Obama’s FEMA Director Brings Hurricane Experience from Florida

March 13, 2009

Florida emergency manager Craig Fugate would bring a lot with him if he takes over the Federal Emergency Management Agency: plenty of hurricane experience, a blunt style, and a belief that preparation begins on the local level.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush, the Republican who appointed Fugate to lead Florida’s disaster response, says he is comforted by Democratic President Barack Obama’s choice to run FEMA. It’s a feeling that’s shared by just about anybody who’s ever worked with Fugate, including David Paulison, who resigned as FEMA administrator when Obama took office.

Paulison was appointed by President George W. Bush after the agency and its head, Michael Brown, were widely criticized for the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Before that, he was the Miami-Dade County fire chief, where he often worked with Fugate, whose Senate confirmation is pending.

“Craig is absolutely the right person for this job. I can’t think of another person around the country who has more disaster experience than Craig: floods, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes,” Paulison said. “And he just does an absolutely outstanding job. He’s proven himself in Florida and Florida sets the standard.”

Fugate, 49, grew up in Alachua County, the north-central Florida county that’s home to the University of Florida. He served as a volunteer firefighter, paramedic, a lieutenant with the county fire department and spent 10 years as Alachua’s emergency management director before moving to Tallahassee and working for the Division of Emergency Management.

After four years serving as chief of the Division’s Bureau of Preparedness and Response, Fugate took over the Division in 2001. Fugate, a Democrat, was one of only two agency heads directly appointed by the governor that Republican Charlie Crist kept in place after Bush left office.

While Florida already had plans in place to deal with terrorism, after Sept. 11 Fugate helped organize the state’s domestic security task forces. He also dealt with tornadoes and tropical storms during the first two years after taking over the emergency management department.

His major test came in 2004, when an unprecedented four hurricanes hit Florida in one season. Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne caused an estimated $42 billion in damage, killing 117 people in Florida and destroying more than 25,000 homes. But supplies reached the affected areas quickly and the state was praised for its response.

One local emergency officials recalled Fugate’s response when Charley, the strongest of the four, came ashore on Aug. 13 as a Category 4 storm.

“First light on Saturday morning, Aug. 14, 2004, he was at my backdoor with the state mobile command post. That’s pretty good response. He got that thing down here from Tallahassee and he was with it, he didn’t send somebody else,” said Wayne Sallade, Charlotte County’s emergency management director. “That onsite leadership and being right there on the ground with us spoke volumes. It showed us that he wasn’t going to try to manage the thing from afar.”

The next year Florida was hit by another four hurricanes, and each time, Fugate tried to improve on response. He also tried to beat into the heads of Floridians that they needed to be prepared: It wasn’t just the state’s responsibility help after the fact.

“The media would often ask Craig if he thought the state was ready for the hurricane season and Craig would always turn the tables and ask them about their hurricane plans, ask if they had a plan, if they had storm shutters, if they had supplies and more times than not a lot of people didn’t have a plan,” said Max Mayfield, former director of the National Hurricane Center. “He’s really, really big on people taking personal responsibility.”

Some of his former colleagues describe his fondness for straight talk.

“He’s no nonsense and he gets to the point and I really like that about him,” Mayfield said. “He cut to the chase, and gave the bottom line and didn’t mince words.”

But at the same time they credit him with creating a smooth line of communication and cooperation among local, state and federal agencies.

“He would walk through every county, ‘OK, what are you doing? What are your gaps? What do you need? What can we do to help?’ That team building type of thing, that is his style,” Paulison said. “When we had the four hurricanes in Florida, a lot of people would have come apart at the seams with everything happening. And he had a very calm, deliberate manner.”

Bush also hopes Fugate brings some University of Florida Gator pride to Washington.

“He had this really funky Gator beach towel that always seemed to show up after a storm was coming. He’d just park himself in that thing,” Bush said with a laugh. “It will give me a warm feeling in my heart if I see him on TV and he has that Gator blanket at FEMA headquarters whenever a storm is approaching. It will be kind of comforting.”

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