FEMA's Fugate, a steady hand, to be tested by Isaac

WASHINGTON Tue Aug 28, 2012 2:03am EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With Tropical Storm Isaac bearing down on the U.S. Gulf Coast just like Hurricane Katrina almost exactly seven years ago, President Barack Obama's top emergency management official looks well positioned to spare his boss a repeat of the ham-handed response that hurt former President George W. Bush.

Sporting a state trooper's mustache and swampy Florida drawl, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate couldn't present a starker contrast to Bush's ill-starred FEMA director Michael Brown, who resigned in September 2005 after harsh criticism of the government's response to Katrina.

Unlike Brown, an accomplished lawyer who owed his job to political connections and had little hands-on emergency relief experience, Fugate is a career first-responder who got his start as a volunteer fire fighter and was named to head Florida's Division of Emergency Management by two Republican governors before being tapped by Obama to head FEMA.

Bush's remark, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," made even as waters were rushing over large sections of New Orleans, forcing residents to flee to higher ground, became a catch-phrase that marred the Bush presidency and still evokes bitter memories.

With storm surges of up to 12 feet expected to batter the Gulf Coast and heavy rains expected in parts of Mississippi, Alabama and southwestern Louisiana, Fugate warned on Monday that the storm could wreak havoc and urged citizens to take shelter.

A lesson learned from Katrina is that state, local and federal officials have to be better prepared, Fugate told reporters in a conference call.

"Rather than waiting for a storm to hit, we have folks in place," he said. "It still requires people to heed evacuation orders," he added.

STORM PACKS POLITICAL PUNCH

Although Fugate, 53, has been on the job for more than three years and has handled dozens of major emergencies, Isaac, with its parallels to Katrina, arrives just as both political parties are set to hold their presidential nominating conventions.

The storm, now forecast to strengthen to a Category 2 hurricane, may test Fugate's skills. Fairly or not, the Obama administration's handling of the storm and its aftermath could affect the public's perception of its effectiveness.

Some elected officials have found fault with FEMA, including former Republican presidential hopeful Representative Ron Paul, who said last year that the agency adds to the federal deficit and stands in the way of reconstruction efforts after disasters.

However, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who will deliver the keynote address at the Republican convention, heaped praise on the agency for its aid following last summer's Hurricane Irene, which caused more than 50 fatalities and $15 billion in damage.

"Federal Homeland Security and FEMA have been wonderful," Christie said at a press conference. "They have given us everything that we've needed."

HARD-WON EXPERIENCE

Fugate himself cuts a down-to-earth figure and is known for obsessive planning that has included drilling his staff in mock disaster response scenarios ranging from blackouts to nuclear bomb explosions.

His folksy manner comes alongside hard-won experience from almost two decades of managing crisis responses in disaster-prone Florida.

When a tornado devastated Joplin, Missouri, in May 2011, killing 161 people, City Manager Mark Rohr didn't want to be put in the position of having to tell citizens that authorities were abandoning the search for survivors. Fugate, who had arrived the day after the storm hit, told him he didn't have to. Continue with search and recovery, Fugate counseled, but to make sure there are spotters on hand during the clean-up, Rohr remembers.

"I didn't want to dash someone's hopes in terms of having one of those 11th hour rescues," Rohr said. "I could tell from talking to him he had dealt with similar circumstances in the past and he was willing to share that experience with me."

State and local officials describe him as responsive and willing to follow up well beyond the initial disaster.

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin said he can reach Fugate by cell phone, even on weekends, a year after Irene.

"I think because he's personally been in the trenches, been on the ground he understands the challenge of the tragedy of natural disaster that he's particularly sensitive to the things that really matter, and what matters in a time of crisis is someone who shakes the belly of the beast and gets results," Shumlin said.

(Additional reporting by Samson Reiny. Editing by Fred Barbash and Lisa Shumaker)

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