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Video: Ex-FEMA chief Brown takes, dishes Katrina blame

  1. Transcript of: Ex-FEMA chief Brown takes, dishes Katrina blame

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: On this night five years ago, Hurricane Katrina was intensifying over the Gulf of Mexico , just hours away from making landfall in Louisiana . Three days earlier, a much weaker Katrina slammed into southern Florida , causing 11 deaths. But what awaited the people of Louisiana and Mississippi , and especially the city of New Orleans , was much worse. The man who took the fall for the federal government 's poor response to Katrina , former FEMA head Michael Brown , returned to New Orleans this week and, in the city's hardest-hit neighborhood, he spoke to me about how it all went so wrong. I think a lot of people would say you got a lot of nerve coming back to New Orleans , and especially here in the Ninth Ward .

    Mr. MICHAEL BROWN: Mm-hmm.

    HOLT: To which you say?

    Mr. BROWN: You know what? This is a -- this is -- this is a significant portion of these people's lives and what happened to them. It's a significant portion of my life, too. I will always be a part of what happened here, and I want to know what's going on and I want to comment about what's going on or, frankly, based on this, what's not going on.

    HOLT: If you had to put your finger on one thing that you failed at, somebody else failed at, that led to the horror show that we saw in this neighborhood, what would it be?

    Mr. BROWN: It was the failure of, I think, both the federal government of convincing Mayor Nagin to do an evacuation, and the failure of the mayor to do an evacuation earlier.

    HOLT: Were you urging him earlier than that Sunday to declare a mandatory evacuation?

    Mr. BROWN: Oh, absolutely. We were -- we were doing it 72 hours in advance. In fact, I actually picked up the phone, called the president down in Crawford and said, 'I'm asking you to do a favor for me, and that is I want you, the president of the United States , to call a mayor and use that bully pulpit to try to get him to evacuate.'

    HOLT: Did the president make that call?

    Mr. BROWN: He made the call.

    HOLT: Did the administration fail in its Katrina response?

    Mr. BROWN: Yes. I think there was this attitude of, 'It's a hurricane. Brown and his team have handled hurricanes before, they can handle this one.' There was not the sense of urgency that this was the kind of catastrophic hurricane that we had been warning and trying to plan for.

    HOLT: Where did you fail along the way?

    Mr. BROWN: The biggest mistake was not putting into context for the American public what was not working. I've gone back and looked at the talking points that we give to guys like you when we do the briefings. They were factually correct, things like we're moving more ice water, meals, medical supplies than we've ever moved before. But what I didn't tell the people was it's not enough and we're having distribution problems with that stuff. We should have put it in better context. I failed to communicate how bad this was.

    President GEORGE W. BUSH: And, Brownie , you're doing a heck of a job.

    HOLT: How did you become the villain? How did you become the symbol of the administration's gross failure here?

    Mr. BROWN: Because I was the guy on the ground. You have to have somebody in charge in any disaster, and ostensibly that was me. So I'm the guy on the ground, I'm the face in front of the camera, and I'm the low man on the totem pole. So who do you think Bush is going to fire?

    HOLT: No matter what you do in life, you will always be the guy whose name was associated with what went wrong here.

    Mr. BROWN: I often -- I often joke to my family that I never wanted to be or expected to be in the obituaries of The New York Times. Now they will carry it, and you know what the headline will be, right?

    HOLT: Yeah.

    Mr. BROWN: The guy that Bush said, " Brownie , you're doing a heck


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