WASHINGTON – March 4, 2009 -- (AP) -- President Barack Obama on Wednesday tapped Florida emergency manager Craig Fugate to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency, turning to a Republican appointee who has steered the Southern state through numerous hurricanes since 2001.
In a statement issued by the White House, Obama said he plans to nominate Fugate who will help the administration "improve our preparedness, response and recovery efforts."
Obama said Fugate will travel with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to the Gulf Coast on Thursday to meet with local officials still struggling to recover from 2005 hurricanes.
Fugate, who faces Senate confirmation once he is nominated, has been director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management since 2001, chosen by former Gov. Jeb Bush. He was retained by current Gov. Charlie Crist. Both governors are Republicans.
Before that, Fugate was the agency's assistant director for more than four years.
Fugate has been praised for helping guide Florida through several devastating hurricanes in the past decade. He was criticized in 2005 for not distributing enough ice, water and other supplies immediately after Hurricane Wilma. Fugate had warned residents before the storm that they should have enough supplies for three days after it passed, but many did not and that overstressed the system.
Napolitano called Fugate one of the most experienced emergency managers in the country.
"The work he's accomplished in Florida serves as a model for other states," Napolitano said in a statement. "He will be a tremendous asset to FEMA and it's employees."
Fugate's department was held up as a national model after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He said then that the state had been preparing extensively for the threat of terrorism since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and had done exercises for several possibilities, including cruise missile attacks.
Obama's decision to name Fugate drew praise from Florida lawmakers and the International Association of Emergency Managers, which represents local emergency managers around the country.
Since Hurricane Katrina, when FEMA arrived both late and unprepared, the agency has been under intense public scrutiny and Congress passed a law requiring the head of FEMA to have emergency management experience.
During Katrina, the agency couldn't track supplies or get those it had to the right place. FEMA was unable to provide then Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and other top federal officials with accurate or timely information from the area hit by Katrina, particularly about inhumane conditions confronting victims who sought shelter at New Orleans' Superdome and convention center.
FEMA's past administrator, R. David Paulison, who came on shortly after Katrina, said Fugate is the right choice for the job. "There are few people around the world that have the type of disaster experience that Craig Fugate has," Paulison said.
Paulison said Fugate's biggest immediate challenges are how to house catastrophic disaster victims who are displaced from their homes and how to make the long-term recovery process more efficient.
Thousands of victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are still living in temporary housing 3 1/2 years after the storms. Katrina was blamed for more than 1,600 deaths and $41 billion in property damage.
Paulison predicted that Fugate will be shocked when confronted by the federal bureaucracy when he takes over FEMA.
"The bureaucracy up there is tremendous," Paulison said of the federal government. "It can be very frustrating to get things done."
Fugate has been critical of the Homeland Security Department over the years. In a 2006 letter to a high-ranking homeland official, Fugate slammed the department's review of hurricane preparedness exercises for Florida's region. "The products are wonderful in terms of color enhancement, texture, physical craftmanship, etc.," Fugate wrote, sarcastically. But, he said, the reviews did not reflect the work Florida had done to respond to Hurricane Katrina.