WASHINGTON — Craig Fugate, who led Florida's disaster response during back-to-back hurricanes, told senators at his confirmation hearing Wednesday for the top post at the Federal Emergency Management Agency that he'll hold the troubled agency to a "much higher standard of success'' than its Hurricane Katrina performance.
Fugate, President Barack Obama's choice to head an agency roundly criticized for its performance during the 2005 hurricane season, received a friendly reception from senators who warned that there's plenty of work to be done at the agency.
"Judging FEMA's future success on the basis of whether it is 'better than Katrina' is not viable," Fugate said in prepared remarks. "This standard does not, in my opinion, meet our sworn commitment to the American people. ... I will hold FEMA's future response and recovery missions to a much higher standard of success."
He told members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs he wants to create a "national focus on the next disaster.''
"We have to begin looking at our citizens as a resource, integrating and building readiness at a local, state and federal level," he said.
Members of the committee, which championed changes to the federal law after investigating FEMA's response to Katrina, said they were impressed with Fugate's experience. He was appointed to his Florida post in 2001 by former Gov. Jeb Bush and reappointed by Gov. Charlie Crist.
Federal law, now requires the FEMA administrator to have at least five years of disaster management experience, noted the committee chairman, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.
"You'd think that would be kind of expected, but that was not the case," Lieberman said, a likely reference to former FEMA director Michael Brown who had little disaster experience. "The obvious fact is Mr. Fugate has a background that not only meets, but far exceeds, these requirements."
Lieberman noted that the agency has improved since 2005 but that Fugate "still will face some tough challenges," including better tracking of where money is spent and cutting staff turnover. He pledged to move Fugate's confirmation rapidly.
Republican Sen. Mel Martinez noted that during Fugate's tenure as emergency management director in hurricane-prone Florida, he oversaw 23 declared state emergencies, including 11 presidentially declared disasters.
"In my view there's no more well-qualified person for the job," Martinez said. "Although we in Florida will be sad to see him leave, our nation needs him as we continue to work toward improving our response to national disasters."
Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson noted Fugate rose through the ranks as a firefighter and an emergency medical technician. He said Florida's program has become a model for the nation.
"This is a skilled, experienced professional," Nelson said, recounting for the panel how Fugate didn't hesitate to "take charge'' when a hurricane blew the roof off a county emergency management building.
"I've seen him perform under very difficult circumstances. You have a professional before you for confirmation," he said.