue,” he said.