Deanne Criswell’s life took her around the world and then some, starting off as a youth growing up in Free Soil, graduating from Manistee Catholic and now running the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Criswell was appointed to the position of FEMA administrator by President Joe Biden and later confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Since April, Criswell has overseen FEMA. With such a job, it came with all sorts of well-wishes, too.
“My uncle is very proud,” Criswell said of Dave Dufon, who was thrilled with his niece’s position and let the local media know.
“It was overwhelming (to receive calls of good luck),” Criswell said, sitting in the corner near the window of Ludington’s Red Rooster Coffee & Community. “In the very beginning, it was a surprise first that I even got the phone call from then-President-Elect Biden offering me the position. It was a long process leading up to that with all of my background checks. But then, with the amount of people that reached out, it is just really amazing and exciting at the same time.
“I’m what, a little over 7 months in, and I still pinch myself that I even have this opportunity.”
Criswell graduated from Manistee Catholic in 1984, and decided to move to Las Vegas to be near her dad. Her life’s journey took her from starting college at the University of Las Vegas-Nevada to living life in Los Angeles, married with two sons. She eventually made her way to Colorado with a good personal friend.
It was in Colorado that Criswell began her life of serving, joining the Air National Guard in 1992 and joining the fire department in Aurora as a firefighter and assisting with emergency management in 1994. She was with the guard when Sept. 11 happened, and she was deployed to the Middle East twice.
She said she could have remained a firefighter for her life, but she sought more challenges.
“It’s been an amazing journey. When I talk to a lot of people about it, I could have stayed being a firefighter forever,” Criswell said. “Very stable, secure field, but I always looked for ways to challenge myself, and I took a risk leaving this secure job and going to the federal government that had little security. Opportunities opened themselves and challenges outside of my comfort zone, and one thing led to another, and that’s how I got here today. It’s been an incredible journey.
“None of it was ever planned. It was taking advantage of a new opportunity. It was a bit outside of my reach and comfort.”
Those challenges included working in FEMA’s Denver office, then leaving for other work including her most recent position prior to leading FEMA as the leader for New York City’s emergency management department.
Criswell said she keeps in mind what local emergency managers and officials go through as she works through her position at FEMA now.
“What (federal officials) need to remember, when I was in Aurora, I was in an office of three. People need to remember (for) some emergency managers, they are wearing multiple hats. They’re the only person, or they’re one of three. To tell them to find it in a policy book doesn’t work,” Criswell said. “We have to be able to remember that. The only reason we’re here is because of people.
“What drives me is that common-sense approach to what we’re doing and understanding that the other person on the other end, what you’re dealing with them is just one part of what they’re dealing with in the entire emergency.”
She also said that because of her background — growing up in Free Soil and going to school in Manistee to overseeing emergency management in a major city — shows that her agency’s response needs to be flexible based on the community impacted.
“Each jurisdiction has its own unique risk, its own unique problems. Each individual in these communities has their own risk, so remembering that (is important). New York City is the big, massive city and they have a lot of resources, but it’s even with resources, it has more complicated problems,” Criswell said. “But if you go to upstate New York and you have rural America still… Something that’s small there has such as big impact on them, which in a large city won’t have the same impact. We have to remember that. We have to remember the impacts are unique to that jurisdiction or that individual.”
Criswell said her agency typically gets attention from the press during a disaster, but it works on projects before disasters happen, as they occur and afterward. There are a number of mitigation strategies that take place with the assistance of FEMA.
When it comes to many of those natural disasters, it’s a challenging time for her agency.
“Where we are at now, in the preparedness phase or mitigation phase, we are investing to reduce the impacts from disasters. FEMA has a lot of mitigation grant programs. How do we connect with communities so they understand what their future risks are going to be so we can start to put in projects that will help to reduce the impacts,” Criswell said. “We’re not going to stop the effects of climate change, not in our generation, maybe start to slow it down for the next generation. But we can reduce the impacts that people are feeling from those weather events.”
The recently signed infrastructure bill by President Biden will assist FEMA in many of those mitigation projects, Criswell said.
“We’re going to get additional money for our mitigation programs, for our buildings, infrastructure and communities program, our flood mitigation program which buys up repetitive losses so we can buy those out and turn them into green space,” she said.
Criswell said those rivers that consistently flood and destroy homes, businesses and more are places where FEMA is trying to convince people to sell their property, move to a different location and convert that space into green space to have a far less impact on damages.
Even in the event of a disaster, Criswell said she appreciates the resiliency of small-town America.
“People are resilient. Families come together. You still live around their extended families. I’m the only one of my extended family that lives out of state any more. Everyone is close,” she said. “They help each other. They come together when needed, and you see that across the country. I think that’s what is special about a place like this.”
And a place like this for Criswell is home. It’s where her mom, Geri Morong lives, now in Manistee.
“I try to come home twice a year. My mom still lives in Manistee. We’re going to go to my Aunt Rosie’s for Thanksgiving dinner. My Uncle David will be there… It’s awesome. I don’t get to do it nearly enough. It’s the part that you miss when you’re away and you’re busy and you’re tied up with everything,” she said. “For me, it’s trying to balance it. I have my mom and extended family here. I have my oldest son (R.J.) who lives in Chippewa Falls (Wisconsin). My youngest son (Eddie) lives in Denver. My significant other lives in Iowa, so we’re bouncing all over the place all the time, but we figure it out.”