Marion M. McFadden and some of her colleagues had to see things for themselves.
They were in Washington, having been assigned to work on policy and coordination issues in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. They had seen the televised results of the superstorm’s rampage along the East Coast, but there is no substitute for being a witness.
So they traveled north and drove around New York City, Staten Island and Breezy Point.
McFadden, chief operating officer and later executive director of the White House’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, said she remembered New York in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She’d worked on the distribution of recovery funds back then. She had also visited areas hit by Hurricane Katrina.
Yet the scale of Sandy’s destruction still shocked her.
Their group was visiting in February, four months after the storm, but debris was still scattered in yards and through the streets. Homes were devastated. Some were boarded up. Some were just gone. They also saw several families out trying to make repairs. Block after block, McFadden saw the same image: abandonment mixed with resilience.
“You can take our home . . . but you can’t take our heart!” read the graffiti on a building in Staten Island.
“You can’t just sit behind your desk in Washington and think you’re going to know what’s going on,” McFadden said, recalling that experience.
In October 2012, Sandy damaged or outright destroyed more than 650,000 homes and hundreds of thousands of businesses, according to the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy report. On Dec. 7 of that year, President Obama signed an executive order that created the 180-day Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force.
As a task force leader, McFadden coordinated conversations meant to tackle the mountain of problems that arrived after the devastation. Those talks were across local, regional and state governments, community members, advocacy groups, nonprofits and 23 federal agencies. The goal: To focus on how to rebuild and how to prepare communities to deal with any future storms. At the center of their mission was how to best use almost $50 billion in appropriation funds from Congress.
McFadden would often find herself juggling multiple conversations. At the D.C. office, she and many others operated on a 24/7 clock. Laurel A. Blatchford, former executive director of the task force and chief of staff for Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, recalls McFadden keeping a suit jacket under her desk for any impromptu meeting.
Now McFadden is a finalist for the Management Excellence Medal as part of the 2014 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, or the Sammies. The medals, given in several categories by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, are among the most prestigious awards for federal employees. The winners will be announced in September.
McFadden grew up in Connecticut, where her mother was an Episcopal priest and her father an active church member. Though McFadden doesn’t describe herself as “very religious,” she said it was her parents’ religious foundation that sparked her commitment to service.
Her first internship was working at a local soup kitchen. Her first job after college was with City Year, a national education-focused group. She attended law school at Howard University with the intent of ultimately helping low- and moderate- income people.
After law school, she went to work for HUD as a lawyer with the department’s Community Development Block Grant program.
A year later, terrorists used planes as missiles, and McFadden found herself working in HUD’s Disaster Recovery Assistance grant program.
Since then, she’s continued to gain expertise in long-term recovery planning, having also worked on Hurricane Katrina, the Midwestern floods of 2008 and now Sandy.
“There is no time when people need the government more than when their community has been devastated,” McFadden said.
She was originally detailed to the Sandy task force as legal counsel, but her disaster-recovery experience — and the fact that she just took on more work than assigned — persuaded Blatchford to give McFadden a more active leadership role.
Her role as a coordinator was critical. One of the major criticisms during Katrina — besides that the government did not move with urgency — was that it wasn’t coordinated enough, McFadden said.
“The tension is that you can never get money to families that have been put out of their home, and you can never get money in the hands of small businesses fast enough,” McFadden said. “There’s an amount of time for Congress to make an appropriation and you have to go through the steps of how are we going to use the money best and most efficiently and coordinated.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency was on the ground immediately after the storm, but Congress took nearly four months to get the Sandy recovery funding passed. It was a major source of frustration for communities affected by the hurricane.
“Time is of the essence after a disaster, and government is known for moving at the speed of government,” McFadden said.
Congress may have taken its time, Blatchford said, but she’s proud that McFadden’s and the task force’s “silo breaking” remained on track. They got federal agencies and others to collaborate — no easy task, especially when everyone has different ideas of how to get things done.
One of McFadden’s biggest challenges was in New Jersey, where advocacy groups filed a complaint under the Fair Housing Act, saying the state’s implementation of its recovery program was flawed.
“Sometimes folks like to say there’s no politics in disaster recovery. I wouldn’t say that’s entirely true because the politics play into the policy decisions that get made,” McFadden said.
“Everybody wanted to get to success, it was just that people had different definitions of what success might look like,” she added. McFadden led negotiations that eventually ended in a bipartisan settlement.
The task force also launched an international design competition called Rebuild by Design.
In addition, it documented risk-reduction standards meant to create more resilient infrastructure — something that needed to be addressed since Katrina, said Robin Barnes, senior policy adviser on small businesses for the task force.
Barnes, who had dealt with disaster recovery in Louisiana through the nonprofit Greater New Orleans Inc., had never worked for the federal government before. She reported to McFadden.
“She’s not your typical bureaucrat in that she sees the possibilities of how policies and regulations can be maximized,” Barnes said of McFadden.
According to the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy progress update, final proposals from the Rebuild by Design competition have been unveiled for flood-control projects. As of June, $9.81 billion of the appropriated funds have been spent.
Congress allocated enough money to clear waiting lists for grantees working on housing projects, McFadden said. New York has almost cleared its list, and New Jersey is still working on clearing its roster, she said. Still, to rebuild so that communities can withstand future storms, states and regional groups will have to chip in, too.
Things may be moving along, said McFadden, who will soon become HUD’s deputy assistant secretary of grant programs. But she underscores a reality in the wake of any disaster.
“It’s never fast enough.”