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How Deanne Criswell blazed a trail from fighting fires to running FEMA




CNN

Standing in front of a destroyed warehouse in tornado-ravaged Marietta, Oklahoma, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Diane Creswell It was full of questions.

“Have you gotten any sleep yet?” I asked the mayor.

To the Sheriff: “Is your house okay? Your family?”

“Do you have any questions for me?” I asked another official.

It’s an approach that symbolizes Criswell’s attitude toward disaster relief: On the ground in this small rural community in the aftermath of a devastating EF-4 tornado, her first priority is people.

after A wave of deadly tornadoes hit OklahomaCNN joined Criswell for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how she and her agency deal with natural disasters.

Her message to officials is clear and direct: “You don’t have to do this alone.”

The reaction from local leaders and survivors alike is uniformly one of gratitude that the country’s top emergency response official came to their town to see the damage and hear their stories firsthand.

But Cresswell ignored the praise and thanks.

“This is what I do,” she said.

Long before becoming FEMA administrator, Criswell began her career as a firefighter in Aurora, Colorado — the sixth woman to hold that position.

“I never thought I would become a firefighter,” she told CNN in an interview. “This wasn’t on my list of things to do.”

At the time, Creswell was going through a divorce, and—juggling between a college education and being a single mother of two boys—decided to join the Colorado Air National Guard to help make ends meet. When she had to choose between loading bombs or fighting fires, she chose the latter.

Courtesy Diane Cresswell

Deanne Criswell works as a firefighter in Aurora, Colorado.

“The firefighters were having so much fun, I said, ‘I’ll try it,'” she said, smiling. “I loved it, I was good at it, and I said, ‘I’ll come back and this is the job I’m going to do.’”

It’s a mission Cresswell will do for more than two decades, including two overseas deployments to Kuwait and Qatar after 9/11. Along the way, she graduated from college, earned two master’s degrees, and eventually rose to lead the Aurora Office of Emergency Management, where she worked to shelter evacuees and reunite families displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

She joined the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during the Obama administration, where she helped oversee the agency’s response to natural disasters across the country. In 2019, she became the first woman to lead New York City’s Department of Emergency Management, where — after less than a year on the job — she helped navigate the city through the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, as the top official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Creswell hopes her unconventional career path will encourage others to seize opportunities and take professional risks.

“You have to be able to let the journey help guide you along the way,” she said. “Be confident in yourself, take personal risks if necessary, and put in the work to get to the level you want to reach.”

When Criswell was unanimously confirmed as the 12th Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — becoming the first woman to hold that position — shattering the glass ceiling was not top of mind.

“When I was first asked to come in and do this job, I didn’t really think about it,” she admitted.

That changed in her first week on the job.

“One of my younger employees came up to me after a meeting and said, ‘A year ago, there was no woman in my chain of command between me and the president of the United States,’” Creswell said. “Now there are five.” And what that told me was that people noticed that, right?

Cresswell knows from experience the obstacles women can face in their field of work.

“When I was starting out in my career, there was always a balance between showing your confidence and competence by being called the B word,” she said, admitting that the term had been directed at her “several times” during her career.

“You have to believe in yourself that you deserve a seat at that table, and that you deserve to have your voice heard,” she said.

Now that she is a woman in a key leadership role in the federal government, Creswell is using her position to help amplify the voices of the women under her leadership.

“I like to watch how women express their opinions, or maybe I can see if they’re afraid to express their opinions and help encourage them,” she told CNN. “And when someone says something, I’ll immediately jump in and say, ‘Well, that’s a really great idea, right?’ And by giving that validation at that time, I think it’s important, especially as a leader in the room, to always be aware of the dynamics of what’s going on within That conversation.

This dynamic is already changing, as women chaired Creswell’s first meeting in Oklahoma, with state emergency management leaders and regional officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

During his three years as administrator, Criswell logged more than 100,000 miles of travel, visiting disaster areas in every corner of the United States.

Creswell said seeing the devastation firsthand is critical to the decisions she makes when determining FEMA’s response.

“It helps me get out of the routine,” she said. “It helps me break down bureaucracy in order to make sure it’s more than just numbers — it’s just people.”

Creswell stresses the importance of taking the time to listen directly to victims. Otherwise, she said, “You can’t feel those feelings, you can’t feel the heartache.”

Courtesy Diane Cresswell

Deanne Criswell during her deployment overseas with the Colorado Air National Guard.

It also allows her to meet officials at all levels. In Oklahoma, Criswell made a point of meeting with first responders, local leaders, state emergency management officials and representatives of affected tribal nations.

Creswell understands that disaster relief transcends party, an approach that has earned her respect and appreciation from across the political spectrum.

“When disaster strikes and there are people in need, we are all Americans,” Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt told CNN shortly after he and Criswell appeared at a news conference. “And I think that’s the official’s position. These are the federal agencies that we have to work with regardless of who’s in the White House.”

Cresswell agrees.

“This type of partnership is critical to making sure we are bringing the right people into these communities to help meet their specific needs,” she said.

“We’ll be in touch — you have my number,” she added, shaking the governor’s hand.

At the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington, D.C., the agency’s motto is prominently displayed on the wall: “Helping People Before, During and After Disasters.”

It’s a mission statement that Cresswell takes to heart. “I wanted to make sure we put people first,” she said when she arrived at the job.

As a former director of emergency management for the city, Creswell knew well FEMA’s reputation for bureaucratic red tape and complex relief programs that made it difficult to get help to people who needed it.

“We are an agency that deals with risk every day – that’s the nature of what we do, but when it comes to our policies, we can sometimes be more risk averse,” she says. “I wanted to get away from that. I wanted us to really understand what it means to put people first.”

Her solution was to listen.

“I went to different open disasters and listened to our people, listened to governors, listened to real people who were affected about the barriers they were facing,” Creswell said. “And then we were able to address those issues by making changes.”

And the result was The most comprehensive reforms for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster assistance programs over two decades.

The changes, which took effect in March, include:

  • Automatically provides disaster victims with $750 to cover urgent expenses and basic household needs.
  • Providing funds to people displaced by disasters in advance to give them more flexibility when it comes to finding temporary housing.
  • Expanding eligibility for FEMA assistance and streamlining the appeals process
  • Remove the rule requiring survivors to apply for a Small Business Administration loan before they can be considered for financial assistance from FEMA; They can now apply for both at the same time.
  • Simplifies rules to allow victims to receive up to $42,500 in FEMA assistance for costs not reimbursed by insurance companies.
  • Allowing FEMA to make repairs to damaged homes regardless of their prior condition and allowing survivors with disabilities to use FEMA funds to make their homes more accessible.

Creswell believes the changes will be transformative and will make it easier for FEMA to have an immediate impact on the ground.

“We can actually help people on their path to recovery in a way that makes sense, rather than restricting them with some of the regulations that we have,” she said.

This focus on helping people extends to its employees as well. Recognizing the toll that responding to an endless stream of natural disasters can have on her team’s mental health, Creswell created a “wellness room” outside the nerve center of FEMA’s headquarters—equipped with comfy chairs and a soothing live feed of birds at the feeder.

“This is a place where they can come to spend time,” she said. “We have to be able to invest in our employees and we have to be able to give them, not just support, but permission to recognize when they need a break.”

To her staff, she is “Director Cresswell.” But to her family, she is known by a different nickname.

“I’m affectionately known as ‘Grandma Cookie,’” she admitted.

Courtesy Diane Cresswell

Dean Criswell with her children in Washington, D.C., to attend her Senate confirmation hearing.

Despite a career full of demanding jobs, Cresswell never lost sight of her other calling: that of a mother of two adult sons and a grandmother of three.

It didn’t come without sacrifices, between multiple deployments and constant travel to different disaster areas. But when Criswell appeared before Congress for her confirmation hearing, her children were by her side.

“When they were with me that day and you could see how proud they were and how successful they were, it gave me a really warm feeling as a mother,” she said.



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