Florida’s Emergency Chief Hopes Agency Turmoil Is Over

June 3, 2010

Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, under a second director since Craig Fugate left a year ago to run its federal counterpart, is getting a jump start on the hurricane season.

With the storm season to begin Tuesday, the agency has already been on partial activation because of the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that threatens Florida’s beaches.

Gov. Charlie Crist shook up the office in January by putting David Halstead in charge. That was after Reuben Almaguer, Crist’s initial pick to follow Fugate, resigned under pressure that Almaguer had accused Halstead of stirring up.

Halstead, who had been deputy director, has since won a vote of confidence from Crist and the state’s environmental chief, Mike Sole, over the agency’s oil spill response.

“His leadership has helped us move this and move the state’s effort forward,” said Sole, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. “Without his help we couldn’t do it.”

Crist, who is trying to balance an independent bid for the U.S. Senate with his gubernatorial responsibilities, says things couldn’t be going better under Halstead.

“From everything I’ve seen, he’s done great,” Crist said. “I have great confidence in him.”

Problems began at Emergency Management in early 2009 when President Barack Obama appointed Fugate to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Under Fugate, the state agency had been a national model for disaster preparedness.

Crist appointed Almaguer as interim director but his eight months were dotted by accusations of discriminating against women, misstating travel savings, making improper purchases and creating a hostile work environment. Almaguer, who had been second in command under Fugate, denied the allegations and largely blamed Halstead for maneuvering his ouster.

Halstead said the turmoil within the agency quickly subsided.

“When the changes were made, my staff gave me a standing ovation,” he said. “I’ve certainly been welcomed by open arms.”

Halstead, 56, said the biggest changes at the Emergency Operations Center since he took over have been mostly technological.

“We can go out literally within hours of the event and have real-time photos and real-time damage reports, maybe sometimes even before the county has them,” he said.

“The social medias are important, but basically we’re using Google Earth technology,” he said. “We have a tool here that helps you identify exactly where events are occurring that we will use on the oil spill and hurricane events. It’ll help us with damage assessment and also with response.”

Halstead came to the agency in 1999, after spending nearly 30 years as a firefighter in central Florida. He won the attention of former EOC boss Joe Myers during the devastating wildfires in 1998. He was also a first-responder after Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992 and again when Hurricane Katrina blasted across Florida before heading into Louisiana in 2005.

A Minnesota native who moved to Florida when he was 7, Halstead began his firefighting career as a teenager with a small volunteer department. He later became a paid firefighter for the city of Altamonte Springs, where he retired in 1998 as an assistant fire chief.

Halstead now has his own team in place, starting with his own replacement. He persuaded Michael DeLorenzo to come back from retirement to head the state’s emergency response team.

DeLorenzo had previously served in several technical and management positions with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“When the governor made the changes, I had to go through a long thought process about who to bring in,” Halstead said.

He also has a new meteorologist, Amy Godsey, a 2006 graduate of Florida State University. She replaced Ben Nelson, whose calm presence during some hectic storm seasons was highly valued by former Gov. Jeb Bush and Crist. Nelson went to work for the National Weather Service in Key West.

With an oil slick threatening Florida from the west and hurricane season on deck — both in a strange, volatile election year — the performance of Halstead and his team will be closely watched.

“There’s a reason I got into this business and I’ve stayed in it,” Halstead said. “I like helping people.”

And he didn’t have to wait long to get started.

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