‘We’re behind and we’re losing,’ former FEMA director says of US coronavirus response

Craig Fugate say social distancing is only answer; Waffle House-index for hurricanes can apply to pandemic

Former FEMA director and Florida Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate said the U.S. is not keeping up with supplies, testing, equipment, protective gear and care when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re behind and we’re losing,” Fugate said. “The problem with pandemics and the problem with COVID-19 is people are the vector and it doesn’t move any other way. And too often what we have seen is by the time we have enough cases that people take it seriously, it’s lost containment and it’s much worse than we know.”

Fugate is one of the only Democrats to have been appointed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He served as Florida's Emergency Management Director for almost a decade. After that, President Obama appointed Fugate as FEMA director for seven years.

“We had done a lot of planning for H1N1 [the Swine Flu] when I was at FEMA,” Fugate said. “And the thing that I try to remind people is most of our disaster response is always based upon one part of the country gets hit hard, the rest of the country can go help. But in a pandemic, or cyber attack, there’s no political or geographical distancing of the event.”

Fugate said Florida's hurricanes taught him not to wait.

"I think the thing we learned is you have to be in a push mode," Fugate said. "If you wait for a local and state governments to make requests, you're too late. What I learned in Florida is we had to be responding like it was bad and in many cases we had to respond to a population not sure how bad it's going to be, we know it couldn't be worse than how many people live there. And I took that to FEMA. That if you wait for the request to come up, you're too slow in fast-moving events so the lesson I learned that I would hope people apply in this pandemic is this isn't about just enough time, just about right-sizing it, this isn't about having enough. Quite honestly if you don't have too much you're probably losing."

Fugate coordinated the emergency responses for hurricanes Charley, Francis and Jeanne slamming Central Florida in 2004 but for a pandemic it’s different.

“When a hurricane hits we know how bad it is and we work to get everything fixed. A pandemic doesn’t do that, we don’t know how bad it’s going to be," he said. "And until we actually see the numbers coming down and staying down, we don’t know how bad its going to be, and we don’t know when this is going to end.”

Fugate said his "Waffle House Index" still applies to the Coronavirus pandemic.

He’d gauge the storm damage to an area by the status of Waffle House restaurants. Waffle Houses are open 24 hours a day and are among the first to reopen after hurricanes pass through.

"We did the observation that the Waffle House was a pretty good indicator," Fugate said. "If the Waffle House was open and serving, and everything was normal, you may have trees down and sporadic power outages, it's not that bad, keep going. If you got there and a Waffle House is open and had a limited menu, it probably had much more expensive power outage and probably more impacts to families and businesses and such. And if you got the area where the Waffle House was closed or destroyed by the storm, that was the most critical area and that's where we should we should go to work."

Fugate said closed Waffle Houses are now an indication of a city on lockdown. Waffle Houses with limited or take-out service are an indication of a city practicing social distancing or stay-at-home.

Social distancing is the most effective way now to stop the spread of the pandemic, according to Fugate.

"Some places were very aggressive on their social distancing, they were able to flatten the curves, others got behind and it exploded," Fugate said. "The big thing is for those who can stay home, stay home. So the people who have to go in there's fewer interactions. This is an airborne disease and it is spread by people."

And wear masks, Fugate said, following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“And likely for us it’s going to be several more weeks, several more months before we have enough testing and enough tools to start talking about reopening the economy,” Fugate said. “We may be slowing down in a few areas, that may be reflective (of) social distancing but numbers are still going up (overall).”

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