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Director W. Craig Fugate refocusing a chastened FEMA

FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate speaks with The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe about how the agency has changed in the five years since Hurricane Katrina.

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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.

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"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).

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