FEMA's Craig Fugate Reflects on a Year of Disasters

Since taking on the role of FEMA Administrator two years ago, Craig Fugate has overseen more than 200 disaster declarations. His disaster philosophy: act fast, analyze later, and reach out to communities to aid in recovery. There's no doubt he's been busy this year; there have been 10 separate billion-dollar disasters in the country, including historic drought, tornadoes, and floods. And and it's only September. Recently, he spoke with The Atlantic.

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Flickr/Jim Greenhill

When you took the job of FEMA Administrator two years ago, you said your priority would be to get into disaster sites as quickly as possible. This year, we have seen a vast array of disasters, all happening one after another. Has this year tested that philosophy?

I don't know if it tested, but in some cases I think it's validated my sense of urgency to get in quick, and then stabilize and reset the response elements for the next disaster while the recovery elements will stay for the long term to help the community recover.

In 1998, I was working in the state of Florida running the state emergency operation center. I started out with tornadoes -- we had the worst outbreak and loss of life in 1998. Forty-four people were killed in central Florida from a tornado. Then we had the worst flooding the state had ever had, then we went into a drought and had the worst wildfire season the state had ever had. And then we got hit by Hurricane George at the end of the summer. So I had about 200 days of non-stop disasters. When I came into this job, one of the things I wanted to focus on was the tendency that when you have a really bad disaster, that's the only thing you are thinking about. You forget that there are other things that can happen. In particular, in FEMA's case, we're dealing with everything from the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, all the way to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Guam across the international dateline. The likelihood is you can have more than one disaster. You don't get them one at a time.

When we were getting ready for Irene, we had the earthquake over here in Virginia. And what a lot of people don't probably realize is a couple days ago we had a 7.1 magnitude up in the Aleutian Islands that produced tsunami warnings up the Alaskan coast. There was potential for those warnings to go to Hawaii and the west coast of the U.S. Fortunately, it did not produce a tsunami and it was canceled.

A lot of times, because of Katrina and that legacy, people tend to focus almost exclusively on how to get ready for hurricanes. Well, hurricanes you see coming, so you can do a lot of things ahead of time. Sometimes with tornadoes we might only get a forecast of a risk of tornado outbreaks, but until they touch down, you don't know what states, you don't know how bad, you don't know if it's a rural area or if it hits a downtown area. So I put a premium on speed and a premium on getting in, supporting state and local governments to get stabilized, and then resetting that response components while the recovery folks go to work. Those folks are going to be there in some cases for years.

Which disasters this year do you think will have the most far-reaching consequences?

I think this year, the wildfires are something you are going to hear about a lot. They literally, when they eat the house, they take the whole thing. But you tend to see a lot of private insurance for those.Those tend to come back relatively faster, because people have enough insurance to rebuild -- they are able to get back and rebuild their homes.

I think the toughest one is flooding because so few people actually carry flood insurance if they are not in the high risk flood zones, since your homeowners' policy doesn't cover insurance. Our FEMA programs don't really make people whole, they are really designed to help get people started. Flooding is probably the hardest thing we deal with in terms of the long term impacts to homeowners that didn't have insurance. It tends to be on a case-by-case basis so it never really make national news. Our programs were never designed to completely replace insurance. They were really designed to help the most critical first days, first weeks, first months. 

When Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast, it was reported that due to budget concerns FEMA had to redistribute its resources. When a new disaster hits, are there hard choices to make about who gets aid?

It's how you operate. Part of it is, when you get those kinds of [hurricane] tracks on the East Coast, you know you are going to essentially have to be prepared from Florida to Maine and however inland we can expect rains. So as we were moving things, we would set up initial areas that we would send supplies to, and a lot of people said "Well you didn't send it to my state," or "You sent it all to that state. Why do they get everything?"

Any time we expend any of our commodities such as water, food, tarps, we immediately send an order to replace it, so that it is available for the next disaster. It is pretty straight forward: You are going to focus on the life safety areas first and then start working the other issues.

People think as FEMA as a first responder, and we're not. Those are really the local and state officials. When we go in, we are generally heading looking to link up with our state counterparts, supporting them in what federal assistance may be needed. For a lot of disasters, what it turns out they need from us is financial assistance. But in some cases, they are going to need supplies, generators, specialized rescue teams or additional resources. So we facilitate that on behalf of the administration to get them those tools.

Do you have any criticisms of the way disasters are covered in the media?

I think the over emphasis on what FEMA does as opposed to what local and state officials, volunteers, what the private sector does, what people do to help each other. Oftentimes, particularly in the national media, because they are trying to tell a national story, the logical place that you come to is the federal government. But in disasters its very much the opposite: It's the local officials, the first responders, the community of impact, the states supporting that.

The tendency is to oftentimes look at FEMA and what FEMA is doing, and we say, "Why aren't you doing that?" It's not like we are trying to shift responsibilities, we're trying to explain how this works and it's a team approach. If you want to criticize FEMA fine, yell at us, but don't misrepresent that in most of these disasters, just about of them I've dealt with this year, the initial response was done by first responders and neighbors helping neighbors.

With all the disasters this year, FEMA employees must be working non-stop. What's it like to work there when there are constant disaster situations?

For a lot of folks who work in Washington and, to a certain extent, to a lot of folks who work in FEMA, the tendency to think this is your standard 40-hour week, normal business hours, weekend, and holidays you are going to be off. Disasters don't follow that schedule. One of the things that's written into everybody's job description at FEMA is you are subject to being called in based on the needs of the organization to respond. We have individuals who sign up to be a part of that response. Our federal coordinating officers, our full time positions are designed to be out there continuing recovery operations or initial response. We have what we call and incident management team, it's a small team. Their tempo of operation is they're working disasters or they're training like they are going to a disaster. They don't have a lot of down time when they are not working.

We don't know when the next disaster is going to happen. We have to be ready to go no matter what. Even though we had Irene, one of the things we had to be prepared for is what if another disaster happened? What would we do? Who would be available to go and maintain that capability to not only maintain the disasters you have, and the ones you respond to, but what is next?