Who's in Charge of FEMA? Ex-Firefighter and Disaster Expert Craig Fugate

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Remember “Heckuva job, Brownie?”

A botched response to a devastating storm can catapult a anonymous midlevel Washington administrator to household name status. And despite a series of crippling storms during his tenure — including the tornado in Joplin, the Midwest’s massive flooding, and 65 major disaster declarations in all this year — Craig Fugate has avoided getting much attention since he was confirmed as FEMA administrator in May 2009. For example, his Wikipedia entry as of Friday afternoon was just three sentences long.

Before coming to Washington, Fugate ran emergency operations in Florida from 2001 to 2009, where he coordinated the state’s response to a string of hurricanes in back-to-back years (Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne in 2004 and Dennis, Katrina and Wilma n 2005). He was first appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, and Gov. Charlie Crist kept him in the job.

While running that state agency, he also had a side project: a user-friendly website called disastersrus.org, which combines a very non-governmental DIY-look with practical disaster planning advice and links to storm-tracking sites.

And while Michael Brown was roundly criticized after Hurricane Katrina for having a deeper background in Arabian horses than disaster response, Fugate’s emergency experience goes back to high school, when he trained as a volunteer firefighter. That’s was in keeping with President Obama campaign promise to appoint a tested emergency professional. Politifact points out, though, that Obama has fallen short of his pledge to de-politicize the post by giving the FEMA chief a six-year term.

After more than two decades in emergency management, in which he’s worked for both Republicans and Democrats, Fugate has most certainly gained an appreciation for the political value of a low-profile. He was actually offered the FEMA administrator job once before – Bush offered him the FEMA post after Michael Brown resigned amid criticism after Katrina – but he declined, according to Time, because “the timing wasn’t right.”