WASHINGTON — Craig Fugate, who oversaw the response to back to back hurricanes in Florida, said at his confirmation hearing Wednesday that he'd hold the Federal Emergency Management Agency to a "much higher standard of success" than its Hurricane Katrina performance.
Fugate, President Barack Obama's choice to head the agency, which was roundly criticized for its performance during the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane, got a friendly reception from senators, who warned him that there's plenty of work left to be done at FEMA.
Fugate pledged in prepared remarks to redouble the agency's efforts to "protect against, prepare for, respond to, and recover from all hazards."
"Judging FEMA's future success on the basis of whether it is 'better than Katrina' is not viable," Fugate said. "This standard does not, in my opinion, meet our sworn commitment to the American people. . . . I will hold FEMA's future response and recovery missions to a much higher standard of success."
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He told members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that he wants to create a "national focus on the next disaster" — which he noted, could occur without notice.
"We have to begin looking at our citizens as a resource, integrating and building readiness at a local, state and federal level," he said.
Members of the committee, which championed changes to the federal law after investigating FEMA's response to Katrina, said they were impressed with Fugate's experience. He was appointed in 2001 by former Gov. Jeb Bush and reappointed by Gov. Charlie Crist. Federal law, noted the committee's chairman, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, now requires the FEMA administrator to have at least five years of disaster management experience.
"You'd think that would be kind of expected, but that was not the case," Lieberman said, in a likely reference to former FEMA director Michael Brown, who had little disaster experience. "The obvious fact is Mr. Fugate has a background that not only meets, but far exceeds these requirements."
Lieberman noted that the agency has improved since 2005 but that Fugate "still will face some tough challenges," including keeping better track of where money is spent and cutting staff turnover. He pledged to move Fugate's confirmation rapidly.
Fugate got a bipartisan boost from Florida's senators.
Republican Sen. Mel Martinez noted that during Fugate's tenure as emergency management director in hurricane-prone Florida, he oversaw 23 declared state emergencies, including 11 presidentially declared disasters.
Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson noted Fugate's experience as a volunteer firefighter and an emergency medical technician. He said that Florida's program has become a model for the nation.
"This is a skilled, experienced professional," Nelson said, recounting for the panel how Fugate didn't hesitate to take charge when a hurricane blew the roof off a county emergency management building during one storm. "I've seen him perform under very difficult circumstances. You have a professional before you for confirmation."
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