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Florida's Craig Fugate to head FEMA

'Respected emergency manager' nominated to improve agency that was harshly criticized after Katrina.

March 05, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — A Florida official well-versed in hurricane response is President Obama's choice to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was the focus of national ridicule for its slow response after Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast in tatters.

The nominee, Craig Fugate, 49, is the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

In his home state, Fugate has been at the center of efforts to cope with hurricanes and wildfires. He also has been a vocal critic of the agency he was picked to lead, describing FEMA in an interview last year as "broken."

Michael D. Brown, President George W. Bush's FEMA chief when Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in August 2005, was criticized for a lack of emergency experience -- he was a former official at the International Arabian Horse Assn. And as stranded New Orleans residents waited to be rescued, FEMA became a symbol of what many described as the government's callous and inept response.

Obama acknowledged as much in a prepared statement announcing Fugate's nomination. "I'm confident Craig is the right person for the job and will ensure that the failures of the past are never repeated," the president said.

More than three years after Katrina, New Orleans is struggling to recover. The same might be said of FEMA. Brown, whom Bush had lauded for doing "a heck of a job" -- resigned two weeks after the hurricane made landfall.

Brown's successor, R. David Paulison, sought to increase the agency's staff and budget. In testimony before a Senate committee last year. Paulison said: "The FEMA of 2008 is not the FEMA of 2005. We have learned from the past and are dramatically improving our capabilities."

Fugate credited Paulison for improving FEMA in an interview he gave to the Palm Beach Post a year ago.

"They took something that this country had absolutely no confidence in, the public had no confidence in, and they started bringing it back," Fugate said. "Dave leaves FEMA obviously better than he found it."

White House officials sought to underscore Fugate's bipartisan credentials along with his expertise. Fugate was appointed to the Florida job by former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in 2001 and reappointed by GOP Gov. Charlie Crist in 2006.

Jeb Bush, in a statement Wednesday, said: "Florida is indebted to Craig for his service during two unprecedented back-to-back hurricane seasons. . . . I am confident he will advance reforms that strengthen our nation's preparedness and bottom-up approach to emergency management."

Fugate is to attend an event in New Orleans today with Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA.

James Lee Witt, who headed FEMA during former President Clinton's two terms, said that Fugate's local experience "will go a long way toward rebuilding FEMA and more effectively addressing the pre- and post-disaster needs our nation faces every time a disaster strikes."

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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