There are few jobs in the world that hold the responsibility for responding when everything goes wrong. Be it a hurricane targeting the mid-Atlantic; a tsunami warning for Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast; raging fires in the American Southwest; or an unprecedented East Coast earthquake, as administrator of FEMA, W. Craig Fugate has to keep a permanent watch on these events and the always-impending unknown threats that could strike at any time.
The one-time volunteer fireman from Florida rose to become the Sunshine State’s director of Emergency Management, handling hurricanes and wildfires and everything else in between. Along the way, Fugate became one of the first state emergency management leaders to integrate the private sector and its considerations into his state’s operating plan. He recognized that Florida’s government could not respond and recover from all of the threats and hazards it encountered. It required a wider team of public and private partners and resources if the state was going to be as resilient as possible. In the end, Florida became one of the model states for public sector, private sector, and citizen resiliency and preparedness.
It was an impressive metric that President Barack Obama and his incoming administration took note of when they selected him to become FEMA’s administrator.
Since taking over as administrator on May 13, 2009, Fugate has continued many of the post-Katrina reforms that have improved not only the operational performance but overall morale of the once-beleaguered agency.
In an interview at his Washington, D.C., office, Fugate reflected in an interview with Faircount senior homeland security correspondent Rich Cooper on the lessons learned over the past year, including the epic disasters that have struck around the world; the threats he wished people would take more seriously; the importance of teamwork; and FEMA’s greatest post-Katrina success.
Rich Cooper: With all the disasters we’ve seen this year, what are the lessons we should take away to all be better prepared?
W. Craig Fugate: We need to remember that not all disasters come with warnings. As we’ve seen this year, there’s been a lot of different areas of the country that were hit with different types of disasters. Some came with lots of warnings, such as the flooding that we expected along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. These were well forecasted and we knew that they were going to be major events.
In terms of tornadoes, maybe you had some indication from the storm prediction center that the risk was higher, but it didn’t really tell you where they were going to happen. The warnings were issued.
You get decent warning times with hurricanes, but even with that we saw how [due to] the uncertainty of a forecast, we still have to do a lot of protective measures even though you may not get hit.
And then you had the earthquakes. And again, I think we were getting lulled into a sense that earthquakes were really starting to be foreign events because we were seeing them in Haiti, Chile, and then we saw the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. People tend to think of earthquakes as being something far away. Then we have an earthquake here on the East Coast and suddenly people are going, “We have earthquakes on the East Coast? What are you talking about?”
I guess it goes back to … being prepared and really stressing personal and family preparedness. So I think with all these things, it just points out that it’s very hard to say you live in a place where you don’t have disasters and it’s very difficult to only prepare when you think there is about to be a threat.
It really comes back to [the fact that] you don’t always get a forecast, you don’t always know. Some disasters may not reach even the national scale, may not reach national media, but they can be very devastating locally. So being prepared is something that to me is extremely important. This year has kind of validated the fact that there’s very few places in this country that haven’t been touched by some sort of natural hazard.
We’ve seen a lot of state and local leaders – particularly during Hurricane Irene – being very forward-leaning in telling the public to be better prepared and to evacuate potentially damage-prone areas. Does that make your job and FEMA’s job easier?
Yes. There’s this tendency that we like to describe ourselves by each jurisdiction: “I’m a local,” “I’m a state,” or “I’m a fed,” but this only really works if you work as a team. Seeing the governors and local officials, particularly Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg in New York City, who was faced with a situation that based upon a forecast could end up seeing significant flooding and impacts in Manhattan, was a big help. Yet when the accuracy and the certainty of the forecast is such that we have to make those decisions, it’s almost likely that the impacts could be minimal and no real impacts occur. Unfortunately if you don’t make that decision you won’t have time to do it if the situation gets worse.