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One On 1 Profile: Native New Yorker Michael Byrne Returns Home To Lead FEMA's Sandy Recovery Efforts

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Ever since Hurricane Sandy, NY1's "One On 1" profiles deal with people involved in the relief effort. This week, NY1's Budd Mishkin profiled a New Yorker who has come back to help his hometown -- the man in charge of FEMA's response to Hurricane Sandy, Michael Byrne.

Michael Byrne has coordinated major relief efforts in Haiti, Alabama, and in New York City after Hurricane Sandy.

He responded to the World Trade Center as a firefighter after the 1993 bombing there, and in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks served as an operations chief for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Byrne is clearly a serious man but he knows how to take a joke.

"My job is to create the environment to allow them to do their job. To make sure they have the resources, technology, training, logistical requirements and then get out of their way," he says.

Byrne is one of the federal coordinating officers for FEMA. He is in charge of FEMA's response to Hurricane Sandy, overseeing more than 3,000 federal employees.

As part of what's called the "national incident management team," Byrne is accustomed to dropping everything to get to disaster areas.

"I have to be able to start moving within two hours of being notified, and be anywhere in the United States within 12 hours. That's within my job description," Byrne says.

But for a guy who grew up in public housing at 93rd and First Avenue, served for 20 years in the New York City Fire Department and worked in the city Office of Emergency Management, responding to Hurricane Sandy is different. It means coming home.

"I know everybody. The state director, Jerry Hauer, sitting next to me, Jerry taught me emergency management back in the '90s," says Byrne. "The city, [OEM Commissioner] Joe Bruno was the fire commissioner while I was a firefighter."

Byrne describes FEMA's role here as the four P's -- people issues, pumping, power and public assistance.

He says FEMA initially brought in a million meals and a million liters of water in a 24-hour period and hundreds of ambulances to back up local ambulance response.

A longer-term program provides up to $31,900 for housing repairs or alternative housing.

"It's certainly not enough money to make you whole, that's not the intent here. FEMA is not an insurance company. It's just enough money to get you back on your feet," Byrne says.

FEMA has heard some complaints that the money is insufficient and comes too slowly, but the complaints are nothing compared to what FEMA heard during and after Hurricane Katrina.

While Byrne was not working for FEMA at the time, he feels the need to emphasize to his staff how the organization has evolved.

"'I'm going to sit and wait for you to call my 800 number.' That's the old FEMA," Byrne says. "This is the new FEMA. This is where we take it to the survivor, go to their house, knock on their door.

"The post-Katrina reform act allowed FEMA to be a forward-leaning organization," Byrne continues. "You're able to be here and move commodities into strategic locations. We're able to stage teams so that once storm passed, we're there already. We couldn't do these kind of things in the past."

Byrne's job is not only to help people affected by Sandy, but also to help the helpers. He says initially there were 3,800 FEMA employees in the city and keeping morale high is no small feat.

Working for FEMA means leaving families behind, often with little warning. Byrne is himself a divorced father of two grown children. At a recent small FEMA meeting, he included an update on employees dealing with stress around the holidays.

"The first days when you arrive somewhere, it's a lot of hugs, a lot of shaking hands with colleagues happy to see you again," says Byrne. "It's a family. I think it's probably the only job I was prepared to do after the firehouse, because the firehouse is a family too. So it's a natural transition to come into this."

With FEMA employees coming in from all over the country, it is only natural that Byrne would teach them about New York and all of the New Yorkers.

"The first language is Mandarin, the first language is Russian, the first language is Yiddish, the first language is Hebrew. It's not that they are english and they also speak that other language, this is their language," Byrne says.

Byrne's New York story begins in Yorkville, just off the FDR Drive. He family lived initially in a railroad flat, then moved to an apartment in public housing.

"I thought I died and went to heaven," Byrne remembers. "There were five kids and one-and-a-half bathrooms. We rode in an elevator. I remembered saying to my mom and dad are we rich now?"

Byrne graduated from St. Francis Xavier High School in 1972, and followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a steel laborer. But in 1979, he took the test for the FDNY and became a firefighter.

"Becoming a cop or fireman in this neighborhood was really a sign of success, that you moving into a good, stable career," he says.

While putting out fires, Byrne went to Queens College. He was hardly the first firefighter to go to college on the side, but he may have been the first firefighter to major in philosophy.

"It made for a lot of funny situations and jokes," he says. "They found philosophy so boring, that they would say, 'Mike, I'm having trouble taking a nap or sleeping at night, would you mind come talking to me for a while? And then I'll be able to get some sleep.'"

In 1999, Byrne moved to the city's Office of Emergency Management, preparing him for his later role with FEMA.

"New York City is a great place to learn emergency management. Six hundred water main breaks, a number of building collapses, a number of fires. There's plenty of opportunities to practice your skill," he says.

With FEMA, Byrne has worked on all types of disasters -- Hurricane Irene in North Carolina, tornadoes in Alabama, and the earthquake in Haiti. The latter was a humbling experience that taught him to be ready for anything in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

"How do you charge cellphones in Haiti when there is no place to plug in the wall? There is a car battery that they jerry rigged and then they charge," he says.

Even pizza deliveries can be risky business in Haiti.

"You know you're in a place that's risky when there's a Dominoes Pizza box and it says 'Order is late because,' and then you check off the boxes. So it says, 'The order is late because of traffic, because of a storm, because of transit problems, because of kidnapping,'" Byrne says.

As stressful as the work may be, Byrne calls it "a dream job."

"'If you find a job you love, then you never work a day in your life.' That's another one of my mother's sayings. That's what i was lucky enough to do," Byrne says. "You have to be willing to put the job first because the greater good is relying on you."

Byrne or one of his FEMA colleagues appears every Friday on NY1's "New York Tonight" to answer viewers' questions about the relief effort. If you have questions for FEMA you want asked in the segment, please email them to AskNYTonight@ny1.com.

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