WASHINGTON — Former federal disaster chief Michael Brown, the face of the government’s listless response to Hurricane Katrina, said Friday he told top Bush administration officials the day the storm howled ashore of massive flooding in New Orleans and warned “we were realizing our worst nightmare.”
More defiant than defensive, Brown told senators he dealt directly with White House officials the day of the Aug. 29 storm, including chief of staff Andrew Card and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin.
He also said officials from the Department of Homeland Security were getting regular briefings that day. Administration officials have said they did not realize the severe damage Katrina had caused until after the storm had passed.
After three hours of testimony, Brown was handed a subpoena ordering him to reappear in front of a House panel investigating the storm response. Brown is expected to be questioned by House investigators this weekend — days before the panel is expected to release its findings on the storm.
Under oath, Brown told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that he could not explain why his appeals failed to produce a faster response.
“I expected them to cut every piece of red tape, do everything they could ... that I didn’t want to hear anybody say that we couldn’t do everything they humanly could to respond to this,” Brown said about a video conference with administration officials — in which President Bush briefly participated — the day before Katrina hit. “Because I knew in my gut this was the bad one.”
In the end, the storm claimed more than 1,300 lives, uprooted hundreds of thousands more and caused tens of billions in damage. The devastation in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities left Americans with enduring images of their countrymen dying in flooded nursing homes and pleading for rescue from rooftops.
Agreed he was a scapegoat
Brown, in his second Capitol Hill appearance since Katrina, told his side to the senators five months after he quit under fire as chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
He agreed with some senators who characterized him as a scapegoat for government failures.
“I feel somewhat abandoned,” said Brown.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has said he did not know that New Orleans’ levees were breached until Aug. 30. Bush at the time said, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.”
At an occasionally contentious White House briefing Friday, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said there were conflicting reports about the levees in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
“We knew of the flooding that was going on,” McClellan said. “That’s why our top priority was focused on saving lives. ... The cause of the flooding was secondary to that top priority and that’s the way it should be.”
Recounting conference calls that described initial damage reports the day Katrina hit, Brown scoffed at claims that Homeland Security didn’t know about the devastation’s scope until the next day. He called those claims “just baloney.”
Some senators suggested Brown look inward before pointing the finger elsewhere.
“You’re not prepared to put a mirror in front of your face and recognize your own inadequacies,” said Norm Coleman, R-Minn. “Perhaps you may get a more sympathetic hearing if you had a willingness to confess your own sins in this.”
Brown responded: “That’s very easy for you to say sitting behind that dais and not being there in the middle of that disaster watching that human suffering and watching those people dying and trying to deal with those structural dysfunctionalities, even within the federal government.”
FEMA, Homeland Security ties problematic
The disjointed federal response, Brown said, was in part the result of FEMA being swallowed in 2003 by the newly created Homeland Security Department, which he said was focused on fighting terrorism.
Natural disasters “had become the stepchild of the Department of Homeland Security,” he said. Had there been a report that “a terrorist had blown up the 17th Street Canal levee, then everybody would have jumped all over that,” he added.
Some senators attempted to trace the failures back to the White House.
“You quite appropriately and admirably wanted to get the word to the president as quickly as you could,” said Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., asking about Brown’s conversation with Hagin on the evening of Aug. 29. “Did you tell Mr. Hagin in that phone call that New Orleans was flooding?”
Brown answered: “I think I told him that we were realizing our worst nightmare, that everything we had planned about, worried about, that FEMA, frankly, had worried about for 10 years was coming true.”
Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, suggested Brown may have delayed the federal response by cutting Homeland Security out of the loop about the levee failures and going straight to the White House.
“I think I now understand why Secretary Chertoff says he didn’t know,” Bennett said. “The reason he didn’t know is because you didn’t think it important to tell him.”
Brown said he communicated directly with the White House instead of Homeland Security because FEMA’s parent agency “just bogged things down.”
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