Sarasota hires former FEMA chief to review Irma preparation

Craig Fugate, administrator of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) talks at the National Hurricane Center in 2012.
Craig Fugate, administrator of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) talks at the National Hurricane Center in 2012. Miami Herald Staff

A high-profile disaster expert will assess Sarasota’s hurricane preparedness beginning next month, the county announced Friday.

Craig Fugate, who served as President Barack Obama’s Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator from 2009 to 2017 and Gov. Jeb Bush’s emergency management director from 2001 to 2009, will conduct a “holistic and independent review” that will identify where Sarasota showed strength and areas that could use improvement. His report is expected to be completed in early 2018.

"We recognize the importance of reviewing all of our responses to a disaster, especially a storm of Irma's magnitude," said Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer. "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.”

The after-action review will also include peer reviews from three emergency management professionals across the state. In addition, feedback will be accepted from other stakeholders, such as local municipalities, hospitals and the business community.

Starting in November, Fugate will hold meetings with these stakeholders and review the Irma timeline, as well as the county’s reactions to the storm. He will then use his key findings from those discussions to create recommendations for the Sarasota County.

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 will work alongside Fugate to create the report. While they have agreed to provide their services for free, Sarasota County partnered with the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation and Gulf Coast Community Foundation to hire Fugate.

Previously, Fugate has said that Florida’s evacuation infrastructure, in general, is something that the state “has to revisit.”

Fugate directed the federal government’s response to a large number of devastating storms, including Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Matthew. He also served Florida as it dealt with Charley, Wilma and Ivan. In 2016, he received the National Emergency Management Association’s Lacy E. Suiter Award for lifetime achievement and contributions.

"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. "Their feedback will be invaluable in helping our community be even better prepared in the event that disaster strikes."

In Manatee County, since Irma, each departments has been reviewing their individual responses, according to county spokesman Nick Azzara. At the end of the month, department heads will meet and discuss upsides and downfalls to their response.

Ryan Callihan: 941-745-7095, @RCCallihan