Q&A with Craig Fugate

Observing someone in a crisis.

How would you define resilience when it comes to the intersection between disaster preparedness and society?

Since I have worked in government, I tend to look at resiliency in terms that can be measured by governments. I think it is important to look at the resiliency of a community and a state’s tax base against a hazard base. If the tax base can’t recover quickly, it’s going to be that much harder for a community to bounce back and rebuild.

What did the beginnings of your career as a paramedic and eventually as a Lieutenant with the Alachua County Fire Rescue in Florida teach and prepare you for working at the federal government level?

Stay focused on the outcome. It taught me that whether you’re dealing with a cardiac arrest or a trauma patient, stay focused on the outcome, which is to deliver the patient to the hospital. It was very much an outcome-based process and I still practice that to this day. Whether at the local level or at a federal level, we need to stay focused on what we want the outcomes to be and the best way to achieve those outcomes.

As FEMA Director, you were noted for having delivered FEMA employees a service message on ethics. It has been said that the ethical maturity of decision makers during emergencies has serious implications. So how do you screen for an individual’s ethical maturity when building teams for a disaster response effort?

A person’s ethical maturity isn’t exactly on the resume, is it? It’s hard. I’ve yet to find an interview question that will reveal that. Talking to past employers and background references can sometimes shed light, but candidates tend to give you the best references of people that will speak highly of them. Fortunately, it is often what they actually do in a crisis and day-to-day where that becomes apparent. I have yet to find a screening method for the interview process better than the observation of someone managing events.

You’re now at an AI-startup called One Concern that has built a flooding platform, which will help predict inundation levels up to five days in advance of a storm—at a block-by-block level. How can a model like this help communities become more resilient?

This gets us to a question I’ve had: how sensitive is a community to extreme rainfall events? We can take as an example all these record-setting floods right now. Let’s look at the rainfall itself: start with a foot of rain, then two feet of rain, then let’s go to three feet of rain in that forecast period, and see what kind of impact each of those periods will have on the community, particularly on critical infrastructure. At what point does the hospital flood? At what point do we lose the water treatment plant? Is it unlikely that the community will manage that event without significant financial support and other resources? No longer is it about what has happened historically nor is it about  the probabilistic flood insurance rate maps, it’s about how much rain it would take to cause catastrophic damage. This can help determine where I should be investing my mitigation dollars, where I should NOT build more, or where I should change how I am building. This is the idea of moving away from historic or probabilistic mapping and prediction because that’s hard to base predictions off of, especially with the changes we’re seeing now in significant rainfall events.

You told Bloomberg View that the way the United States funds recovery efforts is encouraging people to rebuild in vulnerable areas, and that subsidizing developers to rebuild in flood zones is “nothing but socialism and social welfare for developers.” So how should we look at development in high-risk areas going forward?

First, we should stop providing government- or taxpayer-subsidized national flood insurance of new construction; we should let the private market set that price. Developers saying they can’t afford the price? Well, they are either building the wrong way or in the wrong place. If we’re declaring disasters at such a low level that there’s no incentive for governments to change and we’re providing subsidized programs at the expense of taxpayers and the government (like the National Flood Insurance Program), which are actually not priced at the risk to what it truly is, then we will continue to see development occur in unsustainable ways. We have an existing, built population that is probably not insurable by anybody BUT the government and I don’t think we can abandon those folks, but I do question why we keep providing subsidies for new construction.

After Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas coast, you told the TODAY Show that “it ain’t about climate change anymore; it’s about climate adaptation.” Can you expand on what this means for mitigating against future risk, particularly in already known high-risk areas in marginalized communities? How should those communities respond to this call for action?

I think we have to stop looking at the last hundred years of impacts to calculate our future risks. Otherwise, we’re building only to be destroyed again. The models of mitigation based on cost benefit analysis from that one hundred year risk seemed to work pretty well when the weather was more stable, but when you’re having record setting events almost weekly somewhere in the world, looking backwards isn’t working. 

If I am a community leader, I want to look at how much rain it takes before I start losing critical infrastructure, and focusing on the things with which a community needs to recover and rebuild. There may not be an opportunity to take everyone in flood zones and flood-prone areas and move them, but I can at least slow down or stop the development of those areas. Then I should start looking at my critical infrastructure and lifelines and focus on making e investments to reduce those risks. In some cases, it isn’t about building new facilities that won’t flood, but putting in improvements and making current facilities  more resilient so they recover quicker. A great example of this was in 2010 when a water treatment plant supporting the greater Nashville Metro area was down for over 30 days. They couldn’t move the plant and they knew it would flood again, but they’ve done a lot of work so that the next time it floods, they believe it will be down for only 3 days.

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Craig Fugate

W. Craig Fugate is a senior advisor at BlueDot Strategies. In that role, he assists clients with emergency management implementation strategies and crisis communications. Most recently, Fugate served as President Barack Obama’s FEMA Administrator for the majority of his two terms in office. Fugate led FEMA through multiple record-breaking disaster years and oversaw the Federal Government’s response to multiple natural disasters, including devastating tornadoes in the Midwest and Hurricanes Irene, Matthew, and Sandy, to name a few.

Prior to his time in the Obama Administration, Fugate worked with Democratic and Republican governors for over a decade at Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, serving as Director for over seven years. During his time in Florida, he launched the largest mutual aid response to affected states in the outcome of Hurricane Katrina.

A lifelong University of Florida Gators fan, Craig and his wife Sheree reside in Gainesville, Florida.

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