WASHINGTON — Former FEMA director Michael Brown aggressively defended his role in responding to Hurricane Katrina on Tuesday and blamed most coordination failures on Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.
He also said that in the days before the storm, he expressed his concerns that “this is going to be a bad one” in phone conversations and e-mails with President Bush, White House chief of staff Andy Card and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin.
And he blamed the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for not acquiring better equipment ahead of the storm.
His efforts to shift blame drew sharp criticism from Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike.
“I’m happy you left,” said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. “That kind of look in the lights like a deer tells me you weren’t capable of doing that job.”
Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., told Brown: “The disconnect was, people thought there was some federal expertise out there. There wasn’t. Not from you.”
Brown appeared before a special congressional panel set up by House Republican leaders to investigate the catastrophe.
“My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional,” two days before the storm hit, Brown told the panel.
Brown, who for many became a symbol of government failures in the natural disaster that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people, rejected accusations that he was too inexperienced for the job.
“I’ve overseen over 150 presidentially declared disasters. I know what I’m doing, and I think I do a pretty darn good job of it,” he said.
Brown resigned as the head of FEMA earlier this month after being removed by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff from responsibility in the stricken areas. Brown will remain on the FEMA payroll for two more weeks, advising the agency, said Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.
“He speaks for himself and he's entitled to his point of view and I don't have anything to add,” Chertoff told reporters in Miami. Bush and Blanco both ignored a reporter’s shouted question about Brown's assertions as they inspected damage from Hurricane Rita in Lake Charles, La.
Unfavorable comparison with Giuliani
Brown, who joined FEMA in 2001 and ran it for more than two years, was previously an attorney who held several local government and private posts, including leading the International Arabian Horse Association.
Brown’s testimony drew a scathing response from Rep. William Jefferson, D-La.
“I find it absolutely stunning that this hearing would start out with you, Mr. Brown, laying the blame for FEMA’s failings at the feet of the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans.”
And in a testy exchange, Shays compared Brown’s performance unfavorably with that of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
“So I guess you want me to be the superhero, to step in there and take everyone out of New Orleans,” Brown said.
“What I wanted you to do is do your job and coordinate,” Shays retorted.
“I’m happy to be called not a Rudy Giuliani ... a scapegoat ... if it means that FEMA that I knew when I came here is going to be able to be reborn,” Brown said.
Admission of 'specific mistakes'
Criticized by Shays for not acquiring better equipment in advance that would have let different emergency agencies communicate with each other, Brown blamed the Department of Homeland Security.
“We put that money in our budget request and it was removed by the Department of Homeland Security” before the budget was finalized, he said.
Brown also said he was “just tired and misspoke” when a television interviewer appeared to be the first to tell him that there were desperate residents at the New Orleans Convention Center.
Brown testified that he had already learned, one day before the interview, that people were flocking to the center.
Brown blamed “a hysteric media” for compounding the crisis with what he said were unfounded reports of rapes and murders. He characterized blunt-spoken Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the military coordinator for the disaster, as “a bull in the China closet, God love him.”
And he said Americans themselves must play a more active role in preparing for natural disasters and not expect more from the government than it can deliver.
But Republican Rep. Kay Granger of Texas told Brown: “I don’t know how you can sleep at night. You lost the battle.”
Brown in his opening statement said he had made several “specific mistakes” in dealing with the storm, and listed two.
One, he said, was not having more media briefings.
As to the other, he said: “I very strongly personally regret that I was unable to persuade Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down, get over their differences, and work together. I just couldn’t pull that off.”
Both Blanco and Nagin are Democrats.
Louisiana official fires back
In Baton Rouge, La., Blanco’s press secretary, Denise Bottcher, ridiculed Brown’s line of attack. “Mike Brown wasn’t engaged then, and he surely isn’t now. He should have been watching CNN instead of the Disney Channel,” Bottcher said.
“The people of FEMA are being tired of being beat up, and they don’t deserve it,” Brown said.
The hearing was largely boycotted by Democrats, who want an independent investigation conducted into government failures, not one run by congressional Republicans.
But several Democrats from the stricken region, including Jefferson and Taylor, attended.
Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., cautioned against too narrowly assigning blame.
“At the end of the day, I suspect that we’ll find that government at all levels failed the people of Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama and the Gulf Coast,” said Davis.
Brown says federal role limited
He pushed Brown on what he and the agency he led should have done to evacuate New Orleans, restore order in the city and improve communication among law enforcement agencies.
Brown said: “Those are not FEMA roles. FEMA doesn’t evacuate communities. FEMA does not do law enforcement. FEMA does not do communications.”
Brown said the lack of an effective evacuation of New Orleans before the storm was “the tipping point for all the other things that went wrong.”
A “mandatory” evacuation was ordered Sunday by Nagin, the mayor. However, buses were not provided and thousands of residents were stranded without transportation in low-lying areas.
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