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Ex-FEMA chief passes blame
McClatchy Newspapers


September 27, 2005
Tuesday PM

WASHINGTON - Former FEMA chief Michael Brown struggled through a humiliating day on Capitol Hill as lawmakers excoriated him for bungling the response to Hurricane Katrina and for trying to shift blame to others, including the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans.

While some lawmakers merely accused Brown of weak leadership skills, others charged he had placed his own job security ahead of storm victims' lives.

"I don't know how you can sleep at night," Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, told him during a daylong hearing of a House select committee investigating preparedness and response related to the hurricane that battered New Orleans and the Gulf Coast nearly a month ago and killed more than 1,000 people.

In his opening remarks, Brown said his primary failures were doing too many individual interviews with news organizations during the aftermath of the storm rather than holding centralized press briefings that would have freed up more of his time, and being unable to get Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to work better together when it came to deciding evacuation plans and other aspects of their response.

"My biggest mistake was not recognizing, by Saturday (two days before the levees broke in New Orleans) that Louisiana was dysfunctional," he said.

His answer didn't sit well with lawmakers, many of whom said the federal government must be able to take over immediately when a natural disaster on the scale of Katrina overwhelms local officials.

Brown testified at one point during the hearing that he had watched the "emaciation" of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's budget and talent pool - due largely to the Department of Homeland Security's emphasis on terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001 - but chose not to cross his bosses or President Bush by publicly airing his concerns.

"I have predicted privately for several years that we were going to reach this point because of the lack of resources and the lack of attention being paid," Brown said. "It has been a personal struggle over the past two or three years to keep that place together because of this resource problem."

Said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., "What I heard Mr. Brown say is, it was more important for him, keeping his job, than speaking the truth."

Brown said he had spoken privately to some members of Congress and to the administration, but that he was the type of manager who believed in working within the system. He also said that he warned the president and top administration officials that Katrina could be a major disaster, and that contrary to criticism that Bush was slow in his initial hurricane response, "The White House was fully engaged."

Brown resigned earlier this month but is remaining on the government payroll for a short time as a consultant.

Asked to react to the testimony of an appointee Bush had once affectionately referred to as "Brownie," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters, "Washington tends to focus on finger pointing. The president is focused on problem solving."

Brown, a lawyer and one-time head of an Arabian horse association who had relatively little emergency management experience before joining FEMA in 2001 and taking the reins in 2003, veered from apologetic to defiant throughout the course of the day.

"I have overseen over 150 presidentially-declared disasters," he said. "I know what I am doing. And I think I do a pretty darn good job of it."

His testimony seemed to underscore rather than ease lawmakers' concerns, about him and his agency.

Brown said he was still trying to get to the bottom of why some of FEMA's logistics requests to various agencies - about transportation or beds and shelters - were processed while others appear not to have been.

But he also said elected officials and the public misunderstood FEMA's limited role as an agency that coordinates and responds to requests from local officials. FEMA should not be in the business of providing ice or gasoline to victims of natural disasters, he said.

Brown could not explain why food and water could not always be airlifted in to stranded storm victims, for example. And under questioning by Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., Brown could not name the head of the National Guard or the chief of naval operations - officials who would be involved in a major disaster response.

Brown later said he should have sought military assistance at least a day earlier to manage a situation that was out of control. "I wish I'd just said to (Homeland Security) Secretary (Michael) Chertoff and (Defense) Secretary (Donald) Rumsfeld, 'I need you to take over.'"

Asked whether he felt FEMA was prepared for the hurricane, Brown said, "We were prepared but overwhelmed ... it quickly overwhelmed us."

"You were way over your head in your capacity," said Taylor, one of two Gulf Coast Democrats who attended despite House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's refusal to name members to the committee.

But Brown bristled at Taylor's suggestion that he had a shallow understanding of the deaths left by the storm.

"I know what death and destruction is, so I don't expect you to lecture me," he said, his voice rising. "It breaks my heart. I pray for these people every night."

Pelosi has said the Republicans who control Congress want to whitewash the investigation. But while some of the Republicans on the panel went easy on Brown, just as many were harsh in their assessments. When Brown blamed negative media coverage for forcing him out of his job, Shays said, "No, because you didn't do a good job, is why."

More hearings are expected in the weeks to come, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is chairwoman of Senate select committee on the hurricane, said she also intends to call Brown to testify.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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