This won’t make headlines, but it concerns me because it relates to a governmental body that I consider important. FEMA flourished under the Obama years — it has been less than stellar so far during the Trump Administration, especially its (non)handling of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. And now this:
Two top public-affairs officers of the Federal Emergency Management Agency have resigned over the past month, with one complaining that as the agency faced unprecedented challenges in responding to hurricanes, its top public-affairs official was excluded from meetings because of her gender.
Former FEMA press secretary Paul McKellips, who resigned on February 12, wrote in his resignation letter that FEMA’s front office was a “boys club” that excluded the former head of external affairs, Susan Phalen. “When the front office shut her out, you effectively shut me out as well,” McKellips wrote. Phalen announced her resignation in early February.
The letter suggests Phalen was excluded from key meetings and that her strategies for promoting the agency were ignored because senior FEMA leaders favored male executives over female executives. “No matter how hard or how often she asked for a seat at the table, she was neither invited to strategic planning meetings nor given access to leadership,” McKellips wrote.
The resignations come as FEMA has faced significant pressure over its response to a historic hurricane season with a trio of hurricanes causing immense damage in Florida, Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Congress has given FEMA over $40 billion since last year, with the most recent infusion of $23.5 billion coming earlier this month.
In his two-page resignation letter dated February 12 and obtained by POLITICO through a person close to FEMA, McKellips wrote that FEMA was not properly using its resources, including “expensive camera equipment,” to promote the agency and criticized FEMA Administrator Brock Long for not appreciating social media. But he also wrote that he “observed firsthand that [Phalen] was unable to penetrate the ‘boys club’ in your front office. Female executives are not treated the same way as their male counterparts at FEMA.”
He concluded, “The blatant disregard for the role of External Affairs is astonishing.”
The accusation that FEMA leadership treated female executives different than male ones comes amid a broader societal reckoning with gender disparities inside and outside the workplace. Last week, during a Black History Month event at the Department of Agriculture, Rosetta Davis, a longtime USDA employee, said she had consensual sex with a former boss in exchange for a promotion and named several other former USDA executives as contributing to a hostile work environment.
McKellips, who joined FEMA in September after previously working as a public affairs officer with the U.S. Army, wrote that he was informed by Phalen that FEMA wanted a “clean slate” and he was therefore resigning as press secretary. He did not make any allegations of sexual harassment at FEMA.
Booher, in his statement to POLITICO, did not address the accusations but said, “FEMA is thankful for all of our personnel who served and supported disaster survivors during the historic 2017 season.”
Phalen joined FEMA in August just before Hurricane Harvey slammed into Houston. According to her LinkedIn profile, she had spent the previous six years as a communications director for two committees in Congress and before that served as the director of strategic communications and public affairs for the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Hurricane Harvey dropped over 50 inches of rain on the Houston region, leading to a massive response from federal and state emergency management authorities. Two weeks later, Hurricane Irma struck the west coast of Florida, pummeling the Florida Keys and Tampa. Then, on September 20, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, leaving millions of Puerto Rican residents without power. Six months later, roughly a sixth of the island remains without power.
According to the person close to FEMA, Long and others in FEMA’s leadership team were upset with the external affairs department over the news coverage of the agency’s response to Hurricane Maria.
FEMA’s efforts were often depicted as inadequate, with many former FEMA officials and military leaders suggesting that the agency underestimated the storm. FEMA argued that its response was effective, noting that the historic hurricane stressed the agency’s resources and that the island’s outdated infrastructure created unprecedented response challenges.