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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson November 15, 2012

After Sandy, White House taps Shaun Donovan for coordinator role

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to appoint a "federal coordinating officer to direct reconstruction efforts” following a major disaster. "The job of the FCO and his or her staff will be to cut through bureaucratic obstacles, get federal agencies to work together and to coordinate efforts with local officials.”

For a long time, we resisted rating this promise because experts we consulted with agreed that there was no disaster of a large enough scale to require this sort of response.

But then Hurricane Sandy slammed into the Atlantic coastline in late October 2012. And on Nov. 15, 2012, during a trip to visit affected areas in metropolitan New York City, President Obama made an announcement that seemed to address this promise.

The White House announced that Obama "has asked Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan to continue to work closely with governors, mayors and local officials of New Jersey and New York as they begin the process of identifying redevelopment plans for affected communities.”

Donovan has longstanding ties to the New York City area. He's a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development and previously worked at the Community Preservation Corporation in New York City, a nonprofit lender and developer of affordable housing, and at Prudential Mortgage Capital in Newark, N.J., where he handled its affordable housing portfolio.

The White House drew a contrast between Donovan's role and that of the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The two agencies will "continue to provide all available federal resources to support the immediate response and recovery efforts,” whereas Donovan would "coordinate the federal support as states design their redevelopment plans, identify priorities, and over time begin implementation of their plans. This structure will streamline this process for governors as they seek assistance for longer-term projects they identify as priorities for community redevelopment.”

It remains to be seen how successfully Donovan carries out this assignment, but his appointment does fit the requirements set out in Obama's 2008 promise. We rate it a Promise Kept.

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson March 16, 2011

No domestic disaster big enough yet to trigger this promise

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to appoint a "federal coordinating officer to direct reconstruction efforts” following a major disaster. "The job of the FCO and his or her staff will be to cut through bureaucratic obstacles, get federal agencies to work together and to coordinate efforts with local officials.” He said that his administration would "ensure bipartisan staffing to ensure that politics do not override the real needs of the recovering community."

Readers have periodically asked us why we have not yet rated this promise and one other related to disaster relief. Our answer has been that there has been no natural disaster of sufficient size to trigger the actions described in this promise.

For instance, the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a large event, but its impact was primarily on natural resources and the economy and did not destroy enough infrastructure to prompt a major and long-lasting "reconstruction” effort funded by federal money.

However, some readers have suggested that the flooding that hit parts of Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi in early May 2010 -- which was particularly damaging in Nashville -- might qualify as a big enough disaster. More than two dozen deaths were reported.

So we asked several independent experts in disaster recovery whether the Nashville floods -- or any other natural disaster since January 2009 -- would have been far-reaching enough to trigger this promise.

The consensus was that it wasn't.

Peter J. May, political scientist at the University of Washington who specializes in disaster recovery policy, said that the job of federal coordinating officer exists for any presidentially declared disaster as a matter of normal procedure. What's different in the promise, he said, is the focus on longer-term "reconstruction” efforts rather than shorter-term "relief” efforts, as is standard currently.

Under the longstanding policy for presidentially declared disasters, some federal funds may be used to repair highways and other infrastructure, along with recovery funds for short-term housing, May said. But it would be "nothing along the lines of a Katrina-like coordinated federal effort,” he added.

Robert B. Olshansky, an urban and regional planning professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that in the past quarter century, only about a half-dozen natural disasters would have clearly demanded a response like the one outlined in this promise.

They include the Loma Prieta earthquake near San Francisco (1989), Hurricane Andrew in southern Florida (1992), the Midwest floods (1993), the Northridge earthquake near Los Angeles (1994), hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne in Florida (2004), and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita along the Gulf Coast (2005). He said a few other events might have qualified, such as Hurricane Ike along the Gulf Coast (2008), but including these would be a judgment call.

Our experts agreed that neither the Nashville floods nor any event since Obama's inauguration would have triggered the response Obama promised. Until there is one, we'll keep this promise at Not Yet Rated.

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