Florida emergency director to head FEMA

Mar 4, 2009

Craig Fugate led Florida responses to 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons

By Ken Kaye
South Florida Sun-Sentinel--March 4, 2009

Normally, Craig Fugate isn’t shy about speaking his mind. He has been outspoken about urging Floridians to take responsibility for their own well being in the wake of hurricanes. He also has implored neighbors to check on neighbors after a storm has passed.

When the White House announced today that President Obama picked Fugate to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Fugate was a man of few words.

The director of Florida’s Emergency Management Division declined to comment, other than to say all interviews now must be set up through the White House.

Obama said in a statement that Fugate has strong qualifications for the job.

“From his experience as a first responder to his strong leadership as Florida’s Emergency Manager, Craig has what it takes to help us improve our preparedness, response and recovery efforts and I can think of no one better to lead FEMA,” the president said. “I’m confident that Craig is the right person for the job and will ensure that the failures of the past are never repeated.”

Former Gov. Jeb Bush named Fugate director of Florida Emergency Management in 2001. The current governor, Charlie Crist, retained him in that position. Both governors are Republicans.

Fugate previously served as the assistant director for nearly five years. He will replace R. David Paulison, of Davie, who was appointed by President Bush in September 2005 to head FEMA.

Paulison, in turn, replaced the former embattled FEMA director, Michael Brown. Brown became the focal point of blame for the agency’s failures in Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In the wake of that notorious storm, thousands of homeless New Orleans residents begged for food, water and ice for days and weeks.

Fugate is to attend an event in New Orleans on Thursday with Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

The venue underscores the importance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s role. Former President Bush was widely criticized for appointing Michael Brown as FEMA director. Brown was mocked for his lack of credentials in emergency management; he once worked for the International Arabian Horse Association. He stepped down after Katrina. More than three years after the hurricane, New Orleans is still working to rebuild.

At the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando last April, Fugate credited Paulison with reviving the ailing agency. Paulison changed the agency’s culture, doubling the full-time staff, to about 3,400 workers, and doubling its budget, to about $9 billion.

“After Katrina, FEMA was for all intents and purposes broken,” Fugate said at the time. “Dave put it back together.”

Governors, hurricane forecasters and emergency managers alike have praised Fugate’s efforts to brace Florida for hurricane strikes.

At last year’s Florida’s Governor’s Hurricane Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fugate urged Floridians to take the initiative in the aftermath of a storm and help neighbors who might be in distress.

The reason, he said, is because government doesn’t have enough emergency responders to immediately help everyone who might require medical assistance, food or water. He noted that rescue workers must give priority to the sick and the elderly.

Even though seven hurricanes walloped Florida in the 2004 and 2005 seasons, Fugate last year warned his fellow emergency managers to anticipate that state’s residents still would be apathetic going into the 2008 season.

The biggest challenge for emergency managers, Fugate said: Getting families to develop hurricane plans and lay in supplies.

“The job is always to try to get people to get ready for a hurricane,” he said at the time.

Peter Nicholas of the Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.