Tornadoes, derecho meant a whirlwind start to job for MEMA director Mallette

"It's much cheaper to prevent a disaster than to respond to one," said Ken Mallette, MEMA executive director.
"It's much cheaper to prevent a disaster than to respond to one," said Ken Mallette, MEMA executive director. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

One afternoon in early June, Ken Mallette was in Jacksonville driving from a funeral when he got a text message about severe storms striking Maryland. One of the storms' 11 tornadoes had just ravaged nearby Fallston.

In his second week as executive director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, Mallette arrived in Fallston in a matter of minutes rather than head back to the state's emergency command center in Reisterstown. He surveyed the damage and met with Harford County Executive David Craig.

The job hasn't slowed down since— the Star-Spangled Sailabration and a 40-acre wildfire on the Eastern Shore kept him busy until the June derecho pummeled the state with 70 mph winds, causing a million power outages on June 29 — Mallette's 55th birthday.

In the storm's wake, Mallette spent 18 hours a day in the state emergency command center for a week and a half. And he was there again Wednesday night, tracking a fresh line of storms stalking the state.

"I missed two weddings, and [my wife] ended up eating two dinners by herself," Mallette said of the tumultuous period. "But that's part of the job."

The job is crucial to the state as it recovers and learns lessons from the derecho. That includes getting the power turned back on quickly.

Mallette plans to join a group of local government leaders seeking more detailed information on power outage locations from utilities. During the derecho response, he spoke with utilities via conference call every two hours, helping officials to focus aid response. But the utilities could not provide specific addresses of outages, information six county executives and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recently told state energy regulators would improve future emergency response.

Already, Mallette is leading efforts to improve disaster response. The heart of the mid-Atlantic hurricane season arrives in a month, after all.

"You never live on your laurels," he said, calling emergency plans "a living document. … You can always do a little bit better."

Those who have worked with Mallette in the past and so far in Maryland said his experience in some of the world's most devastating disasters has prepared him well. Mallette was on the scene after Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Haiti earthquake and 9/11.

"The guy just has tremendous background," said Robert Maloney, Baltimore's director of emergency management. "Not to diminish the accomplishments of the previous director, but it was really a breath of fresh air."

Mallette spent most of his career with the New Jersey State Police, working at times as chief of the emergency management bureau and executive officer in the homeland security branch. He helped respond to the 9/11 attacks while hundreds of his peers — including his former boss, who had left the department three weeks earlier to join the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — died in the World Trade Center towers.

In 2006, he left for Witt Associates, a crisis preparedness consulting firm founded by James Lee Witt, Federal Emergency Management Agency chief under President Bill Clinton. In the private sector, he led an investigation into a concert stage collapse that killed seven people at the Indiana State Fair last year and helped craft disaster preparedness plans for the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

But Mallette was lured back to public service in part, he said, because of Gov. Martin O'Malley's emphasis on public safety. O'Malley was impressed with Mallette's experience, said Matt Gallagher, the governor's chief of staff. When former MEMA Director Richard Muth had notified O'Malley he wanted to step down and the administration quietly began looking for a successor, Mallette stood out for his resume and for work he did at Witt assessing MEMA.

"He knows how things are done in other states, so he has the ability to look at our operations and make some recommendations that are informed," Gallagher said. "We were pleased Ken was willing to step out of the private sector and take the reins."

Mallette's experience quickly showed after the derecho struck, Maloney said. Days into the power outages, some of which lasted nine days, city officials feared they lacked enough of a food stockpile to make up for all that spoiled inside residents' refrigerators. Within a couple of hours, Mallette had arranged for FEMA to supply more food, and also for Giant Food to provide water, Maloney said.

Previous MEMA administrations haven't taken such an active role in storm response, Maloney said. "I think this guy can really move things forward."

Barry Scanlon, the president of Witt Associates who worked alongside Mallette, called him "sort of a tough Jersey cop with a heart of gold."

Mallette's efforts to provide aid during disasters went beyond simply the call of duty in at least one instance, Scanlon recalled.

While doing house-by-house searches in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Mallette found a dog tied to a fence. A city resident combing the area alongside him said to leave it, but Mallette wouldn't. When all the local animal shelters he visited were closed, Mallette took the dog home, Scanlon said.

Ox, as Mallette named the now 11- or 12-year-old pit bull, has lived with him ever since.

Most people are capable of taking care of themselves after a disaster, Mallette said. He plans to promote such preparation. But there also is a minority who are dependent on others, and the priority after a disaster is mobilizing resources to aid them as quickly as possible.

"It's much cheaper to prevent a disaster than to respond to one," Mallette said.

On a marker board in his office, he wrote a mantra to that end for all to see, words from an ancient Chinese military document: "Every battle is won before it is fought."



Ken Mallette

Age: 55

Family: Married, three children

Education: B.A., Benedictine College, 1980; master's in professional educational administration, Seton Hall University, 1987; leadership and management certification from FBI National Academy, 2004

Work history: Reached role of executive officer for homeland security in 25-year career in New Jersey State Police; served as a vice president for Witt Associates consulting firm from 2006 until May 2012. Started as executive director of Maryland Emergency Management Agency on May 21.