By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009
President Obama will nominate Florida emergency manager W. Craig Fugate to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency, asking one of the nation's most experienced hurricane hands to direct the much-criticized U.S. disaster-response arm, the White House announced yesterday.
If confirmed by the Senate, Fugate, 49, would assume the politically sensitive job of heading a 4,400-worker bureaucracy that was widely blamed for the Bush administration's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The agency has been reorganized repeatedly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
He also would inherit a roiling congressional debate over whether to break up the Homeland Security Department -- which marked its sixth anniversary this week -- by removing FEMA, one of its centerpiece components, and restoring it to stand-alone, Cabinet-level status.
Obama was silent about that choice yesterday but acknowledged the agency's troubled past.
"I can think of no one better to lead FEMA," the president said in a statement praising Fugate. "I'm confident that Craig is the right person for the job and will ensure that the failures of the past are never repeated."
Fugate declined to comment but will join Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano during a visit today to New Orleans to review ongoing Katrina recovery efforts. Previously, Fugate echoed Napolitano on FEMA's organization, saying he is more concerned for now that the agency operates well than where it fits in the government.
By law, the FEMA administrator serves as the president's principle emergency adviser. Fugate's selection was unusual in that he has no prior relationship or political connection with Obama. White House aides noted that Fugate served under two Republican governors of Florida, Jeb Bush and now Gov. Charlie Crist.
By contrast, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush named political confidantes to the job. Clinton, a former Arkansas governor, brought his state's emergency manager, James Lee Witt, to Washington, while George W. Bush named campaign manager Joseph M. Allbaugh and later elevated Allbaugh's deputy, Michael D. Brown.
Critics blamed the latter team for FEMA's subsequent troubles, saying they allowed political cronyism and incompetence to flourish. Brown and Witt instead cited FEMA's loss of clout under DHS, saying the agency suffered a massive "brain drain" as key leaders departed and the agency was stripped of its responsibilities. Both support an independent FEMA.
Fugate's background and distance from the president may give the White House more room to maneuver in the debate, analysts said.
Fugate easily meets Congress's requirement that FEMA's leader possess demonstrated experience in the field. As director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management since 2001, Fugate led hurricane responses in the nation's fourth most populous state, which experienced four major storms in both 2004 and 2005. He also spent 15 years as a paramedic and an emergency manager for Alachua County.
Still, the administration's choice could face a rocky tenure. FEMA's responsibilities include more than $3 billion in state and local security grants, the nation's civilian preparedness for a nuclear attack, and responses to natural and manmade disasters. In the past two years, FEMA's management budget has rocketed from $526 million to $943 million.
Four years after Katrina, the agency still has not fleshed out a national disaster housing strategy in case of another mass evacuation triggered by an earthquake or wide-scale disaster. It also continues to face criticism for the slow rebuilding of New Orleans.
Local officials complain that more than 1,200 projects valued at $3.7 billion await agreement on funding by authorities. Last week, FEMA announced that the chief of staff of its local office is under investigation for numerous personnel complaints.
Fugate was praised yesterday by associations for state and local emergency managers and workers.