Former FEMA administrator to lead Sarasota County’s after-action review regarding Irma

Craig Fugate’s services to be funded by two community foundations

Craig Fugate. Photo courtesy of FEMA/Bill Koplitz

The Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation and Gulf Coast Community Foundation will cover the expense of bringing the former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to Sarasota County to help facilitate an after-action review of the community’s response to Hurricane Irma, Sarasota County staff has reported.

The county announced on Oct. 20 that it had engaged Craig Fugate for the review. In response to The Sarasota News Leader questions on Oct. 23, Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester reported that Fugate’s visit will cost about $20,000.

When County Administrator Tom Harmer announced plans for the after-action review during the Oct. 11 County Commission meeting, Commissioner Nancy Detert voiced concern about the county’s shouldering the expense of a facilitator. At the time, Harmer told her he was uncertain whether the county would have to pay anything for the initiative.

Harmer’s news about the review came a day after the board members held their first discussion about trying to plug budget gaps for coming fiscal years while also trying to build back up the county’s Economic Uncertainty Reserve Fund.

Other commissioners — especially Chair Paul Caragiulo — said they were pleased county administrative staff was planning the in-depth look at actions related to Hurricane Irma.

“The holistic and independent review will take a structured approach to identifying strengths and areas for improvement,” the Oct. 20 county news release pointed out. “It will also include peer reviews by three emergency management professionals from around the state and include the input of stakeholders from the local municipalities, Sarasota County Schools, area hospitals, nonprofits and the business community,” the news release added.

The review is expected to be completed in early 2018, the release noted.

Winchester told the News Leader in an Oct. 23 email that the county will utilize funds from Emergency Management grants “to support assistance in compiling data, holding stakeholder meetings, and preparing a draft report.”

Staff is working to obtain quotes for those facets of the review, he added.

This is the National Hurricane Center forecast for Irma as of 5 p.m. on Sept. 7. Image from the NHC

The county will not incur any expense for the assistance of the emergency management officials, Winchester added, other than covering their travel expenses to enable them to attend the final after-action review workshop.

Those officials are Alan Harris, emergency management director for Seminole County; Manny Soto, emergency management director for the City of Orlando; and Jonathan Lord, deputy director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, the Oct. 20 news release reported.

“We recognize the importance of reviewing all of our responses to a disaster, especially a storm of Irma’s magnitude,” said Harmer in the Oct. 20 release. “Our community was largely spared the worst of this historic storm’s effects, but having respected professionals in the field of emergency management help review the county’s operations will ensure that our next response to a disaster incorporates lessons learned and leverages best practices. We are excited about our partnership with the foundations and are fortunate to be able to bring the highest level of emergency management expertise to the table to help us evaluate our actions and improve upon our future responses,” he added in the release.

During an Oct. 5 presentation to members of the Siesta Key Association, Ed McCrane, the county’s emergency management chief, emphasized how unique Hurricane Irma was. “The storm was engulfing the entire state, from South to North,” he said. “Everybody was in the [potential strike] cone for days.”

Ed McCrane addresses Siesta Key Association members on Oct. 5. Rachel Hackney photo

While TV weather forecasters can offer hourly updates to enable viewers to decide what action to take, McCrane explained, he does not “have that luxury. It takes 30 hours to evacuate Zone A” in the county, which includes the barrier islands and the other lowest-lying areas, along with all mobile home communities. “So we had to begin that evacuation on [Sept. 8] at 2 p.m.,” he continued, because the National Weather Service was forecasting a storm surge of 7 to 10 feet for Sarasota County.

More than 20,000 people stayed in Sarasota County’s general population shelters, McCrane added. People from Monroe, Broward, Miami-Dade, Collier, Lee and Charlotte counties joined Sarasota County residents, he pointed out. Additionally, more than 200 people were in the county’s special needs shelters.

Experience and accolades

Fugate served as President Barack Obama’s FEMA administrator from 2009-17 and as Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s emergency management director from 2001-09, the county news release pointed out. Fugate oversaw the federal government’s response to a number of major events, such as the catastrophic tornadoes that hit Joplin, Mo., in 2011 and Moore, Okla., in 2013; Hurricanes Sandy and Matthew; and significant flooding in Louisiana in 2016, the release noted. He also served Florida during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, when Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, Dennis, Katrina and Wilma struck the state.

Last year, Fugate received the National Emergency Management Association’s Lacy E. Suiter Award for lifetime achievements and contributions in the field of emergency management, the release said.

A February article about Fugate in the Tampa Bay Times pointed out, “By all accounts, the plainspoken former Alachua County firefighter helped bring FEMA back into good standing following the crisis of Hurricane Katrina.”

The article added, “In a farewell to employees on Jan. 17, Fugate sought to inspire: ‘Don’t do what you are capable of doing, push yourself harder. Be unreasonable in your expectations, because reasonable people always fail in disaster response. Perfection is your enemy. Getting 100% answers to everything that can go wrong will keep you from ever making a decision.’”

The collaboration

County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo

The Barancik and Gulf Coast Community foundations will help ensure the participation of community partners and nonprofits in the after-action review, the county news release added.
Beginning next month, Fugate will facilitate meetings with stakeholders to review the timeline of events and actions related to Hurricane Irma, the release explained. Key findings, recommendations and next steps will be reviewed and developed by Fugate and the three peer reviewers, it added.

“This is an opportunity to bring all of our partners together and gather input from some of the most well-respected emergency management experts in the nation,” said Sarasota County Emergency Services Director Rich Collins in the news release. “Their feedback will be invaluable in helping our community be even better prepared in the event that disaster strikes.”

In an Oct. 17 email to City of Sarasota administrative staff, Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie wrote that the city “should be included in this study, and should provide a detailed summary regarding critical areas addressed by the city, such as debris removal, law enforcement support (both on the ground and in the emergency shelters), utilities impact (water main, etc.).”

She asked whether county leaders had approached city staff to ask for their participation in the after-action review.

In an Oct. 18 response, City Manager Tom Barwin wrote that the matter was discussed at the most recent Council of Governments meeting, which includes local government leaders from throughout Sarasota County. City staff, he noted, “shared our observations and priority needs with the county.”

Barwin added that city administrative staff would convey to the study team the results of its debriefing of city personnel involved in the emergency operations response, and it would provide the information to the City Commission, as well.

“Backup generators at shelters, power restoration, backup power options, shoreline stabilization, lift station hardening, and a shelter for employees and first response staff are our highest priorities, along with better communications from [Florida Power & Light Co.], while continuing to maintain good building codes and enforcement of same sums up our situation pretty well,” he wrote.