State disaster leader remains close to roots
Published: Sunday, June 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 31, 2008 at 10:56 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE -- As Florida warily enters another hurricane season, the images remain of federal and state officials plucking survivors of Katrina off rooftops in New Orleans or tossing food and water to Floridians hit by seven hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.
About Craig Fugate
- Job: Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
- Age: 49.
- Education: Graduate of Santa Fe High School in Alachua.
- Experience: Began career as volunteer firefighter and paramedic in Alachua County. Served as county's emergency manager for 10 years. Hired as chief of state's preparedness and response in 1997. Appointed the state's top emergency manager in 2001 by Gov. Jeb Bush.
- Salary: $116,000.
But Craig Fugate, the Alachua County native who's ties to the Gainesville area remain deeply rooted even though he works in Tallahassee as director of the state Division of Emergency Management, says Floridians need to forget all of that and focus on taking care of themselves.
"The lessons we learned from Katrina aren't the right lessons," he said.
In a worst-case hurricane that nails Miami and exits the state near Tampa Bay, "we don't have enough search and rescue teams. We don't have enough mobile kitchens. We don't have enough stuff for that kind of population."
Fugate's target is what he calls "the culture of the victim" - the conviction among residents that the first fallback after a disaster is government aid.
It has led Fugate to drop the word "victim" and replace it with "survivors," as he urges those left in a disaster's aftermath to take care of their families and their neighbors while government helps the most needy.
"There's an expectation I think we've created that if a disaster strikes a community, (people think) 'I'm supposed to play the role of victim. I'm supposed to wait until somebody comes in to take care of me,' '' said Fugate. "You're a survivor. You're actually part of the solution."
It is rare to hear any government official tell citizens that he does not have all the answers. But Fugate, 49, is a refreshing anomaly in the button-down world of Tallahassee.
A registered Democrat in a government dominated by Republicans, Fugate appears most natural when he's wearing a rumpled short-sleeved shirt in either the chaos-filled information hub in Tallahassee or the destruction zone after a disaster.
He easily lapses into the acronym-thick lingo of emergency management. But he also applies unusual rules for emergency responders like "Semper Gumby" - "always be flexible" like the cartoon icon.
He has scrubbed down with Handy Wipes before a 30-minute briefing with President George W. Bush after a hurricane. But he also drives from a rented house in Tallahassee to his native Alachua County every weekend to mow the grass and visit family.
"He's not your typical government bureaucrat," said Max Mayfield, the former director of the National Hurricane Center, who said Fugate is among the most respected disaster managers in the country. "He has a grasp of all aspects of emergency management from preparedness to response to recovery."
"Craig is an unflappable, steadying influence for the state," said Wayne P. Sallade, the emergency management director in Charlotte County, where Hurricane Charley hit in 2004, the first of four hurricanes to hit the state that year.
"Craig is Mr. Hurricane," Sallade added. "I think what Craig accomplished in 2004 is unlike anything that any other emergency manager of any other state has ever been asked to do."
With the last two hurricane seasons passing in peace, Fugate's public profile has lowered. Beyond the cold logic of making sure enough water and generators are stocked and ready to deploy, Fugate's primary job is to focus state and local officials on his three simple rules: "1. Meet the needs of the disaster survivors. 2. Take care of the responders. 3. See Rule One."
But in the past year, Fugate has overseen mock scenarios to test local and state response to disasters as varied as a nuclear plant accident, terrorism attacks that killed top government officials and a destroyed dike at Lake Okeechobee that could leave South Florida with more than 750,000 homes damaged or wiped out.
"It's like a knife," Fugate said of the drills that test communication and organization among governments, businesses and others. "If you're not sharpening it, it's going to get dull."
After years of huzzahs for his leadership in the historic chaos of 2004 and 2005, Fugate faced some criticism this year.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, ripped Fugate's agency late last year in a public meeting for spending on items not approved by the Legislature.
Fugate calmly explained the spending, and soothed Fasano's concerns.
"I know better now that Florida is prepared," Fasano said last week. "If FEMA could take some lessons from (Florida), they'd be a lot better for it."
Some local emergency managers wanted Fugate to be a more vocal advocate for funding as Gov. Charlie Crist and lawmakers slashed taxes and spending that, in turn, may limit response in disasters.
"His boss, the good governor, said that his tax reduction proposals would in no way affect public safety," said Sallade. "But ultimately the people of Florida will suffer because of this. We said, 'Craig, come on.' But what's he supposed to do? That's his boss."
Unlike many political appointees, Fugate literally worked his way up. The Alachua County native began as a volunteer fireman and a paramedic before serving as the county's emergency manager for 10 years. His first office was in a basement in Gainesville where the door would hit his head if someone walked in unannounced.
In 1997, Fugate was hired as the chief preparedness officer for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. When the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, Fugate drove back to Florida from Montana in a rented car. The following month, then-Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Fugate to his current position.
Without a college degree, Fugate has become one of the most treasured state employees, with Bush and Crist praising him as the best in the business. "We're blessed to have him and it makes the governor sleep a lot better, and Floridians should, too," Crist said.
Fugate's ties to his job and his Alachua County home became greater when his stepdaughter, who had muscular dystrophy, died in early 2007.
"From that point forward, there's been, for both my wife and myself, this kind of big hole," he said. "So going back to Gainesville (on weekends) is one of the things that fills the void because there's family there. If I didn't do what I did, I would have lost my mind."
Fugate has had the option to dramatically increase his $116,000 salary by moving to the private sector, but he passionately defends the work of state employees, including his staff of 200-plus. "It's a term that doesn't mean anything to anybody anymore because it's like nobody believes it, but I'm a public servant," he said.
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