Go Inside FEMA: How a Rhode Island native oversees the nation’s response to disaster

Special Reports

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WPRI) — Disaster can strike at any moment, and it’s Peter Gaynor’s job to make sure the country is ready to respond.

The Warwick native has seen his share over the past 12 years, having gone from the Providence Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) to the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA) to a top spot in our nation’s capital.

“Local, state and then federal, so I think I have a pretty good perspective about what emergency management is at the lowest level and the highest level,” Gaynor said in an exclusive interview with Eyewitness News.

Gaynor quickly rose through the ranks in Washington. He joined the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Oct. 2018 and just four months later, he was tapped as acting administrator with the retirement of then-Administrator Brock Long.

Less than a year after that, this past January, he was named the agency’s full-time administrator.

“There are times it is very surrealistic,” he said. “Going to the White House, going to the Oval Office to brief the president, being on Air Force One or Marine One with the vice president, or with local elected leaders out on disaster sites.”

Just outside Gaynor’s office at the National Response Coordination Center hangs a picture of him alongside President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

“My first interaction with the president — we were on Air Force One going to see a tornado disaster in Alabama, so I got to meet him on my first day, him and his staff,” Gaynor recalled.

The center is where the federal government coordinates responses to various emergencies by compiling data from all over the country.

“One of our core goals is to prepared for catastrophic disaster,” Gaynor said. “We want to make sure we’re ready for it and our partners are ready for it.”

Gaynor graduated from Pilgrim High School and Rhode Island College before serving 26 years in the Marine Corps. Just as he retired in 2007, disaster struck his home state in the form of what’s known as the “December Debacle” — an ill-timed winter storm that stranded vehicles for hours on area roads and highways.

Gaynor later joined RIEMA in 2015, just as a blizzard hit the state. The storm was eventually declared a major disaster by President Barack Obama.

He’s also seen a flurry of hurricane activity in recent years.

“We’ve had the two biggest hurricane seasons in history. The 2017 and 2018 years were the biggest for FEMA,” Gaynor said. “We spent more money in those two years than in the 38 years FEMA has been in existence.”

Gaynor deals in more than just natural disasters, however. When it comes to acts of terrorism like the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings, FEMA administers Homeland Security grants that states can use to prepare.

“Billions of dollars open for locals and states to close their gaps on things they need to become stronger when it comes to terrorism,” he explained. “Cybersecurity is a big deal. Fusion centers, training exercises, equipment. We provide those grants so states can build that capacity at the local level.”

Gaynor said FEMA’s greatest challenge right now is trying to convince people they need to always be ready for disaster.

“I encourage every citizen of the United States to make sure they are prepared, their family is prepared, prepare your business,” he said. “If everyone did a little bit more today, you would have more prepared neighborhoods, communities, locals, states, and we would have a more prepared nation.”

Web Extra: Full interview with Peter Gaynor

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