TALLAHASSEE — Craig Fugate's next rescue mission will be his biggest yet.
As Florida's chief of emergency management, he has literally been in the eye of the hurricane, over and over again. Now, as President Obama's pick to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he carries decades of in-the-trenches experience to a high-profile job with no margin for error.
"The best decision I ever made in my professional life was to hire him," said Joe Myers, who preceded Fugate (FEW-gate) as Florida's emergency management director. "I wasn't looking for someone who sugarcoated everything. In a disaster, you don't want that."
Myers, who now runs an emergency-management consulting firm, hired Fugate in 1997 as a bureau chief helping Florida prepare for hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts and wildfires. The two men hit it off so well that the job interview lasted five hours.
"I asked him, 'What is your weakness?' " Myers recalled. "He said, 'I don't suffer fools.' I said, 'That's the man I need.' "
Fugate is known for plain talk and a direct manner, and for turning the tables on people and asking them to describe their hurricane preparedness plans. Friends have urged him not to change his ways when he gets to Washington.
"Just let Craig be Craig," said Pat Roberts, a longtime friend and president of the Florida Association of Broadcasters. "He doesn't try to make things complicated. He rallies the troops. He's calm. He's focused."
One of Fugate's finest hours as a leader was also one of Florida's darkest, according to some emergency experts. It was a Saturday morning, Aug. 14, 2004, after Hurricane Charley took a last-minute swerve and struck Charlotte County with devastating Category 4 power.
"He was at my back door with the state mobile command post," recalled Wayne Sallade, Charlotte County's emergency management chief. "Being right there on the ground with us spoke volumes. It showed us that he wasn't going to try to manage the thing from afar."
Fugate, 49, worked his way up from volunteer firefighter to paramedic to fire-rescue lieutenant to a 10-year run as Alachua County's emergency manager. He was appointed chief of the state Bureau of Preparedness and Response in 1997 and director of the Division of Emergency Management by Gov. Jeb Bush when Myers departed in 2001. He earns $116,000 a year.
"He's had a lot of visibility with the state, and he'll have even more with this job now that he's got the whole country looking at him," said Max Mayfield, former head of the National Hurricane Center and a storm specialist with WPLG-Ch. 10 in Miami. "I don't think anybody can say that he hasn't paid his dues."
Fugate declined to comment for this article. A close associate said the White House has asked him to refrain from giving interviews pending his confirmation by the Senate, which includes a comprehensive FBI criminal and background check and lengthy personnel forms.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who has worked with Fugate as a state and federal official, will guide Fugate's confirmation, but Nelson's office said the hearing is weeks away. That session will be at the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
R. David Paulison, the former Miami-Dade fire-rescue chief who was tapped to run FEMA in the wake of the agency's disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, said the hours are long and the bureaucracy can be daunting, and Fugate will have to deal with unfinished business. But Paulison, who lives in Davie, said Fugate will find strong support for the agency in Washington, improved coordination with other federal agencies, and in Obama a president who "gets it."
Fugate and his wife, Sheree, have personal roots in Gainesville, and he's still registered to vote in Alachua County as a Democrat. Away from work, he's an avid kayaker and devoted fan of his hometown Florida Gators.
He likes to communicate by cell phone, not e-mail. "I can count on one hand the number of e-mails I've gotten from him in the past 10 years," said Roberts. "Get him a kayak and get him on a river, and he's happy as can be."
Times staff writers Wes Allison and Alex Leary contributed to this report, and information from the Associated Press was used. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.