Some of our readers are too young to remember a time when the much-derided FEMA actually functioned well. That would be 1993 to 2001: Under President Clinton, former Arkansas emergency services director James Lee Witt directed FEMA with direct, cabinet-level access to the president and earned wide, bipartisan respect for his competence and flexibility.
Happy days—or at least competent days—are soon to be here again. President Obama has nominated W. Craig Fugate, director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, to be the next head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This is good news indeed.
Besides his depth of professional experience (see below), there is something reassuring in the fact that the man picked to be the next director for emergency management is the one who, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, informed then-FEMA director Joe Allbaugh that two planes had struck the World Trade Center. They were in Montana at the annual meeting of the National Emergency Management Association; Allbaugh was Bush’s first FEMA director (Brownie’s predecessor), and Fugate was acting director of the agency he now heads. Fugate handed the phoneless FEMA boss his cell so Allbaugh could get the story from Fugate’s deputy in Tallahassee.
Described by colleagues as “the calmest man in the room” during an emergency, Fugate is probably the most qualified manager a president could pick to lead FEMA. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano praises him as “one of the most respected emergency managers in the nation.” Bruce Baughman, a former FEMA operations chief who ran Alabama’s emergency management agency, says, “No one in the country knows more about preparing for and responding to hurricanes than Craig Fugate.” Max Mayfield, former director of the National Hurricane Center, says Fugate “has a grasp of all aspects of emergency management from preparedness to response to recovery.” Former Florida governor Jeb Bush has praised his “calm resolve and steadfast resolve,” and gives “kudos to President Obama for a great choice.”
This is not the first time Fugate has been considered for the directorship of FEMA. After Michael Brown left in the aftermath of Katrina, Fugate was interviewed for the job in January 2006, but declined. As Chris Cooper and Robert Block report in Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security (2006), Fugate came out of the interview shaking his head and said, “They wanted a liquidator, not a director.” (See Levees Not War’s interview with Cooper and Block here .) Cooper and Block write:
A bear of a man with a cult following among firefighters, police, and politicians, Fugate was an all-too-familiar figure to Floridians. . . . He had risen from local firefighter and paramedic to become director of the state’s division of emergency management in 2001, and in just four years he had created perhaps the finest response system in the country, capable of preparing Florida for everything from tornadoes to terrorists. Even the smallest details fit seamlessly into his design: He had even standardized the state’s firehoses, from Key West to Pensacola. (Cooper and Block, Disaster , pp. 272–73)
Before he was director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management (since 2001), Craig Fugate was chief of the state’s preparedness and response operations (since 1997) and served as emergency manager for his home county of Alachua (Gainesville) for ten years. He was prepared for that position by starting as a volunteer firefighter (as were his father and uncle), attending the Florida State Fire College, and serving as a paramedic. He has served in Florida emergency management under three governors. His family’s roots in Florida go back to the days of the Spanish land grants.
In addition to his solid background in emergency management, one of the most reassuring characteristics of Fugate’s method is his insistence on practice, preparation, exercise. He directs drills, oversees mock scenarios to test local and statewide response to emergencies from bird flu epidemics and floods to terrorist attacks and nuclear plant accidents. He has a short list of rules for emergency management: “(1) Meet the needs of disaster survivors. (2) Take care of the responders. (3) See Rule One.” And he uses the motto Semper Gumby (“always flexible”), borrowed from the U.S. Marine Corps’ modification of their own Semper Fidelis (“always faithful”).
It is reassuring to consider where Fugate has developed his professional skills: Florida is obviously a large and frequent target for hurricanes, so the state has to be well prepared to handle emergencies. It has a large and relatively affluent population, compared to some of its neighbors on the Gulf Coast. Fugate has been well trained by predecessors and has come of age as an emergency manager in a state with comparatively generous funding for emergency services. It is also a good thing that he has benefited from serving under the brother of a president, so that the resources were there when needed. We only wish that other hurricane-prone states’ emergency response divisions were as well funded and developed. But if anyone can show them how it’s done, it’s Craig Fugate.
Joseph Lieberman is chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which will schedule a nomination hearing once it receives the necessary paperwork from the Department of Homeland Security. (We have a call in to DHS to see when the papers will be delivered.) Lieberman’s statement  on the Fugate nomination says, in part, “Mr. Fugate clearly is an experienced emergency manager, and I look forward to our nomination hearing and a conversation with him about his goals and priorities for FEMA.”