FEMA provides this veteran with a sense of purpose and an opportunity to serve.
By David Cummings
Jeff Byard’s first day on the job at FEMA didn’t include meeting team members, decorating his office and taking congratulatory calls. Following his confirmation and appointment to the position of associate administrator for the Office of Response and Recovery, he was, in the words of country music legend Johnny Cash, “in the Ring of Fire.”
“I didn’t even find my office until about 80 days on the job,” Byard says.
After being sworn in on Sept. 1, 2017, Byard had to start making significant decisions on Day 1. It was the middle of one of the most hellacious stretches of bad weather in American history. Hurricane Harvey was near the end of its destruction in Texas and Louisiana, but Hurricane Irma and Maria were on their way. If that wasn’t enough, wildfires were spreading rapidly in California. “We had multiple concurrent major disasters,” Byard says. “The events we were dealing with were outstanding and historic. The agency moved more people, commodities, and support in 60 days than we did the previous 12 years combined. That included Katrina, Sandy, and Wilma.”
Byard credited his background as a Marine and former staff member with the state of Alabama’s Emergency Management Division for preparing him to meet the challenge he faced. FEMA administrator at the time, Brock Long, determined Byard’s initial work proved he was the right man for the job. “Jeff is an excellent example of the value that military veterans bring to our workforce and the entire emergency management community,” Long says. “Jeff has utilized the leadership skills developed in the military to manage some of the most complex and logistically challenging disasters in U.S. history.”
Byard never believed he wasn’t prepared to handle the mission. “I relied on my Marine training,” he says of his four years serving as a corporal and infantry squad leader during Operation Desert Storm. While he was in Alabama, Byard oversaw the response and recovery after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the most massive oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry that leaked an estimated 210 million gallons of gasoline into the Gulf of Mexico. A short time later, in 2011, a super outbreak of tornadoes caused devastation throughout the Southeast, Midwest, and Northeast United States. In total, 361 confirmed tornadoes touched down in 21 states from Texas to New York. Alabama had 238 tornado-related deaths in one day. Byrd says quick-hitting events like that put life, and his job, in perspective. “You understand property can be replaced, but lives can’t,” Byard says.
Byard says once again; his military training prepared him to deal with the total devastation of the tornadoes. “There’s always a time in an operation where you have to go in that dark corner and for a minute say, ‘This is what you’re made of.’ And you realize it’s about the team, and you will not let the team down in your role,” Byard says. “I had to put any hesitation aside and make sure I did my role. In this case, it was to eliminate any roadblocks or impediments to prevent the tremendous skill set that we have on our team at FEMA to accomplish a mission.”
Byard understands why many veterans have a tough time acclimating to civilian life. He said that when he finished his tour of duty, he was lucky his first job out of Troy University in Alabama placed him with a contingent of veterans. “We’re a unique set,” Byard says of soldiers. “We think about things differently. That’s not a negative comment about anyone who’s not a veteran. We have a unique language and a sense of humor. Being around veterans helped me a lot because what veterans do best is teach, coach, and mentor.”
Byard’s leadership is one reason he came close to replacing Long as the head of FEMA. Back in September, his nomination was pulled after an accusation surfaced that he had been in a physical altercation. The FBI had determined the allegation was unsubstantiated, but that was not enough to keep him in line for the job. Byard remains with FEMA and continues to do his job to the best of his ability. He also remains committed to helping young veterans. They may not have on the uniform, but their skills and training can be utilized in any situation. He knows from first-hand experience the impact a superior officer or boss can have on the people they lead. “I know a good leader needs a lot of dedicated followers, and a good leader is a good follower,” Byard says.