A Free Soil native has made history by becoming the first-ever woman to be sworn in as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Deanne Criswell, a 1984 graduate of Manistee Catholic Central, was nominated for the position by President Joe Biden in January. She was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate on April 22, and was formally sworn in this week by Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas.
Criswell has a bachelor’s degree in technology education from Colorado State University, and two master’s degrees — one in public administration, earned from the University of Colorado, and one in homeland security from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.
Her family members, many of whom live in the area, are beaming with pride, according to David Dufon, Criswell’s uncle.
“Oh God, the family is super proud,” Dufon told the Daily News. “It’s really remarkable that somebody from Free Soil is the director of FEMA. West Michigan should be proud — we’ve got somebody representing us.”
Dufon said his niece previously served as a firefighter in Colorado for 21 years and managed the office of emergency management in Auora, Colorado.
She also served in the Colorado Air National Guard, and was deployed overseas four times to teach soldiers about crisis management solutions in Kuwait, Qatar, Iraq and Afghanistan.
When she returned, she took a position as commissioner with New York City Emergency Management.
“About four months later, the pandemic hit,” Dufon said. “She navigated (New York City) through the worst pandemic it’s ever seen.”
Perhaps that’s what got the attention of the president.
“This past January, she was at work and she got a call and was asked if she would take a call from President Biden. She said she would, and he asked her if she would consider the job as FEMA director,” Dufon said. “She has 25 years of experience in this type of work, and (Biden) thought she’d be a good first for the job.”
Dufon said Criswell “gave a big shout-out” to Sen. Gary Peters, who headed the Senate confirmation hearings.
Dufon said he saw Criswell about a week ago.
“She’s still just regular Deanne to us,” he said. “This is not going to her head at all.”
Dufon said she’s focused, grounded and ready to hit the ground running in her new role.
According to a press release from FEMA, Criswell is the 12th occupant of the FEMA administrator post.
The release stated that Criswell will be tasked with “reducing the loss of life and property, protecting the nation from all hazards and leading the nation through a comprehensive emergency management system of preparedness, protection, response, recovery and mitigation.” Among other duties, she’ll be overseeing FEMA’s coordination of COVID-19 vaccination efforts, supporting humanitarian efforts at the southern border and preparing for future disasters.
In the release, Secretary Mayorkas said, “Deanne’s career is one of commitment and service to our nation… I have full confidence in her ability to lead FEMA with compassion, fairness, integrity and respect as she works to fulfill the agency’s ever-important mission: helping people before, during and after disasters.”
According to FEMA, Criswell said during her confirmation hearing that she plans to build resilient communities and infrastructure. She’s quoted in the release as saying, “There is nothing more rewarding than being able to help the people of this country.”
“She’s made quite a name for herself. She has 25 years of experience in this type of work, and (President Biden) thought she’d be a good first for the job,” Dufon said. “It’s history-making because she’s the first female to head the department.
“She’s got 14,000 people working under her… and a budget that’s billions of dollars. She’s got quite the responsibility, but if anyone can do it, she can.”