Disasters September 2009

In Case of Emergency

FEMA’s new administrator has a message for Americans: get in touch with your survival instinct.
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Mike Theiss/Corbis

Craig Fugate, the new head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Barack Obama, is an unusual choice for the job, historically speaking. Unlike many of his predecessors, most famously Michael “Heckuva Job” Brown under President George W. Bush, Fugate (pronounced few-gate) has experience in the relevant subject matter. A former firefighter, Fugate managed disasters for 20 years in Florida, the fiasco capital of America. Even more bizarrely for FEMA, often a dumping ground for friends of the powerful, Fugate has no political connections to Obama. Instead, he got his job the old-fashioned way—when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was looking for candidates, people kept mentioning his name. He has a reputation for telling it like it is—in a field where “it” is usually bad. And what Fugate has to say may come as strong medicine for his fellow citizens, nine out of 10 of whom now live in a place at significant risk for some kind of disaster.

A bear of a man with a white goatee, an aw-shucks accent, and a voice just slightly higher than you expect, Fugate has no university degrees but knows enough to be mistaken for a meteorologist by hurricane experts. He grew up in Alachua County, smack in the middle of Florida. Both of his parents died before he graduated from high school. As a teenager, he followed his father’s example and became a volunteer firefighter. Then he became a paramedic, earning the nickname “Dr. Death” for having to pronounce more people dead on his first day than anyone before him. But he found his calling when he moved into emergency management, in 1989. Obsessively planning for horrible things he could not really control seemed to inspire him. “He is emergency management,” says Will May Jr., who worked with Fugate for more than 20 years and is now Alachua’s public-safety director. “That’s what he does. He spends practically all his waking life working in it, thinking about it, talking about it, planning how to do things better.”

Fugate is well respected, which is not the same thing as being well liked. “If they wanted a politician, Craig’s not your man,” says Ed Kennedy, who drove ambulances with him in Alachua. “Craig’s personality is more ‘Speak straight, don’t powder-puff it.’” Already, Fugate is saying things most emergency managers say only in private.

“We need to change behavior in this country,” he told about 400 emergency-management instructors at a conference in June, lambasting the “government-centric” approach to disasters. He learned a perverse lesson in Florida: the more the federal government does in routine emergencies, the greater the odds of catastrophic failure in a big disaster. “It’s like a Chinese finger trap,” he told me last spring, as a hailstorm fittingly raged outside his office. If the feds do more, the public, along with state and local officials, do less. They come to expect ice and water in 24 hours and full reimbursement for sodden carpets. But as part of a federal system, FEMA is designed to defer to state and local officials. If another Katrina hits, and the locals are overwhelmed, a full-strength federal response will inevitably take time. People who need help the most—the elderly, the disabled, and the poor—may not get it fast enough.

To avoid “system collapse,” as he puts it, Fugate insists that the government must draft the public. “We tend to look at the public as a liability. [But] who is going to be the fastest responder when your house falls on your head? Your neighbor.” A few years ago, Fugate dropped the word victim from his vocabulary. “You’re not going to hear me refer to people as victims unless we’ve lost ’em. I call them survivors.” He criticizes the media for “celebrating” people who choose not to evacuate and then have to be rescued on live TV—while ignoring all the people who were prepared. “This is a tragedy, this whole Shakespearean circle we’re in. You never hear the media say, ‘Hey, you’re putting this rescue worker in danger.’”

At his first all-staff meeting with FEMA employees, Fugate asked for a show of hands: “How many people here have your family disaster plan ready to go? [If you don’t], you just failed your first test … If you’re going to be an emergency manager, the first place you start is at home.” Already, Fugate is factoring citizens into the agency’s models for catastrophic planning, thinking of them as rescuers and responders, not just victims. And he has changed FEMA’s mission statement from the old, paternalistic (and fantastical) vow to “protect the Nation from all hazards” to a more modest, collaborative pledge to “support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together.”

In Florida, Fugate was notorious for what he called “Thunderbolt” drills. Once a month, he’d walk into the office with a large Starbucks coffee and tell everyone to stop what they were doing and respond to a catastrophe baked in his imagination. Sometimes it was a blackout; other times it was a small nuclear bomb.

“People are afraid to fail. I’m seeking failure,” he told me. “I want to break things. I want to see what’s going on so we can fix it.”

By the five-month mark of his administration, President Obama had declared 31 major disasters, from Alaska to Arkansas. And Fugate had already held his first Thunderbolt drill in Washington. At 6 a.m. on a rainy Thursday, he sent word to FEMA staff: a major earthquake had struck in California. Staffers, awoken from sleep, scrambled to get to the office. Many did not make it. Communications broke down, as they usually do in real life. For a man seeking failure, it was a fine start.

Amanda Ripley is the author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why.
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Amanda Ripley is the author of The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way (coming August 2013).

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