Face-to-Face: Meet the presidential appointee tasked with keeping our country safe from disasters

Francisco Sanchez is the president's chosen one to keep the country safe from natural disasters because of his past experiences.

Face-to-Face: Meet the presidential appointee tasked with keeping our country safe from disasters

Francisco Sanchez grew up in Houston and was familiar with the natural disasters which terrorize the city.

He said that at the age of 11 he remembered watching Poltergeist as Hurricane Alicia ripped through town. Then, not long after Tropical Storm Allison also swept through and flooded his childhood home.

He said that his childhood home had been completely destroyed by the time Hurricane Ike hit in 2008. He realized that not only his family but also everyone else affected by disasters needed help.

He decided he needed resilience. When Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, the home of his mother, which had been elevated in 2012 became a refuge for friends and neighbors fleeing the flood. He was on call 24 hours a day at the emergency operations centre in Houston, responding to Houstonians in need. But he didn't worry about his mother this time.

Sanchez stated that recovery tied to resilience is effective. We can't only respond to and recover from this storm. We must always consider how to deal with the next disaster.

Sanchez is now the Associate Administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Office of Disaster Recovery & Resilience. Sanchez was appointed to the position by President Joe Biden. He is the first presidential appointee who is not a banker.

The Houston Business Journal interviewed Sanchez to find out more about his life and career.

What does it mean to be the first presidential appointee who is not a banker? It's a real humbling experience. I am the son of farmworkers who are migrant workers. This is a truly incredible experience for me. My mother wanted me to be a mariachi when I grew up. When I called my mom, I told her that the president had called. I apologized for disappointing you. I still won't be a mariachi but I will be working for President.

It's an honor to be able to represent not only Hispanics, but also those who are migrant farmworkers. Second, I am a Texan. Politics aside, when Texas has a problem, the whole country comes here.

You worked as the Deputy Homeland Security & Emergency Management coordinator for Harris County for 15 years. What made you decide to join the emergency management team at the county? Accidentally, I stumbled into emergency management. My career was largely influenced by external factors. I thought I had a clear idea of my career. When I was considering going to law, a state representative asked me, "Hey, would you like to be my legislative Director?" It's starting in 35 days. Will you move to Austin for a month and stop your schooling? I moved to Austin and put my school on hold for a semester.

After that I received my degree. "Let's take this to the nonprofit sector." I said. I joined a consulting company and started working there. Then I did a lot in public affairs and political consulting. Texas changed from being a competitive or democratic state to a red one. My clients were mostly Democrats. I was working all over the nation instead of in Harris County, and the county judge was a Republican. He said: "Hey, politics apart, I know that you do great work. Come join the county." He said that I should give him one year. It was December 2004, and I had left the county the previous year. So, either it was the longest year of your life or you are a bad mathematician.

While my time in the county was unexpected, it gave me the opportunity to see what we can do in the disaster area to help people, not only prepare them but also to be there for emergency management and recovery. It was an amazing place to serve the public and end up in my current position.

What is the connection between your work in Houston and the larger picture you are pursuing now? It's important to me that I look at the disaster survivors and disaster experience, as well as leading from the bottom up. Although we are a federally funded program, I want to ensure that our resources are based on the local perspective. Local communities are experts on what should be our top priority in implementing the disaster program. The year has really been one of transformation and transforming the culture to be one that leads. We speak to local mayors and communities to find out where we are needed.

It is important to understand that our local perspective was completely new. This has also been the driving factor in how we can reorganize and make this an institution part of the way we respond.

How can you avoid being too affected by disasters? I try to keep my personality out of the equation and look at everything with blinders to make good decisions. It's not uncommon to have a catastrophe that makes you take a deep breath and feel like a punch in the gut. It's a real eye-opener to see the implications and reminds you of why you are in business.

I tell other emergency managers in the country that I am only an expert on the disasters to which I have responded. I am not an expert on a future disaster because they are all different.

What was the most important moment of your career? For me, even though it was my first major disaster, [hurricane] Katrina continues to be an important moment because we saw the failure of the disaster response. Covid-19 was another. We are sitting in this room, making decisions on mask orders and closing down the economy for its sake. These were the decisions that we could make while wearing blinders and asking, "What should we do?" What is the best decision to make? The other moment for me was from a local perspective - having to make these critical decisions with Covid but also seeing the faces of my friends, neighbors, and family, and what the implications were. This was very enlightening.