FEMA Chief Craig Fugate: Is Obama's Fate In His Hands?

Craig Fugate FEMAStriking just a week before a presidential election, Hurricane Sandy could have been bad news for President Obama. The federal government doesn't have the cleanest record after all for swift and seamless natural disaster response. But so far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been roundly praised for its relief and recovery efforts, as has its Obama-appointed director, W. Craig Fugate.

Even Republican governors and mayors from Sandy-battered states have had nothing but kind words for FEMA and Fugate. "I have to say, the administration, the president himself and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate have been outstanding with us so far," New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie said on Tuesday's "Good Morning America." "He worked on that last night with me ... offered any other assets that we needed to help."

Fugate's home state of Florida trained him well for the post. The son of a Navy veteran, and orphaned by the age of 16, Fugate became a volunteer firefighter during high school in Gainesville, and attended Florida State Fire College. He went on to become a paramedic and fire department lieutenant, before spending a decade as the emergency manager for Alachua County in a basement office so tiny that he purportedly had to jump out of the way when somebody entered, so he wouldn't get bashed by the door.

Fugate then became the chief of the preparedness response bureau in Florida's Division of Emergency Management. Although a self-described Democrat, Fugate was appointed its director by then-Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in 2001. In that position, he once handled the response to four hurricanes in six weeks ("The Big 4 of '04").

Fugate, 53, is a passionate University of Florida Gators fan, and as a disaster situation deteriorated, he was known to don increasingly beat-up Gators hats, Businessweek reported in a lengthy profile. Colleagues sing Fugate's praises, Jeb Bush telling Businessweek that Fugate is "an experienced and talented" emergency manager, sensitive to the relationship between federal and local relief, and R. David Paulison, Fugate's predecessor at FEMA, saying that "he's very calm" and driven by his desire to help victims, not politics.

Both Democrats and Republicans embraced him during his confirmation hearing, with several pointing out that Fugate's experience at the local and state levels of emergency response would better FEMA's dealings with municipalities. "Kudos to President Obama for a great choice," Bush said after Fugate's nomination.

Even so, it's impossible for FEMA -- a large federal agency still tainted by its clumsy response to Hurricane Katrina -- not to get tangled in the political weeds. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been interrogated over a remark that he made during a Republican primary debate last summer when he was asked whether states should take over more of FEMA's responsibilities.

"Absolutely," the former Massachusetts governor replied. "Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that's even better."

Romney ignored repeated questions from reporters on Tuesday about whether he would actually abolish FEMA, while a Romney spokesman said in a statement that the Republican nominee would prefer states to lead disaster relief, but also believed that the federal government and FEMA had a role.

President Obama's 2013 budget would reduce FEMA funding by 3 percent, down to $13.5 billion, reports the Washington Post, and while Romney and Paul Ryan have not specified any cuts to FEMA itself, their plan to slash non-defense discretionary spending by 22 percent suggests more severe cutbacks.

Michael Brown, the FEMA chief during Hurricane Katrina, threw his own political punch at Obama on Monday. "One thing he's gonna be asked is, why did he jump on this so quickly and go back to D.C. so quickly when in ... Benghazi, he went to Las Vegas?" he said in an interview with Denver radio station KHOW. "At some point, somebody's going to ask that question.... This is like the inverse of Benghazi."

Many pointed out the irony of Brown, who resigned in disgrace 10 days after Katrina struck, criticizing the president for a response that he found to be too quick.

But so far, there have been no criticisms of FEMA's handling of Sandy's aftermath. As of Tuesday morning, FEMA had delivered more than 645,000 liters of water, 564,000 meals, and thousands of blankets and cots to the Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts and Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, reports the Huffington Post. It has also been working with state and local governments in search and rescue, debris cleanup, and power restoration.

"You know there was a lot of criticism of FEMA back in the Katrina days, and today you hear nothing but good things about FEMA, and they certainly have been very helpful to us," Mayor Bloomberg said during a Tuesday press conference. "I think the coordination between the city, state and the federal government has been as good as anybody has ever seen," he added. "And we appreciate the help of all of them."

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