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Director W. Craig Fugate refocusing a chastened FEMA

By Ed O'Keefe
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 5:13 PM

W. Craig Fugate's corner office at the Federal Emergency Management Agency is sparse: a few family photos, a couple of blue and orange mementos from his beloved University of Florida Gators, and not much else.

"In big disasters, I ain't going to be here," FEMA's director said, pointing to his desk.

Fugate, former head of Florida's emergency agency, believes strongly that state and local officials must lead in disaster response, so barking orders at them during a crisis isn't his thing. But "sitting back here looking at computer screens, drinking coffee and using a flush toilet that works and not understanding the adversities they're dealing with in the field" isn't acceptable, either.

Five years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit, Fugate was working for Florida's Gov. Jeb Bush. By the time the levees broke in New Orleans he was kicking the walls in frustration as the governor's younger brother, President George W. Bush, lost control of the situation.

This week Fugate will visit Louisiana and Mississippi to pledge $28.4 million to rebuild churches, schools and universities, part of $2.5 billion in federal aid distributed since last year. FEMA alone has spent about $38 billion in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas since Katrina, but it's also in recovery, trying to repair a severely damaged reputation.

"FEMA now has more resources, there's more clarity in the legislation, more authorities to do things before a hurricane makes landfall," Fugate said. And when the next storm hits -- wherever it hits -- he promises the agency will work closely with other federal agencies, state and local officials, nonprofit and religious groups, private companies and everyday citizens to respond.

"You can't just look at the federal government" for disaster response, Fugate said. The general public has a greater role to play.

"We need to change this methodology that the public are victims, and realize they're survivors and that they oftentimes will contribute to greater success if we incorporate them into the plans and remember who we're working for," he said. "We're working for survivors."

Response based on experience

Back in May while other parts of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) juggled the Gulf Coast oil spill and failed Times Square bombing, FEMA responded to flash flooding in Tennessee.

"They had people here before it was officially declared a disaster area," Nashville Mayor Karl Dean (D) said. "When they got here, they came in with a significant number of people, going door to door and they were writing checks real quickly."

More than 23,700 residents registered for federal assistance and had received more than $80 million in aid as of last week, according to Dean's office.

Fugate visited Tennessee three times in the first week and listened closely to local leaders, said Gov. Phil Bredesen (D).

"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.

"We wanted to have somebody who wasn't just familiar with the corridors of Washington, but more importantly understood the needs and capabilities of state and local communities," said White House Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan.

Observers give Fugate credit for his early work but say he remains untested on the national stage. They're especially concerned with how FEMA will respond if a major hurricane hits the Gulf Coast this year.

"There will be some major issues because you'll have Environmental Protection Agency involvement and lots of other agencies," said Kathleen Tierney, director of the University of Colorado at Boulder Natural Hazards Center. "I would expect that that's what they're worried about right now."

Fugate also has his critics.

Leo Bosner, a former FEMA employee and union official, called Fugate's plans "wishy-washy" and said he's done little to improve the agency's severely bruised morale.

"A lot of experienced people feel they're being pushed out and feel that internally Fugate . . . seems to be making promises or is hesitant to make promises about employees' welfare," Bosner said.

Bill Carwile, head of FEMA's response and recovery operations, sees it differently.

"I think that Fugate's vision and leadership and willingness to reach out to people has caused folks to want to be part of his team," he said.

Disability advocates also worry that FEMA isn't ready to house disabled people if another big storm strikes. "We're not sure they actually have a policy in place that says what they think they're going to need and how they're going to go about doing that," said Cary LaCheen of the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.

Temporary housing for disabled survivors remains a challenge, Fugate admitted. The agency is testing new temporary units and phasing in new cots that are easier for the disabled to use, he said. And he insists accessibility is one of several areas where FEMA will work with outside experts.

"We need to be working with a bigger team and actually going back to the folks who do this every day and ask them how to do this," he said.

'This is the pinnacle of my career'

During years on firetrucks and ambulances in his native Alachua County, Fla., Fugate would spend hours reviewing the county's disaster plans. The interest became his profession in the late 1980s as the Cold War ended. It was about that time that emergency management evolved from a focus on the threat of nuclear attack to focusing on all kinds of disaster possibilities.

Fugate joined Florida's emergency management agency in 1997 and got the top job in 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A registered Democrat, he worked for two Republican governors.

"Craig is experienced, energetic, non-political and very committed to the mission of emergency response," Jeb Bush said in an e-mail. "The administration is fortunate to have him on their team."

Fugate's other former boss, Gov. Charlie Crist, would not comment.

A bachelor most of his life, Fugate married his wife, Sheree, in 2002. Their home remains in Gainesville, Fla., and they rent a Penn Quarter apartment in the same building where Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan lives. (Fugate met her once in the elevator.) He's eager to go home to Florida to help raise his two grandsons.

"I have no desire to be in Washington, D.C., one day longer than my service to the country requires," he said. "I'm not looking at this as a stepping stone, I'm not looking at this as a career enhancer, I'm not looking at this to punch my ticket. This is the pinnacle of my career."

So he'd turn down a promotion?

"I'd be flattered, honored," he said, "but would point out, I'm good at what I do, don't ask me to screw something else up."

ed.okeefe@washingtonpost.com

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