WASHINGTON -- America may know W. Craig Fugate as the slightly weary-looking guy on CNN explaining the ins and outs of flood insurance. But in the world of emergency management, he is known for his Waffle House matrix.
Mr. Fugate, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, learned in his many years of battling natural disasters that fully operational Waffle Houses mean that a community is doing O.K. But if those same restaurants are serving half menus, it means that power has been lost. And if their doors are closed, it signifies that things are really bad.
"It's a shorthand for us to get in there and quickly get a snapshot," Mr. Fugate said Friday in an interview at FEMA headquarters in Washington. "Is the Waffle House open? Everything normal there?"
Mr. Fugate acknowledges that the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy poses a challenge to the Waffle House matrix because the chain, popular in the South, has so few restaurants in the Northeast. In place of Waffle Houses, he said, he has looked to Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts as bellwethers, but he said he did not believe that they had the same philosophies about reopening quickly.
"Waffle House has a very simple operational philosophy: get open. They never close. They run 24 hours a day," he said. "They have a corporate philosophy that if there is a hurricane or a storm, they try and get their stores open. It don't matter if they don't have power, it don't matter if you don't have gas. They have procedures that if they can get a generator in there, they'll get going. They'll make coffee with bottled water."
After the agency's poor handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, FEMA was the Homer Simpson of federal agencies, a symbol of pitiful incompetence. The storm even created a national punch line after President George W. Bush said at a news conference that his FEMA director, Michael D. Brown, was doing a "heck of a job" even as the agency was bungling its response.
While FEMA is still viewed with caution -- and in some places in New York City in the last week, with continued scorn -- Mr. Fugate has done much to shore up its image. That is in part simply through self-flagellation, as he races around storm-savaged regions, ticks off statistics about water levels and procures baby formula for a mother in need.
Mr. Fugate -- or Mr. Emergency Management, as President Obama referred to him last week -- is a straightforward, honey-toned former director of Florida emergency operations who judges the post-storm condition of communities by the viability of their local economic activity. His hyper-focus on local preparation long before disasters hit has been the key to his success, according to several people who have worked with him.
"He speaks the language of first responders because he was one of them," said Alan Rubin, who oversaw Florida's economic recovery after Hurricane Andrew. "He doesn't have to be brought up to speed on what FEMA can do and when they can do it."
In an administration long on Ivy League degrees and Washington pedigrees, Mr. Fugate, who wears cowboy boots, stands out. Both of his parents died before he graduated from high school. He never finished college, started out as a paramedic and spent most of his career in Florida.
"He is very down to earth, and that always helped him out a lot," said Dwayne Phillips, an information technology expert who worked at FEMA when Mr. Fugate was the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, a job he held until 2009, when Mr. Obama appointed him to run FEMA. Citing Mr. Fugate's Waffle House theory, Mr. Phillips said: "He would talk about stuff like that, and had this 'O.K., that's a problem, let's address it and move on forward' way about him. He doesn't get caught up in the weeds."
Mr. Fugate is known for his "lightning bolt" drills, in which he surprises employees midday with a fake disaster and forces them to respond. He peppers each day with a short phrase to keep responders focused. On Friday, he was pushing "People, Power and Pumps." He is known in the field for positioning equipment ahead of time so that states know immediately how many cots and water bottles are needed when a disaster hits, which proved a huge problem during Hurricane Katrina.
As people in New York and New Jersey on Thursday and Friday remained without power and struggled to find fuel to fill their cars and generators, reports emerged that some were angrily denouncing FEMA as responding too slowly in the aftermath of the hurricane.
"It's part of how people cope," Mr. Fugate said of the anger toward FEMA. "I don't care that they don't understand FEMA, and I'm not going to defend it and say you shouldn't be mad at us. It's a natural part of it. They get frustrated, and they are going to get angry. I need to acknowledge that, but I need to focus on what are their needs and are we taking care of their needs longer term."
FEMA's programs, Mr. Fugate said, were really designed to deal with a disaster several days after it occurred and to provide the local authorities and first responders with capabilities and equipment that they did not have. The agency may provide financial aid, water removal specialists and advanced search and rescue teams.
"Because we always talk about FEMA so much," he said, "I think the general public assumes we are part of the response team that will be there the first couple of days."
While a vast majority of Obama appointees have drawn sharp criticism from Republicans in Congress, Mr. Fugate has managed to impress members of the committees that oversee FEMA, who say he testifies without notes and worked his way from the ground up in Florida, a state well versed in disasters.
"I would call him apolitical," said one aide to the House Appropriations Committee who is not permitted to speak to the news media, pointing to an absence of criticism of the agency in Alabama, a deeply conservative state, after tornadoes hit there last year. "He can be very direct, but our members respect him, bottom line."
Mr. Fugate, 52, got his start in emergency response as a volunteer firefighter and paramedic in Alachua County, Fla., and then made his way through the administrative ranks, becoming the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management in 2001. He has won several awards in the field and was named to the National Guard Association of Florida Hall of Fame in 2006.
At the end of the Bush administration, he was interviewed to be the head of FEMA -- the acting director, R. David Paulison, ended up getting the job -- and he said later in an interview that it was a post he would ponder with trepidation. He told a reporter, "A lot of people are looking at what Mike Brown went through" and believed it was "not a good encouragement for people to put their professional careers on the line."
Mr. Fugate has said several times that he is not satisfied with FEMA's response in New York and New Jersey and would not be until all residents had power, water and a means of transportation.
But he did allow himself a tad of self-defense last week when Mr. Brown, his predecessor, criticized the administration for predetermining states as disaster areas. "Better to be fast than to be late," Mr. Fugate told an NPR reporter in an interview.
At a conference for emergency workers, Mr. Fugate said, "If you know me, I don't sound like many people from Washington," and emphasized the importance of strong building codes and risk management before disasters strike. "Mitigation of natural disasters took a back seat to the threat of another terrorist attack" in recent years, he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.