WASHINGTON -- Joe Allbaugh, the "gentle giant" who managed George W. Bush's presidential campaign, announced his resignation Monday as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency but cautioned that he was "not going very far."
Allbaugh, 50, is the latest in a series of administration officials to announce his return to the private sector. Like several others, he intends to play a role in Bush's reelection campaign.
His departure leaves the president with just one leg of the "iron triangle" of longtime friends and advisors who managed his first run for the White House. Soon only Karl Rove, the president's senior advisor, will remain.
But like former communications director Karen Hughes and departing strategist Mary Matalin, Allbaugh said he fully intended to continue serving the president.
"I will be actively involved in the reelection effort," he said in an interview shortly after meeting with Bush in the White House. Allbaugh scheduled his departure from FEMA for March 1, by which date the emergency response agency, with its 7,000 employees and budget of some $3 billion, is slated to become part of the new Department of Homeland Security.
"We've got 75 days until March 1," said Allbaugh, known as much for his no-nonsense, hands-on management style as his buzz haircut. "We still have a job to do."
Though some have expressed concerns that FEMA's natural-disaster mission could get lost in the huge new department's anti-terrorism focus, Allbaugh said, "That's just not going to happen."
The nation will "be better off for having an integrated response" to all types of emergencies, he added.
Under Allbaugh's leadership, the agency best known for its assistance to victims of floods, tornadoes and hurricanes responded to 89 major disasters, disbursed some $7.2 billion in aid and played a critical, if somewhat subdued role in helping the nation recover from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The more than $5 billion in federal recovery funds FEMA disbursed to the city, state and residents of New York included a $154-million grant for crisis counseling, the largest in the agency's history.
Allbaugh said he was "very proud" of his decision not to federalize the agency's response to the attack on New York City.
"There was a need for people to be deeply involved in the recovery and for us not telling them how to do it," he said.
Allbaugh and Hughes went to work for Bush in 1994 and helped run his first campaign for Texas governor. Allbaugh then became the governor's chief of staff.
It was clear Monday that Allbaugh had gained the affection of his colleagues and staff. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer referred to the burly, 6-foot-4 Allbaugh as a "gentle giant."
Hughes, speaking from Austin, Texas, recalled standing with Allbaugh at New York's ground zero three days after the terrorist attacks.
"I was so comforted to know that he was in charge," she said. "He's got a heart as big as that frame of his."
And the president, who often jokes about Allbaugh's appearance -- referring to him as "the pretty one" -- played it straight Monday. "I have trusted Joe in a variety of positions in my public life," Bush said in a statement, "and he has always met the highest standards of service and integrity."
Allbaugh said he hoped to sort out his next career move over the holidays.
Times staff writers Edwin Chen and James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.