WASHINGTON — Craig Fugate insists he's just visiting Washington.
"I'm a Gator," the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said recently. "As soon as the president says I am done, I will be on the way back home as fast as I can get in my vehicle and crank the ignition."
Fugate, who headed the Florida Emergency Management Division from 2001 to 2009, took charge of FEMA in May 2009. Since then, the burly but jovial former firefighter and paramedic from Gainesville has supervised the federal response to an earthquake in American Samoa, flooding in Tennessee, and snowstorms in the Midwest.
He ha-s kept Florida's lessons with him. The 52-year-old, who brought his wife, Sheree, with him to Washington, managed Florida disasters from hurricanes Charley to Gustav. That experience has shaped every response since, from strengthening public-private partnerships, to improving how FEMA accommodates people with disabilities and how it uses social media to monitor disasters.
"Craig brings a wealth of practical experience on emergency management," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, "and a real vision on how we can employ new tools."
Help beyond government
The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan this month offered a reminder of the importance of emergency management and disaster preparedness. But it also illustrated the limitations of what government can do.
During an interview with the St. Petersburg Times last month, Fugate emphasized that "FEMA is never in charge" of disaster relief. Instead, the agency's role is to support and coordinate with local and state agencies, nonprofit organizations, and faith-based groups, as well as private-sector companies like grocery stores.
"In a disaster, the government can't do everything," Fugate said, "and the private sector does some things better."
He has made arrangements for companies such as Target and Big Lots to provide rotating staff in FEMA's response coordination center, where they serve as liaisons between the private sector and the federal government.
The private sector initiative grew out of his Florida experience, particularly the series of hurricanes that pounded the state in 2004 and 2005.
After Hurricane Wilma made landfall near Naples in 2005, state disaster response teams set up relief stations in grocery store parking lots. But they soon realized they were competing with the grocery stores themselves, which were able to reopen using generators. Fugate started coordinating with the Florida Retail Federation to set up relief stations in the most needy areas, where survivors could not find open stores.
"Wilma proved to us that … (the government response) still wasn't big enough or fast enough to get to everybody," Fugate said. "Government can be as efficient as possible, but it's still not enough if it's leaving out the private sector."
Tailoring plans to each community
In another lesson borrowed from his Florida days, Fugate has changed how FEMA writes disaster plans to better reflect a community and its demographics. In the past, emergency plans contained supplemental sections that specified how rescue workers should handle situations involving children, the elderly, people with disabilities and pets. Now the plans are tailored "for the communities we live in," so each one better reflects those demographics, Fugate said.
The new way of planning makes shelters better prepared for the people who will use them. In the past, shelters primarily stocked meals for adults. Now the types of meals are adjusted for each community, with baby food or meals for people with special dietary needs.
Using Twitter to boost preparedness
Fugate has given FEMA a social media presence, particularly on Twitter. He has more than 7,000 followers and personally tweets disaster alerts, preparedness tips, and places to get information during emergencies as @CraigatFEMA. He also uses Twitter to get a feel for what is happening in a disaster area and what people need.
After heavy rains in New York this month, he got a Tweet that said, "@CraigatFEMA please let approp ppl know — we are underwater in Westchester NY. Basements flooded that haven't flooded since Floyd."
Fugate replied: "@joshscribner FEMA Region 2 Office is coordinating with the impacted States dealing with this latest round of storms, @femaregion2."
Disaster response, straight from the top.
Praise for 'can-do leadership'
Since Fugate took over two years ago, the agency has received generally positive reviews from officials in states that have had disasters. Still, he faces questions from the House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, who at a recent hearing asked about inefficiencies in the agency's grant application process, and a lack of support for state and local entities in creating disaster plans that account for people with disabilities.
Emergency managers nationwide "have repeatedly sought clarification from FEMA and the Department of Justice on the application of this guidance, but have not received sufficient answers," said subcommittee chairman Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla.
But the FEMA administrator wins praise from emergency management officials such as Albert Ashwood, the director of the Oklahoma State Emergency Management Department, who says Fugate's experience — from his start as a county firefighter to his tenure as head of the state emergency management division — keeps him in touch with communities' needs.
"He brings an understanding of what it's like at not only the state level but at the local level," Ashwood said. "He understands the challenges that you experience at each level of government."
In Tennessee, government officials and the media praised FEMA's response to widespread flooding in spring 2010. The Tennessean quoted Gov. Phil Bredesen saying FEMA "was on the ground here before the raindrops started falling." In responding to disasters like that one, colleagues say Fugate doesn't let the government's efforts get tied up in red tape.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who first appointed Fugate as head of the emergency management department, said Fugate's "can-do leadership" allowed Florida to aid Mississippi when Hurricane Katrina veered west, sparing Florida from serious damage.
"Craig called me and asked if we could allow (the mobilized National Guard) to keep moving west," Bush wrote in an e-mail. "There was no arrangement for reimbursement, but he realized our teams would be most able to help. I said, 'Heck, yes,' and our men and women were the first responders in southern Mississippi and saved lives.
Fugate traveled north with that same sense of urgency — and has applied it nationwide.
"I've got three simple rules in a disaster," Fugate said of the philosophy he brought from Florida to Washington. "Meet the needs of survivors; take care of your team; and rule three is see the first rule."