If a terrorist attack, pandemic, earthquake or hurricane is in the news, there’s a good chance Richard Reed will be on the president’s calendar.
“The good news is you know who I am,” Reed once joked when President Obama greeted him by name. “The bad news is I only bring you bad news.”
Reed serves as special assistant to the president for homeland security and senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council. In that capacity, he is often the White House’s eyes and ears when crises erupt, including the tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan, the Haiti earthquake, the influenza pandemic and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
“We keep an eye on things: Here’s what’s going on; here’s what we can do to be helpful; here’s what not to do,” Reed said.
Take, for example, when the massive earthquake struck off the coast of Japan on March 11 at 12:46 a.m. Washington time. The White House situation room called Reed within a half-hour of the quake. After coordinating with the heads of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Agency for International Development, Reed called several members of his staff to join him at work. By 2:30 a.m., Reed was at his office at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, gathering information for a meeting of senior federal officials at the White House.
Before Obama called Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan at 10:15 that morning, Reed had already been to the Oval Office to update the president on the situation and the actions underway.
“It’s an intense process of making sure you have all the right players at the table,” Reed said.
Reed, 47, is one of four finalists for the 2011 Homeland Security Medal in the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal awards from the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. The medals will be awarded in nine categories of civil service in September.
“He’s just a relentless problem-solver,” said Maura O’Neill, senior counselor to the administrator at USAID. “Failure is impossible.”
After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Reed was instrumental in getting an air-traffic control system set up that enabled planes to arrive with medical supplies and aid workers, she said.
Reed is known for flying below the radar, using a mix of diplomacy and tenacity to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems, associates said. With his personable style, he has a knack for getting people from divergent and often competing agencies — local, state, federal or international — and getting them to collaborate.
Reed “takes ordinary people and has them do extraordinary things,” O’Neill said.
Reed is also the principal drafter of the National Continuity Policy, the blueprint that guides how the government keeps functioning in the event of a catastrophe, be it a nuclear, chemical or biological attack, a devastating earthquake or hurricane, or other threat as yet unknown.
The plan is a major change in how the government prepares for disaster, moving from a Cold War mentality geared toward a Soviet nuclear attack to an “all hazard” approach. “Post 9/11, we became more aware of asymmetrical threats, not knowing what the threat could be,” Reed said.
He also pressed for an “all-government” approach that required every federal department and agency to develop its own disaster plans. “We came up with a policy that pushed the responsibility of continuity to everyone,” he said.
The plan encompasses every agency in government, from the Department of Defense to the Marine Mammal Commission. “I had no idea how big the federal government is,” Reed said, joking.
Among other innovations, Reed pushed the use of mobile technology and social media to keep the government communicating and functioning in a disaster.
A native of North Carolina, Reed is the son of an Army command sergeant major and lived overseas when his father was stationed in Germany. “Four years in Europe as a teenager kind of changed my life,” he said.
He served as an Airborne Ranger in the Army. After his discharge, he worked as a clinical social worker for the Veterans Administration, helping soldiers transition from military to civilian life, and eventually running the VA’s 24-hour readiness operations center.
His work at FEMA led to his assignment to the White House in 2006, leading the interagency drafting of the national continuity policy.
Reed subsequently left the White House to establish the General Services Administration’s agency-wide disaster response office. Since 2008, he has been detailed to the White House. After Obama took office, Reed was among the few senior White House officials who were kept in their positions.
In recent months, he has dealt with multiple disasters, including the wildfires around Los Alamos, N.M., tornadoes and the flooding in Minot, N.D.
“A lot of people are good at holding meetings,” said Robert Jensen, deputy spokesman for the National Security Council. Reed “gets there on the ground and sees what’s going on.”
Other finalists for the Homeland Security Medal include William Arrington, general manager for the Highway and Motor Carrier Security Division with the Transportation Security Administration, who runs a program that trains truck and bus drivers to report suspicious activities; C. Norman Coleman, associate director of the Radiation Research Program at the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, who developed a blueprint for the United States to respond to the health consequences of a radiological or nuclear incident; and Amy Werten and her team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who helped guide the response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill by providing information on the blow of oil and weather conditions.