December 2, 2022

Emergency Management

Calmest Guy in the Room

Craig Fugate is the governor's go-to guy during emergencies.

Neil Skene | 5/1/2006
What do you do when you have one of the most highly regarded emergency-management programs in the world, as Florida does? You keep trying to make it better. You keep having drills. You don't get complacent. And you don't overpromise.

OUTSIDE HELP: "You always think government is the solution, and you forget about other resources," says Craig Fugate, who's working on taking advantage of private retailers' supply chains during emergencies.
Gov. Jeb Bush didn't play politics with the leadership of his Division of Emergency Management. His predecessor, Lawton Chiles, worked for six years to make sure that the chaos of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 never happened again. Bush stuck with the leadership Chiles recruited and kept building what he now calls a "culture of preparedness."

Today, even Democrats give the governor high marks for Florida's handling of two of the most destructive hurricane seasons in Florida history. And the guy who's helped make things work for Bush is Craig Fugate.
"He's very low key and very in charge," says Tallahassee lawyer Steve Seibert, Bush's first secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, of which Emergency Management is a part. "He's brilliant."

Fugate, 46, whose Florida ancestry traces back to Spanish land grants, grew up in Alachua and was active in the Future Farmers of America chapter at Sante Fe High School. Then, in addition to raising cows, he became a volunteer firefighter like his father and his uncle. He went to the Florida State Fire College, signed on as a paramedic with Alachua County and became a lieutenant in the fire department. A management training program led to his appointment as the county's emergency manager in 1987.

Ten years later, Joe Myers brought Fugate to Tallahassee. Myers had come to Florida from North Carolina's emergency agency to head the reorganized Florida emergency agency after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The response at all levels of government was as dismaying then as it was in Louisiana and Mississippi after Katrina in 2005. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and President George H.W. Bush took a lot of blame for Andrew, but everybody looked bad.

"We started looking at how the state needed to completely change ourselves," says Linda Loomis Shelley, Chiles' secretary of Community Affairs when Andrew hit and now a shareholder in the Fowler White Boggs Banker law firm. A commission headed by former Senate President Phil Lewis of West Palm Beach got the effort started. The state funded emergency infrastructure through a $2 tax on homeowners insurance policies and a $4 tax on business policies. And Shelley recruited Myers, a Republican.

"He probably visited every county," Shelley says. "He was somebody they knew and trusted." He had state money to support local emergency initiatives, and he made it his job to support local authorities during a crisis. And he believed in practices and drills. "You play like you practice," Myers would say.

In 1997, Myers' top deputy left, and Fugate arrived. During 1998, they endured tornadoes, wildfires, floods and Hurricane Georges. Fugate says disaster teams were activated for more than 200 days that year.

And then Bush was elected.

"My first announced appointment was keeping Joe Myers," Bush said in an e-mail interview. "I met with him and told him I wanted him to stay and that he would be given the freedom to lead, and I would help in any way I could." Perhaps taking a lesson from his father's travails with Andrew, Bush made it clear that disaster response mattered a lot. "The governor has a line," says Fugate. "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail."

By Sept. 11, 2001, Myers had left for private industry, and Fugate was acting director. Bush called a few weeks later to tell him the job was his for keeps.

Tags: Politics & Law, Around Florida, Government/Politics & Law

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