SACRAMENTO, Calif. - For FEMA planning branch chief Dennis McKeown, being on the road is usually part of his job. But with two months straight of disasters like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and then one of the worst wildfire clusters California has ever seen, nothing can compare to 2017.
“Yea, this season was ... unique,” he said. “The number of storms, the intensity of the storms, and how quickly they’ve grown into these large-scale cyclones and impacted [people]. So [this season] stands out certainly.”
He’s done the calculations. And in his 22-years so far, tallying up all his trips, he’s been on the road for over three solid years. The only storm he hasn't been to this season? Hurricane Irma in Florida.
He’s able to keep a positive demeanor about being on the road for almost the entirety of the last two months because he knows that at the end of the day he has a home and bed to go home to — when someone he meets in his line of work does not.
“I think in terms of the people that work in this business there is some sacrifice from their personal life perspective, for the work. But then on the other hand, it’s kind of a privilege to help when folks need it. And yea, we do get to go home.”
In his role at FEMA—where he’s been for 22 years and counting — McKeown assists ahead of a disaster in terms of coordinating planning efforts, during the actual event with emergency response and search and rescue teams, and on the back end helps with long term needs like getting people housing, food, and water.
His position has taken him to some of the worst disasters in recent memory, including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy. This week, he’s assisting at the California emergency operations center as federal, state, and local coordinated efforts to battle the wildfires in wine country continue.
Fires are challenging, he says, because in terms of devastation “they destroy everything.”
“There really isn’t anything left for the homeowner to go back to.”
In Puerto Rico, the challenges were logistical ones. And McKeown said that, yes, he was well aware of the criticism that FEMA has faced in the wake of the government’s response to the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, but he said he can’t let that affect his ability to do his work.
“There’s enough intrinsic award in terms of the work we do that that criticism doesn’t intrude at that moment.”
He’s thankful his family — at their home in Oakland, California — understand the reasons he does what he does.
“But at the end of the day it’s just taking care of people that’s just what brings you to the work,” McKeown said.
The best part of it all, he says, is seeing how we as Americans come together in the face of disaster.
“I think what’s common amongst the communities I see is just how people pull together and how the communities are strong,” he said. “And if we work from that perspective, that’s where we are most effective.”