“Fugate, don’t fuck this up,” President Obama said.
It was days before the 2012 presidential election, and all eyes were on FEMA Director Craig Fugate as the biggest storm since Hurricane Katrina beared down on the biggest metropolitan area in the United States, New York City.
Obama no doubt knew that FEMA’s response to Hurricane Sandy could be the difference between a second term and a President Romney, in addition to showing whether Fugate had managed to successfully rebuild an agency low on morale and high on dysfunction following the catastrophic response to Katrina in 2005.
Today, FEMA’s performance before, during, and after Sandy generally seems to be one of the few topics of bipartisan agreement in Washington.
“With Sandy, the comparison to Katrina is night and day,” said Dan Matthews, a Republican who has seen five different FEMA directors while serving on the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management. “Disasters aren’t partisan; they hate everybody and anybody, and quite frankly, I don’t think there’s anybody that could have done the job that [Fugate] has done.”
But Fugate, whom Obama has called his “security blanket,” is leaving FEMA — he began the retirement process before the November election after nearly eight years heading the agency. “I’ve signed my parole papers,” he said.
President-elect Trump has not yet put forward a nomination to be Fugate’s replacement — his transition team declined to give VICE News a timeline for doing so or a list of people being considered — but whomever the nominee ends up being will say a lot about whether Trump sees any virtue at all in government experience.
As a candidate, Trump repeatedly lambasted D.C. bureaucrats as enablers of a “rigged system” that has cheated hard-working Americans. As president-elect, he has made good on his rhetoric by selecting people with little to no government experience for the consequential positions of secretary of state, secretary of the treasury, chief of staff, and many more. As a New York Times headline put it last month, “Donald Trump Is Betting That Policy Expertise Doesn’t Matter.”
But FEMA is one of the few agencies in which missteps can directly correlate with the deaths of Americans, and it therefore can have a significant effect on the public’s assessment of the president. Case in point: George W. Bush, who filled the agency director position with political allies rather than governing professionals, including fundraiser and lawyer Michael “Brownie” Brown, the head during Katrina.
Public safety officials are concerned about Trump’s eventual choice, particularly as climate change–driven natural disasters worsen in force and frequency. Several Republicans, Democrats, and outside emergency professionals say they hope the Trump administration will see government experience as an asset when it comes to FEMA.
“You can’t just pick up emergency management on the fly. It’s really complicated,” Matthews said.
“You really need someone with experience and seasoned judgment in emergency management,” echoed Harvey Johnson, the American Red Cross’s senior vice president for Disaster Cycle Services.
“The priority of the president in hiring a recognized career professional for this job has been borne out,” said Lisa Monaco, Obama’s Homeland Security advisor.
Over the past eight years, Fugate(pronounced “few-gate”) has dealt with 910 disaster declarations, far more than any FEMA director in history. In 2011 alone, FEMA responded to a record-shattering 242 disasters (the previous record had been 158 in 1996). He battled big storms made bigger by climate change, managed to earn praise from both parties in Congress, and restored public faith in the federal government’s ability to respond to natural disasters, taking it from 33 percent after Katrina to 75 percent after Sandy, according to Gallup.
‘Having a major landfall tropical system during a presidential election is never a very fun time.’
Starting out as a firefighter and emergency medical technician, Fugate has spent his entire career as a public servant in emergency management. Before joining FEMA, the 57-year-old headed Florida’s Division of Emergency Management when four hurricanes hit over the course of six weeks in August and September of 2004.
FEMA is a $13.9 billion government agency that deals almost exclusively in the unthinkable. When Obama gave his State of the Union addresses, Fugate was always off-site with the so-called designated survivor and other senior leaders. If the worst happened at the Capitol, FEMA was set to step in and help secure a government transition and the swearing-in of a new president.
The somewhat sinister nature of FEMA’s responsibilities hasn’t been lost on the so-called alt-right. Alex Jones’s site, Infowars, frequently cites Fugate as a Robespierre in-waiting. An article from July of 2009 declared that a FEMA disaster response drill coordinated by Fugate was actually “a martial law exercise.” FEMA, the article argued, was poised to take over the country militarily by leveraging a “trigger” event like a “mass flu pandemic” or an economic depression.
Fugate said that on his last day as FEMA director, he wants to finally call in to “The Alex Jones Show. He even has a speech prepared for the occasion: “Hey Alex, I’m a longtime listener, first-time caller. Everything you’ve said is true and we’ve had authorization for a drone strike, so I want to give you the opportunity to say goodbye to your listeners.”
Fugate sat down with VICE News in a conference room at FEMA headquarters, reflecting on his tenure and discussing lessons he learned — particularly while dealing with Sandy.
“Having a major landfall tropical system during a presidential election is never a very fun time,” he said.
According to Fugate, Obama’s message to the FEMA team during Sandy was, “Work your plan. Don’t freelance. Don’t panic. Don’t give up. Don’t do other crazy stuff.”
A day and a half before landfall, Fugate was being briefed in a meeting at the National Response Coordination Center. Inter-agency officials were confident they had adequately prepared New York and New Jersey for the coming storms. “We’re ready for this,” he heard people say. That’s when Fugate says the hair on the back of his neck started to go up.
“‘I’ve been in this briefing before, and you’re wrong,’” he told them.
“It was just one of those moments where I’m realizing that we are operating the way we expect a disaster to unfold and I’m pretty sure that’s probably what was going on just before Katrina. Basically what I said is, ‘Double everything.’”
Fugate takes pride in his ability to imagine the worst-case scenario. One of the core philosophies he brought to FEMA was to “stop planning for what you are capable of doing or what has happened or what you consider likely to happen and start planning for what can happen.” He points to Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, when a devastating tsunami led to the release of radioactive material at a nuclear power plant that “opened up a lot of minds to how bad ‘bad’ can be.”
When Sandy hit, Fugate imagined the worst. For the first time, FEMA deployed the “surge capacity force” allowed for in the Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act — Department of Homeland Security employees are deployed to help FEMA if the director determines a storm is too big for FEMA’s capabilities. The agency was also able to declare an emergency before Sandy made landfall, something it couldn’t have done without the reform act. As a result, the agency had people in the field 48 hours before the storm hit.
There have been mistakes, which Fugate acknowledges. In the aftermath of Sandy, it came to light that millions of taxpayer dollars had gone to people who didn’t deserve the aid. The agency subsequently had to ask for money back from many impoverished people who had already spent it. (The same mistakes happened, and on a larger scale, in the aftermath of Katrina as well). But overall, the White House had so much trust in Fugate that it even used FEMA to deal with the spread of Ebola and the wave of undocumented children streaming across the border in 2014.
Trump can only hope he is as fond of his FEMA director as the current president is of his. As Obama said during a speech in New Orleans on the 10th anniversary of Katrina:
“I love me some Craig Fugate.”