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Neither Rain nor Sleet nor Snow Can Stay Tom Casey from His Appointed Rounds with Disaster

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Buffalo looked like an Arctic outpost. Snow was piled in 30-foot drifts. Schools were closed. Already 16 people had died, 17,000 were stranded and it was still snowing. Then the mayor lifted a ban on civilian driving.

Federal Disaster Coordinator Thomas Casey shouted, “Unbelievable!” and slammed his fist on a table in his downtown command post.

All week long Casey had coordinated round-the-clock operations involving hundreds of Army engineers, National Guardsmen and Salvation Army and Red Cross workers. After a bad start—he forgot his boots—Casey, 49, had brought order to rescue efforts and distribution of food, fuel and medicine. He had also kept his patience with politicians—local ones like the mayor, who later reinstated the traffic ban—and state and national figures who descended on the area for headline-capturing helicopter surveys. Even when the President’s son Chip Carter arrived, to the annoyance of some local officials who felt his visit was just postponing a decision on federal aid, Casey was diplomatic. He said that Chip, 26, had “boosted people’s morale.”

Casey himself disdains helicopter tours because, he says, “you don’t see the hardship and suffering.” He has seen plenty. He worked in Mississippi in 1969 after Hurricane Camille had devastated the Gulf Coast with 190-mph winds, killing 146 persons and causing $1.5 billion damages. He is still doing paperwork on 1975’s Hurricane Eloise, which ravaged Puerto Rico. Last year he spent 97 days at disasters like Hurricane Belle on Long Island and flash floods in New Jersey.

He is one of 10 Disaster Administration directors (in a peculiar division of labor, Casey’s territory covers New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands). If directors recommend that the President declare a federal disaster, and he agrees, as finally happened in Buffalo, stricken areas become eligible for low-cost federal loans, direct reimbursement and the like.

Casey was the oldest of six children born to a car salesman and his factory worker wife in Medford, Mass. After Navy duty in China and Japan during World War II, he got a civil engineering degree from Northeastern and worked with the Army engineers, specializing in flood control and dam maintenance in New England. Later he went to Washington and eventually signed on with the Office of Emergency Preparedness, a precursor to his current agency, where he set up a New York monitoring operation during the price freeze ordered by President Nixon. Casey’s home is in Stamford, Conn. where he lives with his wife and son. Two daughters and an older son have grown up and moved away.

In addition to natural disasters, Casey survived a do-it-yourself crisis after installing heating pipes in a Medford, Mass. home he owned. “I didn’t tighten them enough,” he says. “I had a terrible flood in the basement.” He still tinkers and likes to read, mostly Westerns and mysteries, but no Poseidon Adventures. He gets enough of that at work.

What happens when all the snow melts? “We’ve broken the back of the Buffalo blizzard,” he says wearily. “I don’t even want to think about the floods yet.”