On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the southeastern United States, killing more than 1,800 people and causing more than $100 billion in damage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), then run by Michael Brown, was slow to rescue stranded residents and faced shortages of food and water. The agency was widely believed to have failed in its response to storm.
Brown was summarily fired. In May, 2009, President Obama nominated Craig Fugate for the job. Fugate previously was the director of the Florida Emergency Management Agency under then-governor Jeb Bush. Since Fugate took control, things have turned around remarkably. The agency received high marks for its handling of Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
But with cyberattacks becoming more frequent and a historic drought crippling California, FEMA's job is never done. Last week, The Agenda's Danny Vinik sat down with Fugate at FEMA's headquarters to talk about how the agency has improved in the decade since Hurricane Katrina and how it is preparing for future emergencies. The 56-year-old Fugate ripped into the media's coverage of science, arguing that there is a "war on science" underway in the United States, and warned that, in the future, competition for water has the potential to be the most destabilizing emergency that the U.S. and world face.
Danny Vinik: Ten years after Katrina, how has FEMA changed so it's not caught out by something on the scale again?
Craig Fugate: Most people look at organizations, they looked at individuals and say, "You failed." But why did we fail? The challenge was both at the local, state, and federal level. We found ourselves too often planning for what we were capable of managing and then hoping it never was any worse. And we thought that if those systems could respond to the day-to-day challenges, we'll scale up in a larger response. And what Katrina demonstrated is you don't scale up. So, you either build for the big events or you're going to fail.
DV: Have sequestration and Congress weakened your ability to prepare and protect America from some of these disasters?
CF: Sequestration and budget cuts are just facts of life that we have to operate in. But we also recognize the better we work as a nation and we look at leveraging the investments we've made across all of the states, the jurisdictions, and engage in the private sector, we actually build more resilience in there. So, while everybody says they want to point to a specific budget issue and say that will cause this, that doesn't work in disasters. It's very hard to go one-to-one.... The measure isn't always how many dollars you can spend on it. The real measure is, have you built the team and capabilities respond to that? Because most of what sequestration would potentially impact really would come about after an event occurred, and that would be the process of looking at things such as supplemental [funds] like we did for Sandy to pay for the extraordinary cost.
DV: How much are you embracing new technology to leverage your ability to respond in these situations?
CF: Well, let's be clear: Everybody thinks social media is great—and I'm a big fan of it—but social media doesn't stop bleeding. So, we have to be real about what it can and can't do. And what social media really does for us [is] allow us to communicate with the people at risk during a disaster in forums and formats that people use.... I'll give you an example: When Joplin hit, I was on travel. So, I'm talking to the team. We're getting the initial reports of it, but it wasn't clear how bad it was, and the state had not requested any assistance, yet. But when we started seeing some of the first images that were coming up on Facebook and Twitter … and you start seeing the hospital and some of the devastation and you're going, "We don't need to wait for Governor Nixon to say he needs help. They're going to need help." They're so busy in response they haven't even gotten to the next step of, "What else are we going to need?"
DV: What are some of the efforts that you've done to prepare for emergencies?
CF: If you just talk about we need to be prepared, well, what does that mean? Now, let's talk about a specific threat that is likely to occur. So, whether it's the current ongoing wildfires and drought in California or it's preparing for blizzards, or the Pope's visit, which will be a national security event, involve large scale assemblies of people that we have to prepare for, work, and partner with both the Secret Service, which has the lead on the federal side for protection, [and] with the local and state governments who have to deal with the consequences of when you put that many people in that limited area. It won't take much to trigger events that would require large scale coordination. You name it, we plan for it.
To get people thinking that way, we've moved away from a lot of our prepared exercises, and started doing no-notice exercises, with limited advance notice and limited knowledge of the exercise, and we call them thunderbolts, but we do them at all levels and we do them all the time, and it keeps our staff focused on you're not always going to get a forecast.
DV: A lot of people have become alarmed by the New Yorker article this summer about the potential of a massive earthquake hitting the Pacific Northwest, and how unprepared we are for it. Is that right?
CF: We were doing this well before the article came out. We've been doing planning with the states. In fact, both the states of Oregon and Washington State have rather detailed plans. Some of these problems, quite honestly, are going to be of such a challenge there's no easy answer and it won't be immediate. The response may not be what you would like, but it is what is possible in that event. So, there's been detailed planning going on well before this article. And this is one of the things I find that the media does do that I find kind of amusing. They find a new hazard that they weren't aware of and suddenly it's like the disaster du jour. We oftentimes have been dealing with it long before the media even finds out about it.
DV: You've faced pushback from Republicans for requiring states to prepare for climate change if they want access to certain funds. How do you convince states been willing to take the necessary steps to receive those funds?
CF: You can debate climate change until the cows come home, but the best indicator of future risk I've ever seen is the reinsurance industry's willingness to invest capital into providing insurance for your structure. And if they're not going to insure it, or it's not affordable, why is the taxpayer doing it without some mechanism to move the taxpayers' burden into the private sector and use capital decision to drive risk investment decisions?
And what we do know is most of our calculations on risk are based upon past data. The challenge we've had with that is it's too limited, does not tell us about the future, and oftentimes understates risk. And we in government have not had a good track record of predicting future risk and driving investment strategies to either buy down risk or make sure that risk does not get transferred to the taxpayer unless the taxpayer is seeing a benefit to that risk.
So, if you're going to talk about climate impacts, climate change, what's driving it, I deal with consequences. And the consequences I'm trying to address are, we go back into a community and we rebuild substantially damaged or destroyed buildings. Should we build to the data we have from the past? Because that data would also mean it would get destroyed next time. Or do we build to the future?
DV: Do you think it's a moral hazard problem, where people make risky decisions because they know they'll be taken care of?
CF: Yes. We underwrite risk in this nation below which behavior changes and we see it over and over and over again. … And this goes back to very basic capitalism: Investment should be based upon those that are willing to make the investments and make the risk, and the winners and losers should be clearly identified. But when you allow growth and development to occur without those market forces, you will see development and growth in areas that is only because we underwrite it with federal assistance.
DV: What are you doing about the risk of cyberattacks, such as an attack on the power grid?
CF: So you don't have power, that's what we would respond to. [It] doesn't matter if it's an earthquake, a hurricane, or, my favorite example, a suicidal squirrel that shorted out a transformer and knocked out power through a lot of the Western states one day. You deal with the consequences. So, we generally find ourselves in the physical world of cyber, of the impacts. There are other areas that we see more of that are, quite frankly, disturbing to me, but our role is less clear. When there's not a physical aspects—so, you're talking about financial transactions, privacy information, security information. It's like we might as well just get billboards and put all the information out there. But that's not what FEMA is designed to do. We are primarily, on behalf of the administration, responsible for coordinating the federal response to state and local governments to the consequences of a disaster.
DV: What's the scenario that keeps you up at night?
CF: In my business, you'd never go to sleep if you were like that—I don't worry about it. I know it can happen.... And oftentimes, what can happen in the real world exceeds what most people think can happen.
DV: Are there areas where you don't think we understand the risk as well as we should?
CF: Drought. … And of all the risk that we face, a drought's the hardest one to address, because [if] you have a big flood, it eventually stops raining. It doesn't always start raining when you have a drought. And so, if you think about the response to droughts, mainly it's about buying time until the rains come back. What happens if the rains never go back to what you thought was normal? So, droughts don't keep me awake, but I will tell you, droughts have the potential, of all the hazards we face, to be the most destabilizing, both to our nation and to the earth because of food shortages, food insecurity, water wars.
People just think the oil wars have been interesting. But if you get into a changing climate where the narrow bands of the growing areas of this world are threatened by drought, food prices go up, and migrations are based not just upon economics anymore, but just pure survival. It's an entirely different world we have to be prepared for.
DV: Are climate skeptics in Washington frustrating to deal with?
CF: I take a step back and go the bigger issue is the challenge to science itself. You guys report on this all the time. Our way of covering science-based issues is to get two opposing experts—whether or not the experts are actually qualified to speak—to present a subject. And therefore, the public thinks that we're not biased and that we have both views, although one view is junk science and one is based upon science with peer-review. … Science is not easy, it's not always pretty, and it's not always going to be 100 percent. But we have cheapened science in this country to the point where we think it's debatable whether the sun comes up. As long as I have an expert that says we orbit the sun versus somebody who says the sun orbits the earth, we'll report that as fair and equal treatment.
They're not buzzwords. This isn't party-specific. This is an issue that we've gotten a war on science when it doesn't agree with our political positions. … That is something, as a nation, we have created. We have cheapened science to the point of as long as I get some hack out there to say it's different or I don't agree with your views no matter what your data says, I'm going to attack you personally and vilify you.
We used to be the country—both parties—we were the country of intellectuals, using reason and science to solve our problems. Where did that that go?
DV: How do we fix this?
CF: I think you have to take the responsibility that reporting a story and providing two views isn't reporting. You have to understand your subject and you have to know that just because somebody's opposing it doesn't give them a voice equal to the person that's presenting the conflicting or sometimes controversial information that people don't like.