A Q&A with Former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate – American Alliance of Museums

A street with a powerline and trees knocked over after a storm

Under the leadership of Craig Fugate, the Federal Emergency Management Agency embraced a “whole community approach” to addressing disasters, opening new funding and partnership opportunities to museums.

Have you ever wondered what it takes to create a strong, lively community? Recently, this question led me to revisit the work and writings of Ray Oldenburg, who first developed the concept of the “third place,” and a conversation I had with Vincent Francisco from the University of Kansas, an expert in community health and development. This got me thinking about museums and similar institutions’ crucial roles in communities.

While in this rabbit hole, I discovered something I had never known about: the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Stafford Act. To my surprise, I learned that this federal legislation concerning relief funding includes museums, giving us a unique perspective on our role and definition of our function to ponder.

To learn more about this legislation and the “whole community approach” it emanates from, I spoke with Craig Fugate, who ran FEMA from 2009 to 2017 during the Obama Administration. Below, I’ve shared some exciting parts of our conversation that shed light on these topics.

Adam Rozan: First, can you share with readers what the Stafford Act is and how it applies to museums?

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Craig Fugate: The Stafford Act is federal legislation establishing a program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). When disasters exceed certain thresholds in a state, the president can declare an emergency or a disaster at the governor’s request, which triggers federal funding. This funding is available for uninsured losses and applies to government-owned museums or eligible nonprofits; however, for-profit museums are excluded from this program. If a museum is in a declared disaster area and has uninsured losses, it may be eligible for up to 75 percent reimbursement.

AR: Section 11B of the Stafford Act provides an understanding of the responsibilities of “private nonprofit facilities providing essential social services to the general public.” Does that definition apply to museums?

CF: Yes.

AR: What is the “essential social service” that museums provide?

CF: Education.

AR: Then, how do you define education?

CF: It’s a bit nuanced, but education here refers to the educational components, such as classroom spaces or other educational-based aspects the organization offers.

It’s important to note that the Stafford Act does not cover the value of collections. Its primary focus is buildings, infrastructure, and other protective measures. For example, if a disaster hits a library and valuable manuscripts need to be recovered using specialized equipment, the equipment costs could be covered. The key is to work with your state to determine your eligibility and the available assistance. The Stafford Act focuses primarily on infrastructure, recovery, and protective measures.

AR: Looking at the Stafford Act holistically, would you agree that the government here recognizes the broader role that museums play or serve in their communities and our society?

In addition to their educational roles and the importance of their collections, museums also participate in various services that benefit the community.

CF: Absolutely, and as the definition has expanded over the years, so has how organizations have been involved in their communities. Today, museums contribute to education, creativity, exposure, and other services and functions that support and engage their communities. Activities such as after-school programs, summer camps, programs for seniors, and community outreach are part of what it means to participate in community life and contribute to determining eligibility as a nonprofit.

AR: Continuing on this thread, what’s the role of a museum in its community?

CF: When [FEMA and the Stafford Act] talk about museums, it’s both from the standpoint of the value in the education exposure of their collections and their educational offerings. And, importantly, it’s the recognition that museums are also part of the economic structure of their communities, so they are part of the economy as well. When people come to see the collections, that’s foot traffic, which also is part of how the museum contributes to the economy, so it’s both an economic issue and a cultural and educational one, as museums offer services to the general public.

AR: On that note, could you explain what the whole community approach is?

CF: At FEMA, I kept looking at how we responded to disasters, which I would call a government-centric approach, and what the government would do. And that worked very well for emergencies. But the more significant the disaster, the more we depended upon the government to provide essential services, and the more we failed. So, my question started to move away from, well, if the government is not the answer, what else is out there?

When you’re in government, it’s like the Homer Simpson moment of, “Oh yeah, we’re not the only people responding. You have the private sector, all the volunteer and non-government organizations, and the citizens.” And it was this idea that disasters don’t hit political subdivisions. They’re not like lines on a map. They hit communities. They hit neighborhoods, and they hit businesses. And they hit all of these, what we’re realizing, were second, third-order effects. And I’m like, “Well, maybe we should stop defining the team by what the government will do.” And the government’s an essential part of the team, but they’re not the entire team. You’ve got to engage the rest of the community because either they’re going to have needs or they’re going to have resources that they can offer.

AR: What you’re talking about is a new definition, or a more honest definition, of what a community is and how it works, with neighbors helping neighbors and businesses working alongside community organizations, out of necessity but also shared responsibility for one another.

How do government organizations like FEMA then fit into the community approach?

CF: [Before the whole community approach, there was] the idea that the government has to do everything and is responsible for everything. And the problem was that the more significant the disaster, the slower the response was.

So, to speed things up, you must take advantage of all the other groups. You need to take advantage of the people there, the resources, and the community. They’re not saying they don’t need help, but to ignore them and what they can do and try to replace that with a strictly government-centric response was going to fail.

Your fastest help is neighbor helping neighbor. And that also, in turn, allows the government to focus on the most vulnerable or hardest-hit areas of the community. This is how disasters have been responded to for eons. It’s overwhelming in the local area. People pitch in and do what they can. Help comes from the outside. You eventually get stable, and then you start rebuilding.

AR: I read an interview where you talked about how you first became a volunteer firefighter, then an emergency responder. It’s similar to how in the museum sector, you might start on the floor of a museum as a guard or working in admissions, which helps you understand what’s involved in the day-to-day running of the organization, and its audience connection, as you work your way up. How did your early experience inform your perspective as you moved up?

CF: As a paramedic, I began to understand the difference between process and outcomes. You were taught all these skills to respond to disasters—car crashes, shootings, etc. And I began to see that just because we had all this training didn’t mean we were changing the outcome.

The outcome you needed was to deliver a patient to the emergency room [for whom] recovery was still viable. This was when I learned that time was the most precious commodity because the more time we spend in the field doing this process, the more likely we bleed out and the less likely we are to survive trauma. We had to go back and realize the things we do on the scene don’t necessarily improve the outcome [for the patient] if it delays transport to the hospital. The only thing that will save most trauma patients is what one of my medical directors said was “hot light and cold steel.” You got to get in and stop the bleeding. I began to understand that the outcome and the ideas process had to be different. Because you could do it perfectly, and the outcome still was that the patient didn’t make it. But if I could get the patient to the emergency room, the doctors and surgeons could still save them.

Later, when I got into emergency management and moved through my career, my focus became the outcomes I was trying to achieve, not the process of getting me there. I like to question the process because we often ask, “Why do you do this?” “Well, we’ve always done this.” “Well, how’s that changing the outcome?” “Well, we’ve always done it that way.” There may be an excellent reason, but I would challenge that and strip away all of the processes to get down to the essential things I need to do to achieve the desired outcome. Because the bigger the disaster, the fewer things I can do and the less time I have to do it. So, eliminating less critical stuff to achieve that outcome frees resources and people.

AR: Among the many other things you’re known for is the “Waffle House index.” What’s the Waffle House index, and what can we learn from it?

CF: It was created by my meteorologist at the time, Ben Nelson, and a prominent national guard, Tad Warfel. It was made for something else, but it applied to our work, especially with hurricanes. Hurricane Charlie had happened, and we would send our teams out, and they would ask how we knew where to go. I said, “Well, if the Waffle House is open, and it’s got a full menu, then keep going even if you see trees down and stuff. It’s not that bad. If you get there and the Waffle House is open, but it has a limited menu, we’ve probably got water problems, power problems—more what I would call mass care issues—but not search and rescue because the workers could get there. We may be dealing with debris on the roads, but people are still getting around. If you get there and the Waffle House is closed because of the disaster, then it’s pretty bad, and that’s where we should go to work.”

AR: This strikes me as saying two things. One is that problems should never be above anyone’s pay grade, and the other is that they must be solved on the ground, not in a boardroom among the C-suite. Can you address those two things, the idea that people across the organization not only can but should be working to make change and solve problems?

CF: It’s the idea of power at the edge. I would tell people that in a good disaster response, I should be the most bored person in the room because if I’m busy and have to make many decisions, I didn’t build the system right.

The C-suite should be providing guidance, culture, and empowerment, but if the C-suites have to make all the decisions, then in a crisis, it will jam up. The work should be done ahead of time, and you’ve built your team up, and you’ve empowered your team to deal with getting the water stopped, protecting the collections, getting accountability for people, etc.

I try to get government and private sector people to identify their essential functions and why they must exist. And how do you get back up and running to resume providing those essential functions?

AR: I love that; you’re talking about purpose, the organization’s reason for being, and if we go full circle back to how this conversation started with the Stafford Act, their essential function is just that, providing social services to the general public.

CF: That’s right. I always find it fascinating how people focus on the process. If they do the process, they think the outcome will be OK. They do not define what the outcome is in the first place and what those essential things or essential functions that they need to get back up and running are and then work backward from that.

AR: What then gets in the way of organizations accomplishing their essential function? Is it bureaucracy?

CF: I don’t know. I’ve been looking at what people call bureaucracy or process, and I found that people say, “Government’s got bureaucracy.” Trust me, nonprofits, and the private sector, do as well, and why is that? Because everybody hates it. Nobody likes it. But why do we build it? And it comes back to the idea that every organization has finite resources. You have limited time, yet you have lots of processes to do, most economically. So, you tend to build systems that work when you are at your busiest. But what do we do as managers and leaders? Instead of asking people to reimagine how they would do something, we tell them to do more. We say, “Let’s add this form and this checklist; add that you need to do this database entry.” And at some point, the process starts to add up.

When I was in EMS, there were these whiteboards you’d have, and you’d have to write down all of the actions that you were doing. So you would know when the drug had been given, when the IVs had been started, when you’d made the call to the hospital, and all that. But what happened is those things would get scratched off the list, but they never got taken off the board. So the board would get very messy, and everything you had done was right there before you. But the problem is that when something changed, and you had to pivot and do something else, you couldn’t see it because the board was filled with everything you had done. And it’s like, “Well, we can’t take that off there because we might have to look back and see what we did in case of a lawsuit.”

What I would do, when I would go into operations centers, and I would see these whiteboards: I would go get a rag and start erasing what was on the board and say, “See, it’s not the end of the world.” This would help for a while, then they’d get busy again, forget, and return to the old way of doing things.

So, part of the job is just challenging people and asking, “Why do we do this this way? Can’t we do this differently?” And it’s not because I have the correct answer; instead, it’s seeing inefficiencies and doing something about it. We might be unable to perfect it, but we can always improve it.

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