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Craig Fugate’s Most Difficult Challenge: And It’s Not What You Think

DMN Q & A: Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator, Department of Homeland Security

This past October I had an opportunity to sit down with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate for a one-on-one interview reflecting on the events and lessons learned from 2011.  The interview for The Year in Homeland Security: 2011/2012 Edition touched on a number of subjects, from the trifecta disaster in Japan (earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant accident), to weather and natural disasters that struck the U.S. in what was a year from hell, disaster-wise.

Fortunately for all of us, Fugate and his FEMA team extend far beyond the reaches of their Washington, D.C. offices, throughout the public and private sectors to the state, tribal, and local levels.

These are the foundational roots for successful planning, preparation and response in emergency management, and Fugate takes great care and pride in ensuring that every piece of that national network knows what to do and has the resources and relationships to succeed. Vision such as Fugate’s may not seem novel in the post-Katrina era, but it is the by-product of the experience that the current FEMA administrator brought to the job in 2009.

As the director of emergency management for the state of Florida, he was more than familiar with the power and impact of hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters, but none of those were the most difficult emergency he ever had to contend with. That experience would happen at the start of one of the nation’s most unique and impressive emergency management careers, and the details are as surprising as they are unique.

Here’s an excerpt of the soon to be published interview.


Rich Cooper: What’s the most difficult emergency situation you’ve ever had to deal with?

Craig Fugate: Two cows in a sinkhole.

(Laughter from the interviewer and staff attending the interview)

I’m not kidding about that. I was a county emergency manager [in Florida] and I got a phone call from dispatch about a farmer that has the fire department out there with him and they have two cows that fell in the sinkhole. And I’m thinking, ‘Whoa, why don’t they just walk them out?’ But it’s not that kind of a sinkhole. It’s a chimney.

I’m like, ‘Well, what do you want me to do about it?’ and they responded, ‘Well, we didn’t know who else to call.’

So, fine. So I go out there. They take me out in this field up to this wooded area and there’s a hole probably about as big as this table that goes down about 20 feet and at the bottom of it are two cows sitting there. The farmer had thrown down some hay and they’re eating their hay and they somehow walked across and this sinkhole opened up, they fall all the way to the bottom and are not injured. And everybody turns to me and goes, ‘So how are we going to get them out?’ And, I’m like, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever had a class on cattle extraction,’ but it was kind of fun, because it’s a way of pointing out that sometimes people get so wrapped up in process that it forces us to step back and say OK, here’s the outcome we want, because the first option is if we can’t get them out we’re going to destroy the animals, correct?

All right, so the positive outcome is we can get them out of the hole alive. What’s that going to take? Well, if you’ve ever been around livestock, they … well, cows are big, and they can be a little bit ornery, so it would be best if we could tranquilize them.

I knew there were harnesses [to carry cattle] because I’d seen them at the vet school in Gainesville, where they’ve got harnesses they put cattle in, so we need some harnesses and we’re going to need a crane. It turned out that one of the firefighters knew a guy that had a crane company, so he called him up and he was going to come out with a crane. We called over to the University of Florida and we got one of their veterinarians, because they had tranquilizer guns.

Nobody could find a harness, but they had the 2½-inch wide hose on the fire truck, and they figured out how to make one. Basically, the vet told them how to tie it and build a harness that we could then lift the cows with. And so, basically the vet sat on top on the rim [of the sinkhole] and tranquilized both cows. The firefighters then rappelled in, put the harnesses on the cows, we strapped them in and pulled the cows out and put them on the side. The vet gave them a stimulant and they got up, shook it off, walked off and were fine.


You’ve had a much better experience with animals than the sheriff in Zanesville, Ohio [where a number of lions, tigers, bears and other dangerous wild animals were released from a private zoo and had to be destroyed by Sheriffs deputies]. One of the sheriff’s deputies remarked, with respect to encountering lions and bears, ‘This is something that they don’t teach you at the police academy.’

Yeah, but what I found is [that] … most people start with the problem and try to figure out how to deal with the problem. They don’t really know where they’re going.

[The] more complex the disasters are, like the hurricanes we were dealing with in Florida, or the wildfires you know that are not going to end until the drought ends, you can get so involved in the immediate – just trying to deal with stuff – you never figure out what it is that’s going to define success. You need to start working what you are going to have to do to achieve that end, because a lot of times in disasters what you end up doing is dealing with the first thing that happens, and then you get to the next thing that happens, and the next thing that happens, and what you find out is you’re always behind and you’re missing opportunities, because you’re always dealing with things ‘right now.’

The further away you get from the disaster the less you’re able to even deal with that. So a lot of times if you just start with ‘OK, what’s my big number?’ and ‘What do I need to do to get to a point of stabilization?’ And to define what I mean by stable – what are the things that I need to have happen in the next timeframes? And then I’ll start planning against that, versus just dealing with almost … a piece-by-piece response.

So again, with the cows, it’s sort of like, the end state is they’re out of the hole and alive. How do you get there? Now you start reversing that and come back to what are you going to have to do to get there. So I think a lot of times when I’m looking at these complex disasters and the challenges you face it’s, ‘What’s success?’

Success may not be what everybody wants, but it’s what you can achieve given the timeframes and the resources, and now, what do I need to apply to that to get to that success? So, if you know what the outcome is you’re trying to get to, then you can apply your resources. You have the idea of [how] the timeframes and limitations are going to affect that outcome and how you need to adjust. But I always like to start out: ‘Where do I want to be in the next 24-hours; where do I want to be in 72-hours; where do I want to be in two weeks,’ and [say] what does it take to get there and how are we going to get it done?


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...