The day W. Craig Fugate took over Florida's Division of Emergency Management in 2001, the state faced a major crisis. Florida was in the midst of a drought so serious that then-Gov. Jeb Bush said he was praying for rain.
In 2004, Fugate faced the opposite problem: four powerful hurricanes that dumped rain in biblical proportions.
Now Fugate, 49, faces his biggest challenge ever. He has been tapped by President Obama to take over the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which became notorious under Michael Brown for its fumbling response to Hurricane Katrina.
"I'm confident that Craig is the right person for the job and will ensure that the failures of the past are never repeated," Obama said in a statement Wednesday.
Fugate, who must face Senate confirmation, was not available for comment. But his selection brought accolades from Florida politicians in both parties, including Bush: "Kudos to President Obama for a great choice." Fugate's new boss, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, called him "one of the most respected emergency managers in the nation."
If he is confirmed by the Senate, Fugate will be the second Floridian to head FEMA. After Brown resigned in disgrace, then-President George W. Bush had a hard time finding a replacement. Eventually he chose R. David Paulison, former chief of the Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Department.
Paulison said Wednesday that Fugate will find that the hours in the job are long and the bureaucracy can be daunting. Many of the reforms Paulison launched remain works in progress.
"Craig's going to run into some major issues that have to be dealt with," he said.
But Fugate will also find strong support in Washington, better coordination than ever with other federal agencies — and, in Obama, a president who "gets it," Paulison said.
The heavyset, goatee-wearing Fugate is something of a rarity in Florida: a Democrat appointed to a key state post by one Republican, then kept on by a second one, Gov. Charlie Crist. Fellow emergency professionals say that's a sign of how valuable his expertise and experience are. "He's come up through the ranks," explained Billy Wagner, who spent 20 years in charge of emergency management in the Keys.
Fugate was born at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station, the son of a career Navy veteran. He grew up outside Gainesville in the town of Alachua. His mother died when he was 11, his father five years later. Leaders of his Future Farmers of America chapter filled the parenting void for the orphan.
Although he's a die-hard Gator fan, Fugate did not go to the University of Florida. Instead he attended fire college and paramedic school. He became a volunteer firefighter, a job he saw embodying the FFA ideals of community service, then worked his way up to lieutenant. "I dragged my share of fire hoses," Fugate said in a 2005 interview.
He soon became more interested in planning for emergencies, serving 10 years as Alachua County's emergency management chief. His basement office was so small that if someone walked in unannounced, the door would hit Fugate in the head.
Hired by the state's emergency management agency in 1997, Fugate took over as director a month after Sept. 11. He became a ubiquitous figure on television news in 2004 and 2005 when the state was repeatedly battered by hurricanes.
"After Hurricane Charley hit Punta Gorda, I flew over the next morning in a helicopter," said former National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield.
"I'll be darned if Craig wasn't already there."
To cope with all the wildfires, hurricanes, anthrax scares and terror alerts, Fugate oversaw about 130 state employees, whom he liked to surprise with what he called his "thunderbolt" exercise.
"He's famous for walking in and saying something like, 'Okay, there's a fire in the building and you have to evacuate — what do you do?' " Mayfield said. "They have to act like it's the real thing."
Fugate's friends describe him as plain-spoken and unflappable. Four years ago, while he and his wife, Sheree, were on a fishing trip in the Bahamas, their boat hit a reef and began to sink. Fugate never lost his cool, not even when his wife asked, "Shouldn't we be putting on our life jackets about now?" (Another boat picked them up.)
Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Lesley Clark and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story, which contains information from the Gainesville Sun and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.