WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Wednesday named a veteran Florida emergency manager to head the troubled Federal Emergency Management Agency and immediately dispatched him to join two Cabinet members in New Orleans today to evaluate continued challenges since Hurricane Katrina.
Craig Fugate, described by Florida officials as someone who was given wide authority and never shied away from using it, faces Senate confirmation.
But Obama said he wanted him in New Orleans alongside his boss, Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan for their previously scheduled Gulf Coast visit today and Friday.
If confirmed, Fugate faces a major challenge of helping rebuild an agency that members of Congress say not only botched the immediate response to Hurricane Katrina, but continues 3 1/2 years later to impose bureaucratic obstacles to the flow of federal rebuilding money.
"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, and I can think of no one better to lead FEMA," Obama said. "I'm confident that Craig is the right person for the job and will ensure that the failures of the past are never repeated."
It was the Obama administration's second major hurricane recovery decision since his Jan. 20 inauguration, a follow-up to the Feb. 20 announcement extending by six months the life of the Gulf Coast Recovery Office and the disaster housing assistance to Katrina victims. Both had been due to expire Feb. 28.
Obama's appointment of Fugate may signal that the administration is leaning against restoring FEMA to a Cabinet-level department, a change called for by many Democrats critical of the agency's response to Hurricane Katrina and other disasters. Obama has not officially declared his intentions regarding removing FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security and creating a separate agency.
In Florida, officials give Fugate high marks.
"I hate it that he's leaving Florida," said state Rep. Alan Hayes, a Republican. "He was given the proper backing by the governor and legislature, the power to make decisions, and he was very effective."
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said Obama couldn't have chosen a better FEMA director, crediting him with helping Florida respond effectively to some devastating hurricanes during his tenure.
Napolitano, who recommended Fugate for the post, said he'll bring significant experience to the agency. He was initially appointed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and then reappointed by Bush's successor, Charlie Crist. Both are Republicans.
"FEMA must have experienced leadership to succeed in its challenging mission," Napolitano said. "Craig Fugate is no stranger to emergency management or to FEMA. 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."
Former FEMA director Michael Brown, promoted by President George W. Bush in 2003, came to the agency after running an Arabian horse association and was forced to step down after the botched initial federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
In 2004 and 2005, Fugate headed state emergency operations when Florida was hit by four hurricanes each year. He also oversaw sending Florida emergency workers to Louisiana and Mississippi to help out in the days after Hurricane Katrina struck land.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who last week issued a report by her ad hoc subcommittee on Gulf Coast recovery that blasted FEMA's housing response to Katrina, praised Obama for choosing a director with extensive experience.
"Mr. Fugate has tremendous knowledge of disaster management and has worked closely with FEMA on the ground," said Landrieu, who plans to join Fugate and the two Cabinet members for a bus tour of New Orleans today. "His work throughout the eight major hurricanes that hit Florida in 2004 and 2005 is a testament to his qualifications for this role."
Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, who will also join the group touring south Louisiana and other Gulf Coast communities, said he hopes Fugate will be able to report directly to Obama as needed. But he said it's a positive sign that three top Obama administration officials are visiting New Orleans so early in the new administration.
"To really understand the challenges in rebuilding south Louisiana, you need to see it with your own eyes and hear directly from the people on the ground," Melancon said.
Gov. Bobby Jindal said he's looking forward to meeting Fugate today during his visit to the state. "Coming from Florida, Craig Fugate is certainly well-versed in preparing for and responding to hurricanes," Jindal said.
Louisiana Recovery Authority Executive Director Paul Rainwater said: "I've met Mr. Fugate and seen him lead preparedness exercises. He is experienced and considered by many to be a return to the professional emergency manager within FEMA."