Florida Politics

How does an inexperienced 30-year-old become hurricane chief? Win Rick Scott's trust.

If you judge Wes Maul by his online résumé, his tenure at the state Division of Emergency Management has seen the full spectrum of natural and human disasters: hurricanes, mass shootings, public health emergencies. Tropical storms and infrastructure failure. Floods, mass migration, protests.

The director of the state’s emergency management agency has also, according to his bio, led the division through space launches and presidential inaugurations, national sporting events and political conventions. Maul “has successfully led the State Emergency Response Team … through more incidents than many will face in a career,” it brags.

You could be easily forgiven for forgetting that Maul, who recently turned 30, has officially been the division’s permanent director only since Dec. 13, 2017.

After catapulting from a job fresh out of law school as the governor’s travel aide, Maul spent a year and a half as the emergency division’s chief of staff before being appointed interim director, then permanent director, after Hurricane Irma. But as storm season approaches — with Subtropical Storm Alberto already threatening the state and early forecasts suggesting a near-normal or above-normal storm season — the state’s disaster preparedness lies in the hands of a political newcomer whose first official job experience with emergency management began two years ago.

Maul’s friends and supporters describe him as mature beyond his years. They say his front-row seat to the governor’s job, through a grueling re-election campaign and the first two years of Scott's second term, have granted him a rarely rivaled understanding of the workings of government. But critics have equated Maul’s rapid promotions to cronyism in a governor’s administration that has rewarded other trusted aides with rapidly increasing responsibilities.

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Wes Maul, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management Florida Division of Emergency Management

Maul declined to speak on the record, agreeing only to an on-background interview with limits on questions about his work leading the division. Division spokesman Alberto Moscoso said after the story was published that Maul "did not have the bandwidth to prepare for and get into a formal interview, because he's completely engaged in preparing Floridians for the storm season."

Even Maul's allies acknowledge his rise has been helped by his close relationship with the governor and a finely honed ability to anticipate the chief executive’s directions and desires. The question for millions of Floridians preparing for hurricane season: Is the governor’s trust in him enough?

Raised in Orlando

Maul, like all Floridians of a certain age, grew up in the shadow of the blockbuster 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, a pummeling unmatched before or since. The Orlando suburb where he was raised, Winter Park, was crisscrossed by three storms — Charley, Frances and Jeanne — that didn’t spare his neighborhood howling gusts and long blackouts.

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But after he graduated from Edgewater High School as salutatorian and began attending the University of Florida in 2006, Maul showed little indication of wanting to pursue emergency management as a career path. He seemed destined to follow in his father’s finance-oriented footsteps instead, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration and economics, then staying for a law degree, which he received in 2013 with a certificate in estates and trusts practice.

He sought out leadership positions early at UF: at his fraternity Alpha Tau Omega, and in the prestigious honor society Florida Blue Key, where he was president for an uncommon two terms.

“He’s the type of guy who could get any job he wanted,” said Craig Thompson, a law school classmate, former Blue Key president and friend. “He probably has climbed the ranks fast: He’s someone who garners trust; people have a lot of confidence in him.”

Running Blue Key in particular, said Jamal Sowell, a former assistant to the university president, has in the past been a launching pad for political careers.

Historically, “it was like Skull and Bones at Yale,” he said, though the university’s changing demographics and diversity have altered its insular reputation. “It allows you to be tested at a young age. Someone like Wes or student leaders are in meetings all night until 1 a.m. talking about campus issues and problems. ... You’re a leader among leaders.”

Maul encountered at least one of those issues as president in the spring of 2012, when the Independent Florida Alligator reported that Blue Key had capped the number of students from minority organizations who would be accepted annually.

Maul denied the limits existed to the newspaper. But he acknowledged the perception that it was difficult for students of color or in certain groups to qualify — and that “perception can often be as important as reality.”

Past presidents of the society typically took jobs in high-powered law firms after graduation, Sowell added. But Maul was recruited for a job in the governor’s office, after his résumé was submitted by a friend for consideration.

“In many ways [the job is] a professional marriage,” said Adam Hollingsworth, Scott’s former chief of staff who oversaw the vetting process for the position. “The amount of time a travel aide and a principal spend together on the road, early in the mornings, late at night in the car … those two people have to complement each other in the way a married couple has to complement each other.”

Hollingsworth, who was succeeded by another of Scott’s travel aides, Brad Piepenbrink, said the position required someone who would mirror many of Scott’s qualities back at him.

Serving as a body man requires being by the governor's side during every waking hour, coordinating not just travel but tasks — a roaming one-man office. The job is typically limited by time and by energy, past travel aides have said. After two and a half years, Maul indicated to the governor that he was ready to seek other opportunities.

Past Scott travel aides had transitioned into other state agencies, and Maul, it seemed, had his pick.

“It was a conversation with the governor’s office: ‘Wes wants to come over to emergency management,' " said Bryan Koon, the former director of the emergency management division, though he said that in the dozens of times he had interacted with Maul as the governor’s aide, Maul had never mentioned a particular interest in emergency management. “It was figured out what the best fit was for him in the organization."

A good fit in a dormant position

The chief of staff position had existed on and off at the division, though it was defunct when Maul was appointed in May 2016. As chief of staff, at an annual salary of $116,000, his primary role was to coordinate communication among agencies: “a bridge builder,” Koon said.

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Bryan Koon, Wes Maul's predecessor as head of the Division of Emergency Management Florida Division of Emergency Management

“It was very much a continuation of the relationship he’d had in the governor’s office,” Koon said. Maul served through Hurricanes Hermine, Matthew and Irma, and during the latter helped open shelters, Koon said.

Koon was already on the way out — he said he began mulling a return to the private sector in the spring of 2017, before the last hurricane season even began. When he prepared a list of possible successors for Scott to consider, he included several people with experience in emergency management, he said: Leo Lachat, the deputy director, and some county emergency managers. He also included Maul.

Scott announced in late September that Maul would become interim director, paid $141,000 a year. Critics slammed his lack of emergency management experience compared to past people in the job. Koon himself had worked for the White House managing the emergency operations center and at Walmart on the global company’s disaster preparedness.

But supporters have tried to cast Maul’s experience as the governor’s travel aide as a kind of crash course that even years of on-the-job experience can’t replace.

Travel aides “have seen the totality of what state government has done at that point,” Koon said, allowing Maul "to understand what the governor wants in this situation and act on it."

"It took years," Koon said, for him "to build up that rapport and understanding.”

Craig Fugate, the former division director who helped steer the state through the legendary 2004 and 2005 seasons and later headed FEMA for several years, credited his own close relationship with former Gov. Jeb Bush as critical to his success, he said.

But the emergency management director job cannot function just with trust, Fugate added. The director must also help coordinate a highly trained, sprawling network of local and regional agencies that worked with the state division to respond to emergencies — an apparatus that has languished in the last decade without regular resources, training or disasters to keep them sharp. The National Guard, he added, has borne an increasing amount of pressure as agencies have been trimmed. Money is shorter than ever.

“Almost every one of the people involved [more than 10 years ago] in that have moved on,” said Fugate. “You cannot negate what happened with the great recession and the budget cuts that happened at all levels of government.”



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Craig Fugate, then the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, talked at the National Hurricane Center on the first day of hurricane season in 2012. Peter Andrew Bosch Miami Herald file photo

Fugate's perspective comes from decades of work in emergency management, starting as a paramedic and firefighter and heading Alachua County's emergency services before taking the top state and then federal jobs. Though he declined to comment on Maul — they have never met — he acknowledged that on the federal level, Congress pushed job requirements for FEMA director after Hurricane Katrina, demanding at least five years of prior experience in emergency management.

“The federal government recognized that unless you have those experiences as a requirement, you may not get the individual you need,” said Fugate, who now lives in Gainesville and consults on emergency management. The National Emergency Management Association, a professional association for emergency management directors, has also issued "recommended criteria" for state emergency management directors, and 17 states have specific professional requirements for their respective positions, most of which include a certain amount of experience.

What has Maul done?

Though Maul's supporters praised his poise and maturity, some struggled to identify specific accomplishments during his time as travel aide or as division chief of staff.

Hollingsworth, when asked to identify an example of Maul’s success as travel aide, suggested that Maul was a “silent contributor” to the governor’s success — and that his invisible hand was an indicator of that job being well done.

“In a lot of ways, the success in the role comes from operating in the background,” Hollingsworth said. When asked how one might then determine a job done poorly, he answered: “Because of Wes' abilities, I can’t tell you. … My only experience is what good is.”

There is another reality in Scott’s waning administration that may have colored the pick, said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, who during the legislative session raised questions about the state's response to Hurricane Irma.

“There was less experience in there than you would, I think, typically want to have in a department so critical,” he conceded. But “as you get later in a second term of a governor’s administration, it becomes much, much harder to get the most talented people to take positions. … There’s going to be a changing of the guard here shortly.”

“This governor really values loyalty and trust more than any other credential a person might bring into an interview,” Lee added. “He’s learned over the years what works for him. … He’s willing to take over what at times has been the responsibility of the secretary of the department themselves.”

In December, Maul was quietly made the official director. The position does not require Senate confirmation. As local governments have struggled to be repaid for Irma damages, he has touted streamlining operations, akin to a bureaucracy needing to be stripped of bloat.

His short tenure has also seen its share of personnel changes: Jason Wheeler, the division’s beleaguered recovery bureau chief, abruptly resigned last month after he had implemented a policy that slowed the process for local governments applying to obtain federal disaster aid. Earlier this month, Nathan Edwards, himself a former Scott aide with little prior emergency management experience, was selected for the division’s second-highest-paid job in the Orlando preparedness bureau, Politico Florida reported.

And with a forecast for a normal to active hurricane season, it’s unclear whether Maul will be tested — and how he will do now that he is the division's official head. Fugate cautioned that Maul's experience or lack thereof is little indicator of his ability to manage the division.

“You can look at somebody’s pedigree, but that doesn’t tell you how they’re going to respond in a crisis,” Fugate said. “If they haven’t actually managed a large disaster response, [their résumé] is no indicator of how they’re going to perform.”

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