Former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate is this week’s featured guest. In his time at FEMA, he oversaw more than 500 presidentially-declared major disasters and emergencies. Craig also served as the director of Florida’s Emergency Management Division from 2001 to 2009. In our conversation, we talk about his approach to leadership during emergencies, his Waffle House Index, his thunderbolt exercises, the management styles of President Obama and Governor Jeb Bush and about what he’s doing since leaving FEMA.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the sunshine state’s brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and it’s millions of weekly visitors. I’m your host, Chris Cate and this episode created by SalterMitchell PR, I talk to former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate, who also served as the Director of Florida’s emergency management division from 2001 to 2009. In our conversation we talk about his approach to leadership during emergencies, his waffle house [00:00:30] index, the management styles of President Obama and Governor Bush, and much more. You can hear it all right now.
Craig, thanks so much for being on the show. Florida is known for many great things but hurricanes are not one of those great things. What was it that drew you to emergency management as opposed to another less dangerous industry?
Craig Fugate: Well, I was in the fire service as a lieutenant, fire rescue. That’s [00:01:00] kind of what I was doing. The whole thing that drew me towards it was actually a phone call. I got asked to come downtown. I worked at [Alachua 00:01:07] County Fire Rescue and I’d just been promoted to Lieutenant in Fire Rescue. They wanted the lieutenants to gain some management experience, so they were going to have us rotate and do two weeks down at headquarters. And so, I got a call that I had three project I could pick from. One of them happened to be updating the county’s disaster plan. I went and said, “Well, that sounds interesting. I’ll go do that.” [00:01:30] After two weeks I was hooked. That was in February of 1987. I never went back on the road as a lieutenant fire rescue. I stayed in emergency management and started in Alachua County.
Chris Cate: Wow. You were leading the state emergency management division when Florida had really awful hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005. When you reflect on that time, what comes to your mind? Are there any moments, good or not so good, that really stand out in your memory?
Craig Fugate: [00:02:00] I think the thing that really stood out to me that to me it was just a team that we had of all of the state agencies and the cabinet agencies working as a team, a lot of the volunteer organizations. We had taken so much of what we had learned from Hurricane Andrew and then after 9/11 and the infusion of the Homeland Security, and particularly the funding, had built this, [00:02:30] I thought, this incredible team that stood up against four hurricanes making landfall in one year. That had never happened in our recorded history. I think the thing, it wasn’t the damages or the losses or all the challenges. Those were things that we had to live through and deal with. But the thing that was just phenomenal to me was how this team of state agencies, local agencies, volunteer groups, private sector, all [00:03:00] worked together to get us through those critical first weeks after each one of those hurricanes.
Chris Cate: I read that you liked to surprise your team with lightening bolt exercises to test how ready they are for emergencies. Was that something that you were doing prior to those hurricanes? Do you think that played a big role in the response?
Craig Fugate: Yeah. I think, well, we called them thunderbolts. What I found was, particularly after 9/11, we weren’t having a lot of activities. [00:03:30] I mean, I had actually started working under the late Governor Charles, running the Bureau of Preparedness Response. We had gone through the ’98 season of tornadoes, wildfires, flooding, and Hurricane George. Then it was relatively quiet. We had an evacuation for Floyd but Floyd didn’t make landfall. We were spending so much time, if you remember the Anthrax scare we had down at the AMI building and dealing with things like that, even the aftermath of 9/11, but [00:04:00] we weren’t getting a lot natural hazards occurring. I was concerned that we were losing our edge.
So I started doing these exercises. I went to the no-notice and really was designed to kind of get the team back in the mode of thinking about what they were doing, make sure they were current for work in the EOC, and giving them challenges that were just not something they were going to expect. One of the scenarios we ran [00:04:30] was getting hit by two hurricanes in one year. That had actually happened most recently in the ’50s. I also did one where we did a big exercise about sending assistance to another state. That actually was done before we actually supported Mississippi in Hurricane Katrina.
I didn’t exercise four hurricanes in one year, but I did exercise two hurricanes back-to-back and how we would have to deal with one storm that was now starting to transition into recovery [00:05:00] phase but then another storm hitting after shifted that. When the ’04 hurricane season hit, and then even in ’05 [inaudible 00:05:07], we at least walked through the basic steps of how we would do it, certainly didn’t know everything we were going to end up doing, but it wasn’t something we weren’t familiar with.
Chris Cate: Were the thunderbolt exercises or any other process that you developed in Florida things that you’re able to take and implement at the federal level?
Craig Fugate: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I had the advantages when I worked for Governor [00:05:30] Bush and I worked for President Obama, they both indulged me and gave me a lot of latitude to run my programs the way I thought they needed to run. And so, when I got to Washington, and some of my first interactions with the president, I basically explained that’s how I do things. He said, “That sounds like a good idea.”
Within the first couple of months there we did a no-notice exercise with thunderbolt for FEMA headquarters on a major earthquake in California. We started at 6 a.m. [00:06:00] There’s only a few people that knew about it. That was probably one of the most, I think one of the biggest shocks to the system, to FEMA headquarter staff just because every exercise they’d every been in, they were always noticed, they knew what was on the schedules, they had three briefings and then briefings to get ready for it. They had their books all ready. This one came with no structure, no directions. They just get a call from the FEMA operation center that [00:06:30] exercise, exercise, exercise, there’s been a major earthquake in California and they needed to activate the FEMA emergency operation center and go to full activations.
That was a shock but it got across my point that we can see a hurricane coming. Earthquakes don’t occur when you’re at work, when you’re scheduled, when you know they’re going to occur. We couldn’t just rest on being prepared for hurricanes. That’s not the only threat we faced. Terrorist attacks, earthquakes [00:07:00] and tsunami’s, and other things can occur without warning. We have to be ready to go.
Yeah, we did that and continued that. They are still doing these countered exercises into the next administration.
Chris Cate: Yeah. I read in your farewell speech at FEMA that you said, “Reasonable people always fail in disaster response that perfection is your enemy.” Is that a little bit what you’re kind of talking about in kind of just taking action and not waiting around? Was there a particular experience that [00:07:30] led you to this advice?
Craig Fugate: Well, most bureaucracies, and we always call bureaucrats horrible names, but most bureaucracies, if you really think about it, there is more emphasis on not making mistakes than there is on taking risk. And so there always seems to be another meeting, more time, more data to get to the best possible answer. But in a disaster you don’t have that luxury. Time is your most precious commodity and you need to be moving [00:08:00] towards the [biased 00:08:01], towards action.
What I was trying to get across to them and what I continued to emphasize was disasters are going to happen. If you stay in your comfort zone, if you say, “Well, it’ll never be that bad.” Well, I’m sure people said that before 9/11, people said that before Katrina. Certainly in Florida, people were saying that before Hurricane Andrew hit. There’s always this tendency to plan for what you’re capable, what has happened in your immediate past, [00:08:30] but not really plan for the things that people say, “Well, those are lax [inaudible 00:08:34]. They’re outliers. They rarely, if ever, happen.” I’m going, “Yes. But we are in the rarely-if-ever-happens business.” We just don’t get to say, “We’re sorry. This disaster is too big. We didn’t plan for it. We didn’t think it was possible even though we had data saying it was.”
You have to plan not for what you’re capable of doing, not for what you’ve historically dealt with. You have to plan for what can happen. [00:09:00] That means that you’ve got to push back against this phenomena that I always run into. The classic statement after a bad event is, from people locally and from local governments, “I’ve lived here all my life. I never knew it could be this bad.” I’m going, “Yeah, we did. You just didn’t want to face up to it.” And so this is the emphasis. Focus on what can happen, not what you’re capable of doing because certainly nobody would have thought four hurricanes would hit Florida. [00:09:30] But if we were reasonable people in state government and not pushed ourselves, we’d have failed our citizens at the time of their greatest need.
Chris Cate: Yeah. Very good points. When you took the job at FEMA, the agent wasn’t necessarily looked upon in the best light by many Americans, especially after Hurricane Katrina. How much energy did you feel like you had to put into beyond just the day-to-day work, but also in restoring the public’s trust in FEMA?
Craig Fugate: Well, I told the team this. We’re not going to be issuing press releases, [00:10:00] thumping our chests, and telling everybody, “Look at how great we are. We have little or no credibility, both in the media and the public, that we are significantly approved since Katrina. So we’re going to do it through actions. We’re going to focus on doing our job. We’re not going to worry about getting good press.”
In fact, I went in the opposite direction. I said, “First of all, FEMA’s a support organization. We’re either supporting a governor’s team on the front line or we’re supporting another [00:10:30] federal agency. So they’re the story. Our job is to coordinate on behalf of the president that assistance. We’re not going to go around talking about how great we are because nobody wants to hear how great you are when they’ve lost their home or lost family members. We’re going to focus on doing our job to the best of our abilities with no excuse [mentality 00:10:47].”
I said, “I don’t care what people think or what people are concerned about or that people still have to hang over Katrina and think that’s how they’re going to measure us.” I said, ” [00:11:00] We’re not going to be able to change their expectations by talking. We can only change their expectations by doing. That will only come about when disaster happens and we get there, we do our jobs, and we’re competent. Then, that will change the narrative. But you’re not going to get there by talking your way out of it. You’re going to get there by doing your job.”
Chris Cate: While you were at FEMA, you oversaw more than 500 presidentially declared major disasters and emergencies including the Joplin and Moore tornadoes, [00:11:30] Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Matthew, the Louisiana flooding in 2016. How did these disasters compare to your time in Florida as far as the organizationally and leading the effort at a national level? And then how was working with President Obama alike or different from working with Jeb Bush when you’re in the moment of that disaster?
Craig Fugate: There wasn’t much different. There’s just more stuff. More people to deal with. [00:12:00] But people don’t believe me. I’ve told people and I told Governor Bush this. I said, “You know, working for you and working for President Obama was actually one of the best jobs I ever had.” They’re different politically, but their management style’s very similar, at least when it came to disasters. Governor Bush used to come to the State Emergency Operations Center for exercises. I remember him having his chief of staff take roll. He noticed a lot of the agency heads had sent their deputies. President [00:12:30] Obama had more meetings at FEMA than probably anywhere else. During Sandy, prior to landfall, he actually convened a cabinet meeting of relevant cabinet agencies including the secretary of defense, who came to FEMA. That’s unheard of in Washington.
But both Governor Bush and President Obama set the stage that the center of gravity for the response, either at state or federal level, was going to be in that operation center and that they were going to work through [00:13:00] their team. They had both put me in that position of leading that team. Particularly in Washington, that’s extremely empowering when the president is telling cabinet agency heads who are working, “Your job is to support Craig as he supports the governor’s.” Craig being the euphemism for FEMA.
Similarly, Governor Bush, I mean, Governor Bush would literally move his office to the state EOC during hurricanes and delegated his chief [00:13:30] of staff to deal with the more routine day-to-day business of state government while he focused on the crisis response and he did it from EOC. That’s such a powerful message with everybody else going, “Well, if the governor thinks it’s important to be there, then I need to make sure I’m there or I have the right people there from the state agencies.” That wasn’t always true in state government, but particularly with the lessons that we learned from Hurricane Andrew and how Governor Charles re-shaped emergency management in the state of Florida and then how Governor Bush came in and took that and moved [00:14:00] it to the next level.
Both those as leaders gave me considerable autonomy to do my job. They were very supportive of it, but they also ensured their presence was there to communicate both in person but also through substance that this was the way we were going to operate. We weren’t going to have a collection of agencies trying to deal with disasters. We’re going to work as a team. Both of them set it up pretty much [00:14:30] the same. Both of them entrusted me with tremendous authority to do the job. Both of them were people that, two of my best bosses I’ve ever had in my life are Governor Bush and President Obama. A lot of people say, “How can that possibly be? One was a republican, one was a democrat.” That’s the thing with disasters. They don’t care about your politics. They just care about your competency.
Chris Cate: That’s exactly what you want to hear as a constituent. Before we kind of started the formal interview, you were telling me on the phone about [00:15:00] how when you met with Obama, you were wearing your khakis and FEMA gear as opposed to everybody else in suits. Was that part of the environment where he really wanted you feeling like you’re working, like you’re not just putting on a suit, giving a report but kind of part of that day-to-day action?
Craig Fugate: Yeah, because I was in Florida. If you remember any of the EOC briefs and stuff like that, we were in our logo wear. We weren’t wearing suits and coats. We were rolled up sleeves working. We were out in the field. It’s hot as hell in summertime when we hurricanes and muggy. [00:15:30] The last thing you want to be doing is showing up in a suit, tie, crisp, and looking chipper when everybody else has been dragging their butts. We worked from the fields. I went down range on all of those hurricanes and worked from the field. We wore our logo wear proudly. Governor Bush and the rest of the team, that’s how we did it.
I got to Washington and it was pretty much a suit culture up there. I remember we had something going on and I got a call to go to the White House to go to a briefing, I think it was Robert Gibbs was doing it, in the press room. They wanted me to come over and talk [00:16:00] about some of things with the storm. I told my guy, I said, “Well, I’m going to have to go home and get a suit because I’m wearing khakis and a FEMA shirt.” They called over there and Gibbs said, “No, tell him don’t change. He’s fine.” So I came over and did a briefing in the press room wearing a FEMA logo shirt and khakis. Gibbs basically told me, he said, “Look. When you’re over here and it’s a disaster, I don’t want you in a suit.” I’m like, “Works for me.”
And so, both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were in on this and they used to [00:16:30] give me a hard time because a lot of times I’d go over there it wouldn’t be a disaster and I’d be wearing a suit. And so they’d give me a hard time. Governor Bush did the same thing. If they saw me in a suit, it was like I was the butt of the jokes. If I’m wearing my logo wear it was no big deal, but if I’m wearing a suit, “Oh, look. He dresses up nice.” Or, “You got dressed up.” All this other stuff. I told people, I said, “When you’re at the White House wearing a suit and a White House badge, you’re camouflaged. Nobody knows who the hell you are. If I’m wearing my FEMA shirt, everybody wants to know what the hell’s [00:17:00] going on.”
Chris Cate: Another thing I read about you is that you created a waffle house index to measure the scale of assistance needed in an area. Can you share a little bit about what that is and how you came up with it?
Craig Fugate: Well, it wasn’t just me. It was two of my other guys, now Colonel Tad Warpol of the Florida National Guard and Ben Nelson who was a state meteorologist, now meteorologist at the [Jaskshole National O 00:17:24] Service Office. The three of us were down in Hurricane Charlie and there wasn’t much open, if you remember how bad [00:17:30] that area that got hit with Charlie. We were down having to drive south to Fort Meyers just to find anything open on the interstate.
The first place we ever found opened heading south where we were staying was a Waffle House. We walked in, sat down, and they gave us this printed menu. Well, it wasn’t the standard menu and they said, “This is all we have because the freezer went out, but anything on this menu you can get.” So we ordered up and next day we got up and we didn’t have to drive south. There was one opened up where [00:18:00] we were staying, so we went there and the same deal. They had a limited menu but you could get hot breakfast and coffee. I kind of noticed Waffle Houses were always either the first thing open after a disaster or didn’t even close.
And so we were dealing with Hurricane Charlie. We had some in countyship but they weren’t all hit at the same level, particularly Charlotte in [Minstoa County 00:18:21] with this cream. But you had significant damage up in Orange, all the way out to Falucia. We were getting all these numbers in. I said, “We’re going to color code [00:18:30] this. Let’s use a stoplight. Red’s really bad. Yellow is bad but we can manage it. And green, they’re on their own.” My guy’s kind of slipping a sly on me at Waffle House.
And so the Waffle House Index is if they’re opening a full menu, it’s green. If they’re opening out a limited menu, it’s yellow. And if they’re closed, it’s red. It kind of started out as a humorous piece, but then as we started responding to the second, third, fourth hurricanes, we were responding before the counties could even asses [00:19:00] or tell us how bad it was because we had figured out that when you got a lamp on hurricane, you better start rolling because it takes you too long to get there.
If the county don’t need you, then great. But if we’re sending National Guard search and rescue teams into the area of impact, then how do you know when you’ve gotten to where it’s really bad? Because you’ll start coming to damages on the fringes as these hurricanes, trees down, power lines down, things like that. Do you stop there or do you keep going? And so kind of the rule of thumb was, if you get there and a Waffle House is open and they’ve got a full menu, keep going. [00:19:30] If the Waffle House is open, it’s got a limited menu, you’ve probably got a lot amassed here because power and other things have been out or are out because they’ll get going if they’ve got propane. But if you get there and a Waffle House is closed because of damages, then that’s pretty bad, go to work.
We use that. Used it in Hurricane Katrina. They were coming across the interstate supporting Mississippi, the firs teams out, and as they got up on the interstate start heading down into Mississippi, they were reporting the Waffle Houses were yellow. They were open but they didn’t have power. [00:20:00] So they were running on generator and tank gas. But when they got down the coast, they came back and said it was red. They sent me some pictures, that first morning after Katrina, that all that was left of the Waffle Houses were slabs.
But later on, met with the company and they have a very simple mission statement. Get open. They are very aggressive about getting their stores back open in the aftermath of disasters. They have a very simple [inaudible 00:20:29] checklist of what [00:20:30] to do to get started back depending upon if you got water, if you got power. Essentially, if they can get their grill going with gas, they will get open. I said, “Why do you put all this emphasis on it?” They said, “Well, our employees, they need their jobs. And two, our customers need us. We’re oftentimes that place that, in a community after a disaster, if we can get open, it’s a place where people can get in, sit down, and get a hot meal. That seems to help a lot of communities. We feel that’s part of our mission is to help our [00:21:00] communities recover and that we do that by getting open.” I said, “Well, that’s been pretty impressive.” Because where they’re at, I’ve seen this time and time again, where some of the first things that would be open is a Waffle House.
Chris Cate: I’m sure a very pleasant sight for a lot of the people who live there.
Craig Fugate: Well, you think about it. If you don’t have power, you’ve got a tree through your roof. It’s hot and humid and you’re eating canned goods or you’re standing up getting meals form Red Cross or Salvation Army, [00:21:30] and the first time you can go into somewhere like a Waffle House and sit down and get a hot meal and drink a cup of coffee and get a cold drink, is the first, oftentimes, break from just the whole trauma of dealing with the disaster is that first sense of normalcy. That, you know as bad as it is, it’s going to get better.
It’s a good business for Waffle House, but I’ve seen time and time again as those first stores get open, those first restaurants get open, and [00:22:00] it’s not just Waffle House, I’ve seen other what seem to be a lot of home-based, not a chain restaurant, but just a home-based restaurant where they get their team together, they get open, and you just walk in and you see people sitting down to a meal not waiting in line, not dealing with everything they have to do is oftentimes I think for a lot of people the reality that it’s going to get better. [00:22:30] It’s been pretty bad but this is a normal thing to sit down and have a meal. That’s so important for communities, for businesses to get back open.
Chris Cate: I want to transition to another effort that you led at FEMA. This one involving the migrant children who were crossing the border en mass in 2015. Much of America was caught in a politically charged debate about immigration. But what was it like for you on the front lines when it came to helping these children?
Craig Fugate: They were kids. It wasn’t a political issue [00:23:00] for me. Yeah, everybody was all wrapped up around immigration stuff and I’m like, “Well, not my concern. Not what President Obama asked me to deal with. We got children.” Some of these were young mothers with infants in arms who were children themselves. A lot of kids. Everybody was thinking these were older, almost adult boys in these detention centers. It wasn’t. It was girls. It was children.
They were stuck in detention centers that were designed to hold people for 72 hours [00:23:30] and not children for 72 hours, as a max. They’re only supposed to hold them in small numbers. They were holding them in the thousands for weeks at a time, sharing one toilet, one sink, no shower, no cooking facilities. Custom and Border Agents were just doing above the call of duty trying to help these children bringing stuff from home, bringing their toys from their kids and clothing, just to help because these kids literally came with the proverbial [00:24:00] clothes on their back.
So while everybody was talking about the immigration issue and the policies, I looked at this as these were children in dire need of mass care. If anything, FEMA knows what mass care requirement are. We began, at the direction of the White House, helping coordinate across the lead agencies. We focused on this. Again, my conversations with people on the Hill. I remember calling Senator Coburn from Oklahoma. They [00:24:30] wanted me to go out and brief some of the [inaudible 00:24:33], both republican and democratic folks, and both the House and Senate. And so I was told, “Can you give Senator Coburn a call?” I called him up.
Senator Coburn, first of all, he was known as Doctor [Nobody 00:24:49]. He was very passionate about fraud and waste and cutting the budgets and was a thorn in a lot of people’s sides, but from a democratic/republican side, but he was always a gentleman. [00:25:00] When I called him, his first words out of his mouth was, “Craig, how can I help?” We didn’t start out with, “This is failed immigration policy.” I mean, people understood this was children, that these kids … You can talk all you want to about what we should have been doing, but they were here, we needed to change this dynamic.
Chris Cate: What is-
Craig Fugate: And from him to others, it was let’s figure out how we’re going to take care of these kids. The other piece of this is a policy issue we need to talk about separately, [00:25:30] but we got to take care of the kids that are here right now.
Chris Cate: What is the situation right now on the border? Do you feel like they’re able to help people coming across a little bit better and a little bit more equipped? What’s it like at this point?
Craig Fugate: Yeah, it’s better. Part of what we did was two parts. One was the most immediate of how do we provide some immediate capability? I remember Deputy Secretary Work of DOD was a huge player in getting DOD facilities online [00:26:00] and waving certain requirement so we could get kids out of these detention centers and on to military instillation to just give us more space. Under federal law, children under 18 are not to be kept in the tradition custody system. They are to be processed, make sure their medical needs are met, get all of the relevant information. And then Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement [00:26:30] takes over and places these children in a situation that is not a correctional act facility.
But they do have their contracts. They didn’t have the funds and so there was this chicken and the egg. We had more kids coming in than we could get facilities set up. DOD stepped in. We did some temporary facilities to at least move kids out of detention centers into a better situation. Health and Human Services provided public health officers and others to help us screen and get these kids [00:27:00] vaccinated so that we could move them to other facilities. Ultimately, we got that stabilized.
But the second piece of it was how did we get in this hole in the first place? How do we build a better system of monitoring this and setting triggers? That once we get to a certain number of kids coming across the border, we look at how many vacancies we have and well before we get to the point of kids getting stuck in a detention center for days, the system will automatically say, “Okay. We need to start [00:27:30] increasing the number of beds either through contracts or through processing.” Even though we’ve had some spike with children, we’ve not gotten to the point where it’s backed up like it did before.
I think our role is really [cute 00:27:44]. Deal with the immediate crisis and let’s come up with a better plan of monitoring so that all the agencies can have visibility of what the numbers of kids coming across were, how many kids were being processed, and how many kids were in the system, and how many vacant beds [00:28:00] there were, and never getting to the point where there weren’t always vacant beds available in case we have more kids coming across the border than what we had planned for.
Chris Cate: Well, it’s good to hear that it seems like things are a bit better than they were a few years ago. I want to now transition to the final four questions that I ask every guest. They’re pretty simple questions. The first of these questions is, who is a Florida leader who you admire?
Craig Fugate: Well, there’s two. The late [Lawton 00:28:28] Chiles and Governor Bush. [00:28:30] As I was growing up a kid, the stories of Walking Latten, our Senator. And then him leaving the senate, coming back, then running for governor, dealing with one of our worst financial crisis. He did something I thought was extraordinary after Hurricane Andrew. It would have been real easy to find some scapegoats, blame them, and write off that response. Governor Charles says, “I’m not interested in who [00:29:00] did what. I want to know what we’re going to do differently.” He appointed former Senate President Lewis and formed the Lewis Commission to come up with recommendations. Really that, to me, is the birth of what I consider modern emergency management [inaudible 00:29:15] leadership there. He dealt with so many issues from the tobacco settlements to prioritizing children as a critical resource of state, meeting their needs. Tragically, he passed away [00:29:30] in office, that final month.
And then I worked for Governor Bush, obviously, going through all of the hurricanes and all the things we did. Being part of his team was, to me, just two folks. Then there’s other folks like Bob Graham, Ruben [Astue 00:29:49]. To me, these are some of our political giants out there. Both republicans and democrats, I sometimes look around at our current class of state leadership [00:30:00] and I don’t see the caliber or the leadership that we used to have. Search and goods, though, I would say hopefully some will distinguish themselves. But I see this sometimes devolving in such petty debates in state government that the true giants, people that really move the state, I wonder where the next generation’s coming from because I don’t see a lot of people currently in office that have that kind of leadership.
Chris Cate: What is [00:30:30] a favorite Florida place for you to visit?
Craig Fugate: Anywhere there’s water. I like to kayak. Everything from my river here at home, the Swanee going over to [Tutnee 00:30:43]. When I was up in Tallahassee, I loved it but go down to [Wassissick 00:30:47] it wasn’t that far from [Stadius 00:30:48] seeing good kayaking. The Wicola, Saint Mark’s River. Go out to the Saint Mark’s lighthouse and paddle out there.
But the part of Florida I really like is just [00:31:00] kind of anything north of Orlando, but what I call the real Florida where there’s nothing unofficial about it, it’s just the beauty of paddling on the Wicola river or crystal clear water watching alligators swimming underneath you and the occasional manatee. Going down the Wasissa and, unless a plane flies over you or an airboat goes by you, don’t really see any civilization. You see Florida pretty much as it was when man first got [00:31:30] here. To me, it’s one of these things that that part of Florida’s inherent natural beauty that we see continued degradation of springs from nuclear runoffs, we see encroachment and development in areas that probably ain’t smart to build in because they’re high risk from a natural hazard site.
But that old Florida, to me, is what makes this place so great. [00:32:00] Not the golf courses and the artificial landscaping and perfectly groomed lawns. But it’s, yeah, I’m a North Florida kid. I tell people Florida’s the only state I know that turns more Southern the further north you go. But that’s my Florida.
Chris Cate: That actually reminds me of a question I meant to ask you is, what you’ve been up to since leaving FEMA? You’ve been taking more time to yourself to enjoy Florida and find some personal time?
Craig Fugate: Nope. Been working. [00:32:30] I’m pretty much, me and my wife moved back to Gainesville and about the only things that I’ve done beside working is we got a dog and I got a truck. But yeah, I stay pretty busy doing AP associate house retirements. I didn’t retire. I’m basically advocating for stuff, things that I believe in. The ability now to really pick the projects I work on and the people I work with. And focusing on this question of [00:33:00] why are we growing our disaster risks and how do we stop doing that?
I spent a lot of time focusing on our ability to respond better to disasters and now that that’s not my priority anymore, I can take a step back and go, “Yeah, maybe we should be asking a better question. Instead of trying to figure out how to respond better, why don’t we figure out how to reduce the demand? If we know we live in a state that’s going to have hurricanes, why do we seem to build in a way that promotes the maximum amount of damage when a hurricane hits?” [00:33:30] I’m not about taking away people property rights, but I do have to ask the question, why are we subsidizing risks for developers and builders that merely transfer risks to the tax payer? Why isn’t a lot of this better managed through the private sector insuring it and the private sector won’t insure it, why are we subsidizing it?
Chris Cate: Yeah, one of these last four questions I have on my list is, what person, place, or thing deserves more attention than it’s getting? Perhaps it is just what you’re talking about. How do you prevent [00:34:00] the disasters as opposed to worrying as much about the aftermath?
Craig Fugate: Yeah, I mean, there’s recently in the legislature they kind of weakened our building codes a little bit by saying, “We’re not going to go with a three year update on our building codes. What we’ll every three years, we’ll look at the proposed new codes from the international code council and we’ll pick which ones we want.” The problem with the building code commission is it tends to be stacked with developers and builders, [00:34:30] not the just [inaudible 00:34:33] with them, but they make their money on the transaction of building and selling homes. My question is, why aren’t we building better homes, better to withstand the threats of hurricanes so that they are better values. Then they say, “Well, you’re going to make home unaffordable.” And I’m like, “Well, I think that’s a load of crap.”
Home ownership’s a hell of a lot more than the purchase price. It includes your insurability. It includes your maintenance. It includes your energy [00:35:00] costs. We know from putting all of the studies into a little bit more on the front end of building homes better saves taxpayers and saves homeowners tremendous amounts of money over the lifespan of that home. That’s the total cost of ownership. I think sometimes they take such a shortsighted views on the immediate investment return that we end up building homes that aren’t really viable in the environment we’re in. We’ve seen time and time again where good strong building [00:35:30] codes like the Southward Building Code and the codes that we implemented just prior to four hurricane seasons made a tremendous difference whether people had roofs or didn’t have roofs after those hurricanes.
But probably our biggest vulnerability right now is we’ve got too many homes built in areas that are going to subject to climate impacts if sea level rise, current storm surge problems. People say, “Well, you believe in climate change.” I said, “Hell, no. I don’t believe [00:36:00] in climate change. It’s a fact of science.” Beliefs are things you can’t prove. I believe in God. You can’t prove it’s true. You can’t prove it’s not true. But climate you can prove. The data’s there. It’s happening. I don’t know how the reptilians that are going to stay under the rocks saying it isn’t going to happen are going to survive because we’re already seeing those impacts.
When you think about how we build and develop, those are decisions that will have consequences 20, 30, 40, 50 years in the future. We still got people running around going, “I’m going to put my head [00:36:30] in the sand, pretend that it ain’t happening because oh, by the way, I make all my money this year. What happens 30 years from ain’t going to affect me.” But it is going to affect the local communities. It’s going to affect our tax base. It’s going to affect you as taxpayers. Last time I checked, we all have to pay in on the CAP fund and citizens when they go bankrupt when they have to pay out after a big disaster.
Developers don’t carry that burden. We the homeowners, we the property owners, we the people that buy insurance do. [00:37:00] I think we should have a greater say or at least insist if you want to build in these risky areas, have a nice day. Do it with private investment and private insurance. If they think it’s a good risk, have a nice day. But don’t expect us, the taxpayer, to continue to underwrite risks that we have no real benefit for.
Chris Cate: Very good. Well, I have one last simple question. That’s just, do you have a favorite Florida sports team?
Craig Fugate: [00:37:30] Oh, no. Are you kidding? I’m in Gainesville. The last couple of years, we have won more national championships including now having the trifecta of-
Chris Cate: Baseball.
Craig Fugate: Football, men’s basketball, and baseball. Nobody’s done that since the Vietnam War. We’re only about a handful of schools that have ever done it nationally. I always felt FSU and other schools serve a critical purpose in the state of Florida and we got to get middle management from [00:38:00] somewhere. But UF, no matter what anybody wants to say, is the flagship, is the leader, and I’m a gator.
Chris Cate: Good. Well, that’s a fun note to end on. I won’t take a side on that question. But I appreciate you taking so much time to chat with me. I know we went a little bit long, but I really appreciate you being on the show.
Craig Fugate: No problem.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. If you aren’t subscribed to the podcast yet, I hope you’ll look us up and subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app like [00:38:30] Apple podcast, Stitcher, or Google Play Music. If you leave a review, that would be great, too. Thanks to my team at SalterMitchell PR for making this podcast possible. If you need help telling your Florida story, we’ve got you covered. We offer issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. We also have our own in-house creative and research teams. Look us up at saltermithcellpr.com for more information. You can also find more information about the Fluent in Floridian podcast [00:39:00] at fluentinfloridian.com. Have a great day.