Craig Fugate served as the administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency under Barack Obama’s full tenure as president. In the position, he dealt with many critical weather emergencies, including several in Florida, and terrorist attacks.
Fugate is from Alachua County, attended Sante Fe High School and worked as a lieutenant with Alachua County Fire Rescue. He then worked as an emergency manager for the county for 10 years before moving up to the state level, serving as deputy director for the Florida Emergency Management Division and then becoming director under Gov. Jeb Bush in 2001.
As the national FEMA administrator, Fugate led the agency through multiple record-breaking disaster years and oversaw the response to the Joplin and Moore tornadoes, Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Matthew and the 2016 Louisiana floods.
Fugate returned to Gainesville after stepping down when the Trump administration took office in January. Fugate sat down with WUFT News this week to talk about his experiences and the future of disaster response. This audio segment of our interview was edited for time restrictions on WUFT-FM.
The full questions and responses below have been edited for clarity and brevity.
WUFT: How did your ascension from Alachua County Fire and Rescue to working for former Gov. Jeb Bush and eventually the Obama administration happen?
Fugate: I just answered my phone. You would be amazed by how many times just doing your job and not looking for what’s next … people will come to you with offers, totally unexpected.
In each case, I never applied for any of those jobs. When I was a lieutenant with the Alachua County Fire and Rescue, I got called, and they said they wanted me to come downtown and work on a project. The project was to update the emergency management plan.
So I answered the phone, I said I’ll do it and that ended up turning into doing emergency management full time in the county.
When I got the call from the state, they asked if I would be interested in becoming a bureau chief for prepared response, so I said OK.
Same thing happened with the Obama administration. I get a phone call, and they said, ‘Would you come up to Washington and meet with the [Secretary of Homeland Security Janet] Napolitano.’ I said, ‘For what?’ They said, ‘Well, we’re interested to see if you could be a fit in the administration and asked if I can be up there tomorrow.’ I said, ‘No, I have a job, but I can be up there next Wednesday.’ They said, ‘You do understand this is Secretary Napolitano, and we’re looking at you for a possible position with the administration.’ I told him, ‘Yeah and I already have a job.’
You were this casual about it?
Yeah. I had already interviewed one time in the [George W.] Bush administration, and it just wasn’t a good fit. But I went up to Washington, not sure what they were going to offer me. Then [Obama] nominated me to be the FEMA administrator.
Jeb Bush is on record saying you are the best emergency manager in the country. As Trump considers his replacement, what are the necessary attributes you think a successful FEMA director needs?
I think it’s a bias towards action. Within my profession, you need the ability to … make decisions about when to launch a large response because triggering events have occurred, even when you don’t have any requests yet or any information.
The most perishable and precious commodity in disaster response is time, and you never get it back. You want somebody that can synthesize a lot of variables very quickly and know when to push the system to go now versus waiting for a formal request for assistance. You don’t want someone who wants all the information to make the perfect decision because it takes too long.
Sometimes, good enough is all you get in a fast response.
Something you said in your farewell speech was “reasonable people always fail in disaster response” and that “perfection is the enemy.” Is that what you’re saying now?
Yeah. There is this tendency in government to not want to get things wrong and to not risk mistakes. In a disaster, you have to take risks for the right reasons.
I am trying to shift the mindset of the fear of making mistakes. People generally worry about fraud, waste, having too much stuff, spending too much money. But guess what? In a disaster, there’s going to be a hearing no matter what.
But if you don’t get the stuff needed and get there too late, not only is there going to be a hearing, you’ll be fired. In a true catastrophic disaster, you’re going to have so little time to make decisions that you have to do a lot of pre-planning and think out how these disasters unfold, the types of things you’ll need, and the quantities you’ll need based on populations, vulnerability and risk profiles.
If I get a scale-7.8 earthquake in California, I’m not going to wait for someone to tell me it’s bad. We’ve already run exercises and models. Why are we waiting? We should be able to generate an immediate response.
My biggest thing to the next administration is: Make sure you have somebody that Trump will empower and trust to make those decisions in the early moments of an event.
Are you concerned that we are two months away from hurricane season without a named director? What are the biggest threats and concerns?
No, I think we did our job of making sure that FEMA was equipped and staffed with the right expertise to lead the agency until the Trump administration is able to select an administrator. We left FEMA both financially and operationally equipped to respond to whatever may come until the political leadership is put into place. We figured it could be six months or longer to get someone in place.
You said the in a Tampa Bay Times article that the most anguishing event of your tenure was the flood of migrant children attempting to cross the border in 2015, a crisis FEMA was called to help with. Could you talk about that? What are your thoughts on immigration with the new administration?
I don’t have a policy on immigration. That is something that Congress needs to decide. What I was focused on is that we had children, some infants and toddlers, being held in detention facilities that were designed to hold adults for no more than 24 hours.
These children were being held for weeks at a time because the system had gotten so backed up. Yet no one could seem to make the breakthrough that we needed to fundamentally change what we were doing. This is where my rage against the bureaucracy and the clerks started.
The clerks were so busy following their regular everyday procedure, they could not see that it was not working. Children coming in that were unaccompanied by adults, by law, within 48 hours those children need to be turned over to Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they are then processed and taken to a more appropriate [location] while they await the decision of their status.
That system, however, was not prepared for the numbers and did not increase capacity, so children were coming in faster than Customs and Border could process them.
I looked at this and said, “You’re kidding me.” We’ve got children sleeping on the floor of detention facilities. Border agents were being heroic by having to literally microwave food. Some of the agents would bring birthday cakes from home, clothes from home, everything humanly possible.
But the system was broken down. So we got asked by the White House National Security Council what did we think, and we said this is a mass-care event. We need to help these kids. I don’t care about the policy. I don’t care about the politics. I don’t care about your stances on immigration. These were children. They were horrible in conditions. We can do better than that.
So we focused on getting the system up to capacity and tried to get the time frame that the children were held in detention centers minimalized. We were addressing both their mental and physical needs because these children were being abused on the trails coming up. Many of them were in poor health and had other diseases that needed to be addressed.
We worked to get a system in place to address those needs. And again, I talked to both sides of the aisle, and sometimes some of the biggest opponents of the administration’s immigration policy were some of the biggest supporters saying, ‘Hey, we get it Craig. These are kids. What can we do to help?’
That was generally how most people responded. It really wasn’t about immigration policy. There were a lot of heroes who were trying their best, but for whatever reason, we could not fully get all the pieces together. And that is when I developed this profound hatred for the clerks of the bureaucracy who were so unwilling to see the problem because they were so unwilling to change what they were doing, even if it made no sense and was placing these kids at greater risk.
We were able to facilitate that, stepped on a lot of toes, had a lot of bruised egos, and honestly, I didn’t really give a flip. The only thing I wanted to make sure that people were focusing on was that these were children and they deserve better than this. This is not the country I grew up in [that would] treat children like this.
You can debate immigration policy, but they are here. They shouldn’t be sleeping on floors.
It sounds like after you saw that, you had a big hand in improving it. Has it improved since then?
Yeah, we’ve gotten better. Part of this was to build better tools for predicting and monitoring migrant flows using intelligence and other tools to say, kids don’t just show up here, and we’re overwhelmed. Part of this, too, was Congress providing more funding so that officer refugee resettlement had more resources.
Initially, we had used Department of Defense military housing to house these kids, and they really stepped up to the plate.
One of the fundamental things I learned is that in government, there is a tendency to solve for ourselves and what is easiest for us to administer. And we sometimes forget the people we are trying to serve.
I also read in the Tampa Bay Times article some things about what you are doing now. It sounds like you are relaxing, having dinners with your wife. You even said you were lying in a hammock at the time. What are your plans looking forward? Are you going to miss Washington?
No. I’ll visit, but I’m not living back up there. As I tell people, I’m an emergency manager. I’m out of FEMA, but I’m not stopping what I do.
I got a couple of opportunities to work in the private sector basically being a mentor and adviser and taking those issues that I care about and translating that outside of government.
I’m working with some interesting organizations about how to help people do a better job. The joke is that your first big disaster is your first big disaster. Well, I’ve been through a lot of big disasters. Maybe I can help people so that when it is their first one, they’re not starting from scratch.
Here at UF, the College of Engineering has a huge program in mitigation and resiliency. UF also has an online emergency management degree program. You’ve got a lot of people with National Science Foundation grants that work on various aspects of communicating risk or disaster environments that we deal.
UF has one of the larger coastal-engineering labs who deal specifically with coastal communities and how the natural environments mitigate storm effects.
Are you going to be involved in any of these programs?
I’m back home, and to me, this is my sweet spot. I have the University of Florida and all the things that go on here. I have things I do with the Florida National Guard and training for them. I’ll even get on a plane and go to Washington and meet with people.
But I came back home because this is where I’m from, and I think between the university and the state of Florida, there’s a lot of things I think we can add value to: building more resilient communities for the future, and not repeating disasters and then just keep going through them as if nothing is going to change.
The advantage with UF being here is that it’s passing on to the next generation of leaders the hard-fought lessons we’ve learned … so that the next generation isn’t relearning what we learned the hard way.
If you had the opportunity to name your successor, who would it be?
Nim is the director in the state of Texas. Nim worked for [Gov.] Rick Perry. Rick Perry and President Obama weren’t exactly best buddies.
But Nim, like me, has a responder background. He came out of the fire service, was a local guy. But at the state level, we dealt with a lot of things that politically were becoming charged between our bosses. We were still able to work to get stuff done: everything from one of the most significant wildfire seasons to a very significant flood event, the ground zero for the Ebola cases, and dealing with that.
Nim was a fantastic partner in helping support us with the unaccompanied children. And the thing I like about Nim is you don’t read a lot about him because you don’t read a lot about how things go wrong in Texas. Because if you’re doing your job and you’re doing it well, you aren’t newsworthy.
I have just been very impressed watching how Nim operated through a lot of disasters that in other states were not as well managed and not as well run. Nim gets the political dynamics of it but also is a responder at heart, and he gets stuff done. That may not be what the Trump administration wants.
*This article has been corrected from a previous version that stated Fugate was FEMA administrator during Hurricane Katrina.