Craig Fugate Rebuilds Federal Emergency Management Agency, Just in Time for Hurricane Season

May 31, 2011

The following article was published in the Sunshine News on May 31, 2011:

Craig Fugate Rebuilds FEMA, Just in Time for Hurricane Season

By Kenric Ward

As Florida heads into another hurricane season, the state has a friend in Washington. A knowledgeable and storm-savvy friend.

Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), was battle-tested when he served as Gov. Jeb Bush’s director of emergency operations. During Fugate’s tenure from 2001 to 2009, Florida was wracked by an unprecedented series of storms, including back-to-back hurricanes that slammed into the peninsula’s east coast in 2004.

Since President Barack Obama appointed the Floridian to lead FEMA, itself battered by bureaucratic bungling that was exposed in the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2007, Fugate has rebuilt the agency.

Praised by the Christian Science Monitor for spearheading “a dramatic, common-sense revamp of national preparedness,” the 51-year-old Fugate has worked to raise FEMA’s level of performance.

The most recent tests came in the South and Midwest, where deadly lines of tornadoes leveled towns and killed hundreds. Despite the widespread destruction across several states, the federal relief effort has been viewed as workmanlike and efficient.

“In a big disaster, you usually start hearing complaints from state and local officials within at least 72 hours,” David Schanzer, a homeland security expert at Duke University, told the Monitor. “If you’re not hearing [complaints], it’s usually an important sign that things are going pretty well.”

In selecting Fugate three years after the Katrina debacle, Obama said he was confident “that the failures of the past are never repeated.”

FEMA is an ideal challenge for Fugate, a Democrat who attended fire college and paramedic school, worked as a volunteer firefighter in Gainesville and climbed to the top of the Division of Emergency Management in the nation’s most hurricane-prone state.

As he did in Florida, Fugate’s first order of business in Washington was to direct that all FEMA employees have their own disaster-readiness kits at home.

That message of self-reliance has been a linchpin to Fugate’s overall approach. In a two-prong strategy, he has worked to raise his agency’s internal-performance standards while effectively tempering the public’s expectations.

Under the Bush and Crist administrations, Fugate’s emergency-management team developed a strong reputation as quick and competent first responders in the wake of hurricanes.

In the aftermath of this spring’s deadly Southern tornadoes, FEMA quickly set up dozens of recovery centers and paid out $3 million in emergency claims within five days.

But, as the Monitor reported, Fugate still wasn’t satisfied. He wanted blue tarps on hand more quickly to protect homes from subsequent rainstorms.

The Jacksonville native appears to be his own toughest critic. The Birmingham News editorialized, “Where the federal response is concerned, there’s little to criticize and much to praise.”

Commenting on Fugate’s move to FEMA in 2009, former Gov. Bush said, “Florida is indebted to Craig for his service during two unprecedented back-to-back hurricane seasons. … I am confident he will advance reforms that strengthen our nation’s preparedness and bottom-up approach to emergency management.”

Now, heading into the 2011 storm season that begins June 1, Fugate is more keenly focused than ever on personal and community responsibilities.

“We never know where the next hurricane or disaster will strike, but what we do know is that being prepared can make a world of difference, for individuals and their larger communities,” he said.

“In hurricane-prone areas as well as inland areas, we urge the entire community to prepare now. There are a number of steps individuals, families, communities, churches and businesses can take to better protect themselves against hurricanes and other disasters.”

For starters, FEMA now urges Americans to have at least seven days of provisions on hand — up from the previous three to five days.

Extending the personal preparedness message to communities, Fugate asked: “Who is going to be the fastest responder when your house falls on your head? Your neighbor.”

Acknowledging that no federal agency can be all things to all people at all times, Fugate’s careful balance of individual and collective responsibility will be key to how FEMA will be perceived going forward.

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