Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Obama nominates Florida's seasoned emergency director Craig Fugate to head FEMA

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.


W. Craig Fugate

Age: 49

Born: Jacksonville

Education: Graduated Santa Fe High School (Alachua County) 1977; attended fire college and paramedic school at Santa Fe Community College.

Work: Firefighter, Alachua County 1981-1987; Alachua County emergency management director 1987-1997; chief of the state Bureau of Preparedness and Response, 1997-2001; director,

state Division of Emergency Management, 2001-2009.

Personal: Married since 2002 to Sheree Fugate; two stepchildren; hobby is sea kayaking. See his blog at

Obama nominates Florida's seasoned emergency director Craig Fugate to head FEMA 03/04/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 5, 2009 12:04am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. One of the best places for investing in a rental house is in Tampa Bay

    Real Estate

    Two Tampa Bay ZIP Codes are drawing national attention.

    . If you're looking to invest in a house to rent out, few places are better than  ZIP Code 34607 in Hernando County's Spring Hill area, according to ATTOM Data Solutions.
 file photo]

  2. Bucs' Vernon Hargreaves: 'I'm not making any plays'


    TAMPA — Eli Manning gathered his receivers together on the sideline during the Giants' Week 4 game against the Bucs and told them he planned to target the weakest link of the secondary all afternoon.

    Patriots receiver Chris Hogan gets position in front of Bucs cornerback Vernon Hargreaves for a 5-yard touchdown pass in New England’s win on Oct. 5.
  3. Suspect in Maryland office park shooting is apprehended


    EDGEWOOD, Md. — A man with a lengthy criminal past who was fired from a job earlier this year for punching a colleague showed up for work at a countertop company on Wednesday and shot five of his co-workers has been arrested, authorities said. Three of them were killed and two critically wounded.

    Harford County, Md., Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler shows a picture of Radee Labeeb Prince, the suspect in the workplace shootings.
  4. Lightning's J.T. Brown to stop anthem protest, focus on community involvement

    Lightning Strikes

    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Lightning wing J.T. Brown will no longer raise his first as a protest during the national anthem before games.

    J.T. Brown says he will work more with the Tampa police and groups that serve at-risk young people.
  5. The two Ricks tangle at what may be final debate


    ST. PETERSBURG — In what was likely the last mayoral forum before the Nov. 7 election, Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker started out small, discussing neighborhood issues like recycling and neighborhood funding. They ended tangling over familiar subjects: the future of the Tampa Bay Rays, sewage …

    Ex-Mayor Rick Baker, left, and Mayor Rick Kriseman, right, debated familiar topics. The Times’ Adam Smith moderated.