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New FEMA boss with Colorado Springs ties worries about fires, floods

December 5, 2017 Updated: December 5, 2017 at 8:26 pm
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photo - <p>Lee dePalo Region 8 Administrator</p>

Lee dePalo Region 8 Administrator

 

Biblical plagues, fires, earthquakes, terror attacks, industrial disasters of epic scale - they all have a spot in the back of the mind of Lee dePalo, the top pessimist in the Rockies.

A Colorado Springs native and Air Force Academy graduate, dePalo spends his days pondering the end of days in his new job as regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Lately, he's watching the weather with a wary eye as storms pile snow on parts of Montana that were blackened by summer wild fires.

"One of the things that I want to make sure we are well-postured for is the spring flooding possibility," he said.

FEMA offers federal aid in disasters that have overwhelmed state and local resources. The agency has gotten mixed reviews for its work over the past year, with praise for responses to wildfires in California and hurricanes in Texas and criticism for its response to devastating storms that ripped Puerto Rico.

For dePalo, the disasters of 2017 brought lessons that he wants to capture.

The region he oversees, which includes Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas, sent hundreds of workers to help deal with the storms and fires. They're now being asked to gather what they have learned for a conference in early 2018.

"It is invaluable experience to work disasters at that level," dePalo said.

Disasters and dePalo have a long history together.

In the Air Force, he flew combat rescue helicopters. That's a mission that requires pilots to stand ready to fly into enemy territory to pull pilots from danger.

It's a job that requires endless practice and planning to respond to unplanned events, dePalo said.

"If something bad happens you are ready to go," he said.

After logging 3,800 flight hours and retiring from the Air Force in 2014, dePalo came home to Colorado for a FEMA job. He started in the regional FEMA as a response coordinator before he was promoted to response division director in 2015.

He was named acting regional administrator this year and was given the job on a permanent basis in November.

He is one of few regional administrators to rise to the title from within the agency's ranks.

Leadership experience earned in the Air Force helped him seal the job.

"It was about command and control," dePalo said. "It was about planning and logistics and getting people on the road quickly."

For FEMA, dePalo wants to make the agency more nimble and prepared to respond quickly when disaster strikes.

He also wants to get local governments prepared for the worst with his workers "building those capabilities."

FEMA, he said, was never designed to be the first line of defense in disasters. Instead, it is a system that brings in federal capabilities to deal with the worst of the worst scenarios.

"It does take time to get that machine in motion," he said.

Now, with weather set to hit the northern tier of states, flooding is the biggest near-term concern. After that, he'll focus on fires. It's a cycle of dread he's gotten accustomed to.

"Preparation for something bad happening is our life," he said. "I want to make sure we plan to the levels we need."

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

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