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'The old FEMA is gone': Craig Fugate's cleaned-up FEMA

Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, speaks at a news conference about the start of the Atlantic hurricane season on May 31.
Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, speaks at a news conference about the start of the Atlantic hurricane season on May 31.Wilfredo Lee / AP file

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, beginning to assess the damage wrought by disastrous flooding in his state, earlier this week stood next to FEMA administrator Craig Fugate at a news conference and expressed the highest praise possible for the federal agency — and its current boss.

"The old FEMA is gone," he said, seeming to reference the agency as it was under and after Michael Brown, who resigned after the disorganized response to Hurricane Katrina eight years ago.

Fugate, 53, is known among colleagues for his quirky "thunderbolt" exercises and unique Waffle House litmus test. More important: he's turned the once-bruised agency's reputation around since taking over as FEMA administrator in May 2009.

"He's not your typical government bureaucrat," said Max Mayfield, former director of the National Hurricane Center, who has known Fugate since the early 1990s, when Fugate was an emergency manager in Alachua County, Fla.

Hit by a 'thunderbolt'

To best prepare his employees for a diversity of disaster situations, Fugate makes them undergo surprise drills that they are "terrified of," according to Mayfield.

"He would call these 'thunderbolts,'" Mayfield said. "He'd walk into the emergency operations center and say, 'There's a fire, the telephones are out, the Internet's out, what are you going to do about it? There's a hurricane coming, what are you going to do?' And they actually go through the drill."

Fugate has also developed a signature way of determining how much aid a community needs after a disaster.

"If a Waffle House is damaged but open, keep driving. If it's totally knocked out, that's where you stop," Mayfield said. 

Fugate told The New York Times in 2012 of his Waffle House theory, "Waffle House has a very simple operational philosophy: get open. They never close. They run 24 hours a day."

"They have a corporate philosophy that if there is a hurricane or a storm, they try and get their stores open. It don’t matter if they don’t have power, it don’t matter if you don’t have gas. They have procedures that if they can get a generator in there, they’ll get going. They’ll make coffee with bottled water," he added.

Prepared by Florida 

Fugate — born William Craig Fugate at a Jacksonville, Fla., naval air station — got involved in emergency services at a young age. Both his parents died before he finished high school. Orphaned, he found a passion in volunteering as a firefighter. He attended Florida State Fire College, and then was a paramedic for Alachua County. He was promoted to fire department lieutenant, and then was appointed emergency manager in 1987.

After serving as county emergency manager for 10 years, Fugate became the deputy director of the Florida Emergency Management Division, a stepping stone to becoming director in 2001. The appointment by the Republican governor at the time, Jeb Bush, showed the respect Fugate, a Democrat, had already garnered at that stage in his career.

There, he faced challenges that would prepare him for leading FEMA: He oversaw his state's response to about two dozen hurricanes, storms, and fires.

"Because he has such a wealth of experience as an emergency manager, be it at the local or state level, and in a state that is no stranger to disasters, the fact that he comes from the emergency management community rather than another area, commands a certain amount of legitimacy [as FEMA administrator]," said Tricia Wachtendorf, the associate director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. "This isn't just a political appointee."

Still, Fugate isn't without his critics. While he was praised for guiding Floridians through myriad hurricanes, he received criticism for not distributing enough water, ice and other supplies after Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Fugate had told residents before the storm that they should have enough supplies for three days after Wilma passed through, but many did not.

Fixing FEMA's reputation

By the time Obama nominated Fugate for the top FEMA slot in 2009, the agency itself had been battered. Ever since its delayed, disorganized response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 under George W. Bush and then-FEMA administrator Michael Brown, FEMA had become a punchline, and the nickname "Brownie" became shorthand for incompetence.

Brown resigned over his controversial handling of Katrina, making way for acting administrator R. David Paulison to lead FEMA. But the agency still hadn't found its footing four years later.

While Katrina was Brown's huge test, Hurricane Sandy was Fugate's. He passed: New Jersey Chris Christie said on TODAY in the days following the storm, "The president has been outstanding in this and so have the folks at FEMA," and officials from other storm-ravaged states praised the agency as well.

"After Hurricane Sandy, FEMA was regarded as actually fulfilling its role and was a very effective agency in helping people recover," said Jim Fraser, a Vanderbilt University professor who has done multiple projects looking at FEMA disaster mitigation.

Despite that, he said, FEMA still struggles with major debt from its national flood insurance program, Fraser said.

"With the resources that FEMA has, they're doing a good job. But given the increasing number of hurricanes and flooding events, they need more resources," he said.

In the months following Sandy, FEMA hit a significant snag: it decided it would use re-drawn flood maps in Sandy-affected areas, which would have forced homeowners and businesses to pay thousands more in flood insurance premiums with no notice — a move that drew outrage. The maps were later revised. But many people still have yet to return to their homes, waiting for money and direction on how to get their homes up to code. 

When Fugate isn't darting across the country from one disaster to the next, he spends time with his wife, Sheree, who he married in 2002, and enjoys sea kayaking.