FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate Is More than a Spokesman

Fugate uses plain language, doesn't sugarcoat or dance around the issues.

by / October 8, 2009

Photo: FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate was released from FEMA offices long enough to address an attentive group at the 2009 Annual Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop in Broomfield, Colo., in July.

I didn’t expect much; you just don’t expect meaty keynotes delivered by FEMA administrators these days, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about Fugate. I’d heard things and had an e-mail exchange with him recently that left me curious.

Fugate uses plain language. He’s quick to the point and doesn’t dance around the issues. He probably has been called abrasive a time or two.

He told conference attendees that there was a lot of work to do, that there were unrealistic expectations of FEMA and that maybe the agency’s mission statement ought to be rewritten. He talked about how emergency management needs to be a team effort and that it all starts at the local level. “Disasters are best managed locally, but it’s got to be seamless with the feds,” he said.

Fine and true, if not obvious.  As I said, you don’t expect meaty keynotes from FEMA administrators.

Then he ventured outside the FEMA template. “You want to change mitigation in this country? Change building codes,” he said, prompting applause. Mitigation is not bold enough, he went on, and called current practices a "nickel-and-dime" approach that rewards the least performance.

“We look at rebuilding as a measure of getting things done, rather than changing the impact of a disaster,” he said.

And he clarified what a disaster really is: “Floods and hurricanes happen. The hazard itself is not the disaster — it’s our habits, our building codes. It’s how we build and live in those areas — that’s the disaster.” He talked about outdated flood maps: “We may not want to know the truth about flood maps because it may cost us money.”

He said the goal should be to work on minimizing the environmental impacts upon us, not just clean up after the fact.

He addressed the effects of climate change on our future — one that includes famine and disease as a result of the warmer climate’s impact on the water supply.

Those aren’t things you heard from either of the last two heads of FEMA. We all remember Michael “Brownie” Brown, the former judges and stewards commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association, who was somehow appointed FEMA director; and David Paulison, who was qualified, likable and well spoken but was let out of FEMA offices mostly to parrot a FEMA script.

That’s not Fugate, who paused to joke that his chief of staff sat him down and scolded him for going off script. You have to love a guy who knows his staffer is going to give him hell for saying this stuff, but says it anyway.

OK, love is a strong word. You don’t even have to like the guy. Just recognize he’s a smart choice to lead FEMA, even though he’s no spokesman.

Jim McKay Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.

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