*Obama says Fugate will avoid failures like Katrina
*Nominee coordinated response to Florida hurricanes
*Republican praises appointment
*Fugate to visit New Orleans on Thursday
(Adds comment, background on Bush administration)
By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON, March 4 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama picked a seasoned emergency response coordinator from Florida on Wednesday to lead the federal agency that was widely panned for its handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Craig Fugate, the director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management since 2001, will be Obama’s nominee to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the White House said in a statement.
During last year’s presidential campaign Obama, a Democrat, lambasted the Bush administration for its response to the hurricane disaster in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.
Obama said Fugate, a paramedic who has presided over Florida’s responses to several natural disasters, would keep such “failures” from happening again.
“From his experience as a first responder to his strong leadership as Florida’s Emergency Manager, Craig has what it takes to help us improve our preparedness, response and recovery efforts,” Obama said in the statement.
“I’m confident that Craig is the right person for the job and will ensure that the failures of the past are never repeated.”
Former President George W. Bush, a Republican, drew heavy criticism for the government’s sluggish handling of Katrina, which hastened a slide in his popularity and left a lasting stain on his legacy.
The hurricane sparked massive flooding in New Orleans, killed 1,500 people and caused some $80 billion in damage.
The former president’s much-ridiculed remark to then-disaster chief Michael Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” came to symbolize his administration’s botched efforts. Brown, who had little emergency management background, was later relieved of the job.
Fugate has years of experience in emergency work.
Jeb Bush, the former president’s brother and former Florida governor, appointed Fugate to his current role in October 2001. He coordinated some 23 declared state emergencies including four major hurricanes in 2004 and four in 2005.
FEMA became a household name in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It falls under the Department of Homeland Security, which was created after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
Janet Napolitano, who heads the department, welcomed the announcement.
“Craig Fugate is no stranger to emergency management or to FEMA,” she said. “He is one of the most respected emergency managers in the nation, and the work he’s accomplished in Florida serves as a model for other states to follow.”
Napolitano and Fugate will appear together in New Orleans, which is still recovering from the hurricane, on Thursday.
Obama’s choice of Fugate drew praise from both sides of the political aisle in Washington.
“Director Fugate is keenly in tune with Florida’s needs on hurricane preparedness and response,” Representative Gus Bilirakis, a Republican from Florida, said.
Fugate rose from a volunteer firefighter and paramedic to a 10-year stint as the emergency manager for Florida’s Alachua County. He is known for instructing Floridians to be prepared to help themselves in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.
The state was hit by storms Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne in 2004. Together they caused more than $45 billion in damage.
The next year, Hurricane Katrina hit Florida before moving on to Louisiana, where it became the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. A few weeks later, Hurricane Wilma ravaged southern Florida, causing $20 billion in damage, the third highest U.S. toll in history.