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Director W. Craig Fugate refocusing a chastened FEMA
"I think it's the example of what a federal agency should be these days, starting with a guy who really knows his stuff and does stuff not just for the cameras," Bredesen said.
FEMA's efforts at a more rapid response are a direct result of congressional reforms post-Katrina. The agency's operations budget has jumped by about $2.5 billion in the past five years. It's now the lead agency for disaster preparation and response, after years of confusion following the creation of DHS. Lawmakers have also made it easier to deploy resources before states formally request aid.
"If something potentially bad has happened, why don't you respond like it's bad until you verify it isn't?" Fugate said. "And if it is bad, you're already there."
That's the approach he wishes FEMA had taken during Katrina, when it was painfully slow in its response. The year before, Fugate, 51, a onetime firefighter and paramedic, had responded to four major hurricanes in Florida, and then, in 2005, deployed 6,400 state personnel to neighboring Mississippi after Katrina spared his state. But he wanted to do more to help Louisiana, to avoid the deaths of more than 1,800 people.
"It was like watching a shipwreck occur and there's not a damn thing you can do about it and you just know nothing good is about to happen," he said.
"For me and my profession, I felt it was like we failed the people we served," he said. "Everyone wants to point out an individual or part of the team that failed, but it was a systemic failure."
He got to vent his frustration to the Bush administration when it tried to hire him after Brown's dismissal.
"One of the things they said is they were looking for someone to be here and work from Washington," Fugate recounted. "And I said you can't manage a disaster from Washington, you got to go into the field."
It's a popular perspective among state emergency managers.
"Five years ago, things were much more centralized," said David Maxwell, director of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management and head of the National Emergency Management Association. The group's members discuss policy with Fugate regularly.
"In this line of work, relationships really do matter," Maxwell said. "Knowing the person on the other end of the line is critical. There's a saying that a time of disaster is no time to be exchanging business cards."
Fugate finally came to FEMA last year when President Obama offered him the job.