Amanda Ripley

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What’s the Opposite of Mike Brown? Craig Fugate

4th Mar 2009 posted in General

Craig Fugate has been nominated by Pres. Obama to head up FEMA. My first instinct is: Damn. Nice pick. My second instinct is: God help him.

Fugate is a man who tells it like it is. He was a firefighter before he became an emergency manager and rose through the ranks to become head of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management in 2001.

The last time I saw him was in the summer of 2006 when he spoke on a panel alongside (get this) the then-disgraced former FEMA head Mike Brown at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Natural Hazards Workshop.

He was polite towards Brown, but he didn’t hold back when he talked about FEMA and emergency management in general.

Some choice excerpts from his comments that day:

“We have created a nation of victims. We have disempowered people to take responsibility for their own survival. They expect someone to save them….”

“...I believe in an open society. If citizens know they have toxic chemicals downtown, they’re more likely to say, ‘Why don’t you move the chemicals?’”

“...I get asked a lot, ‘Should FEMA be in or out [of the Department of Homeland Security.] That’s the wrong question.”

Fugate went on to say that Congress needs to obsess more over outcomes—what do we want FEMA and other agencies to do? What are the metrics of success, and have we met those metrics? And it should obsess less over process (who sits at which table when). I couldn’t agree more.

But what I like most about Fugate is that he calls people “survivors” instead of “victims.” He is stone-cold honest about how little the feds can do in big disasters—and how much depends on the training, attitude and expectations of regular people.

Unlike Brownie, Fugate has serious street cred. He has spent his entire life helping people avoid, contain and respond to all manner of catastrophes. He led Florida through four major hurricanes in 2004, and he is hugely popular among state and local emergency types for his wisdom and straight talk. If he is confirmed, he may actually have a shot at restoring the tortured relationship between the federal government (which writes the checks) and the state and locals (who do everything else).

We’ll see. I hope he doesn’t come to his senses and change his mind… 

Full disclosure: Fugate liked my book, back before he was famous.