Back in Florida, Craig Fugate is happy to leave the next disaster to a new FEMA chief

Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, sits with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office this past October after briefing the president about Hurricane Matthew.
Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, sits with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office this past October after briefing the president about Hurricane Matthew.
Published Feb. 13, 2017

Naturally, disaster threatened North Florida as Craig Fugate returned home after seven years in Washington running the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The tornadoes last month passed, and Fugate got on with decompressing.

"It's 70 degrees, the azaleas are blooming and I'm in my hammock," he said by phone from Gainesville last week. "When we get done talking, I'll walk inside and my wife and I will have dinner in our home. Now I have to figure out what I'm going to do next."

Fugate, 57, was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 after guiding Florida's Division of Emergency Management through a series of hurricanes and other calamities.

By all accounts, the plainspoken former Alachua County firefighter helped bring FEMA back into good standing following the crisis of Hurricane Katrina.

"I give a lot of credit to the people I got to work with and a very tolerant president who basically indulged me and let me do what I do best," said Fugate, a Democrat who worked for Republican governors in Florida.

He last saw Obama in the Oval Office for a briefing on Hurricane Matthew. Fugate wore the uniform that TV watchers in Florida got to know well during the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005: khakis and a windbreaker.

"People were saying, 'How did you get away with that?' "

Fugate's final day was Jan. 20, when President Donald Trump was sworn in. Trump has not named a replacement yet. Fugate had made it clear well before the election that he was ready to move on, and it is standard for political appointees to resign.

"I want to be engaged; I don't necessarily want to work 40 hours a week."

Fugate's boss in Florida, former Gov. Jeb Bush, said Friday, "Craig Fugate is the best emergency manager in the country. Our country was fortunate to have him lead FEMA. Same with Florida!"

In a farewell to employees on Jan. 17, Fugate sought to inspire: "Don't do what you are capable of doing, push yourself harder. Be unreasonable in your expectations, because reasonable people always fail in disaster response. Perfection is your enemy. Getting 100% answers to everything that can go wrong will keep you from ever making a decision."

It is a mantra he brought with him from Florida. Rather than wait for hurricane assessments, Fugate marshaled a rapid response. He also worked to change the federal agency's outlook.

"When I walked into FEMA, if you were applying for disaster assistance, you could be talking to as many as eight different parts of FEMA that didn't talk to each other. So I said, 'Why don't we do something radically different and design our systems around the people we are serving, not what's easiest for us.' "

He said the most anguishing event of his tenure was the flood of migrant children attempting to cross the border in 2015, a crisis FEMA was called in to help with.

"I felt a very profound hate for bureaucrats more than I ever felt before," Fugate said.

"We had kids sitting in detention cells, some infants with teenage mothers, weeks at a time. People were sitting there saying, 'We don't have funding for this or this is something our program doesn't do.' I was thinking, 'Guys these are kids, why are you telling me what you can't do? Why aren't we doing something about it.' "

Now Fugate is pondering a slower pace. He is mulling speaking requests as far-flung as Japan and England and will do some consulting. But Fugate is eschewing offers from those who want to use his Rolodex.

"I'm trying to avoid the usual post-D.C. trauma of being a lobbyist or whatever the hell," he said.

Contact Alex Leary at Follow @learyreports.