Many turn down top FEMA jobs

Disaster response experts leery of joining agency

interim director now likely nominee

April 02, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The calls went out across the nation, as Bush administration officials asked the country's most seasoned disaster response experts to consider the job of a lifetime: FEMA director.

But again and again, the response over the past several months was the same: "No thanks."

Unconvinced that the administration is serious about fixing the Federal Emergency Management Agency or that there is enough time to get it done before President Bush's second term ends, seven of these candidates for director or another top FEMA job said in interviews that they had pulled themselves out of the running.

"You don't take the fire chief job after someone has burned down the city unless you are going to be able to do it in the right fashion," said Ellis M. Stanley, general manager of emergency planning in Los Angeles, who said he was one of those called.

Now, with the next hurricane season two months away, the Bush administration intends to nominate R. David Paulison, a former fire official who has been filling in for the past seven months, to take on the job permanently, said several former and current FEMA officials.

"To a lot of people, that would be an insult," said Craig Fugate, the top emergency management official in Florida, who said he also had been interviewed but then withdrew his name.

"They have been publicly out looking at how many different names, and everyone turned it down, and they come back and ask you?"

The list of emergency managers who have spurned requests to be considered for FEMA director or another top post represents a who's who in the small, close-knit field.

Besides Stanley and Fugate, they include:

Richard Andrews, the former homeland security adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.

Ellen M. Gordon, former homeland security adviser in Iowa.

Dale W. Shipley of Ohio and Eric Tolbert of North Carolina, two former top FEMA officials who also served as the top emergency managers in their home states.

Bruce P. Baughman, the president of the National Emergency Management Association and the top disaster planning official in Alabama.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has acknowledged the difficulty of finding a permanent replacement for Michael D. Brown, who resigned in September after widespread criticism of his management of the response to Hurricane Katrina, as well as filling other senior posts at the agency and hundreds of lower-level jobs.

Today, of the 30 most-senior jobs, 11 are filled by officials appointed on an acting basis, including the administrators in charge of critical functions such as operations, disaster recovery and disaster response.

"You've got to be able to attract people," Chertoff told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last month. "And I will not deny that certainly I think when there is a lot of negative publicity, it doesn't make a lot of people want to migrate."

The search has gone on so long that Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the Homeland Department's budget, threatened Wednesday to hold up action on the budget bill until the top administrative posts at FEMA are filled.

Paulison, 59, does not have the depth of experience in running a large statewide emergency management organization that most of the other candidates have. But he is not new to the field.

Most of his career was spent at the Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Department, where he was chief from 1992 until 2001 and responded to emergencies including Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Bush named him the U.S. fire administrator in 2001, and two years later he also became FEMA's director of preparedness.

Several emergency managers, including those who were considered for the job, said that despite the way the search had proceeded, they were confident that Paulison was up to the task, even if he had not yet had an opportunity to offer a vision for the agency.

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