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FEMA director bears the brunt of Katrina anger

Vilification continues of federal disaster chief Michael Brown, who has  emerged as the primary scapegoat for what went wrong in the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.
Federal disaster chief Michael Brown has emerged as the primary person taking blame for the government's inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina.
Federal disaster chief Michael Brown has emerged as the primary person taking blame for the government's inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina. MSNBC TV
/ Source: The Associated Press

He's been called an idiot, an incompetent and worse. The vilification of federal disaster chief Michael Brown, emerging as chief scapegoat for whatever went wrong in the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, has ratcheted into the stratosphere. Democratic members of Congress are taking numbers to call for his head.

"I would never have appointed such a person," said New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"Let's bring in someone who is a professional," urged Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.

A more visceral indictment came from closer to the calamity. Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish near New Orleans, said the bureaucracy "has murdered people in the greater New Orleans area."

‘Give me a better idiot’
"Take whatever idiot they have at the top of whatever agency and give me a better idiot," he told CBS. "Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don't give me the same idiot."

Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, just back from a week surveying damage in his home state, allowed that "mistakes were made" but tried to counsel restraint Tuesday as calls for Brown's removal escalated. But even Lott displayed some of the potent emotions spawned by the horrific conditions on the Gulf Coast.

"If somebody said, ‘You pick somebody to hammer,’ I don't know who I'd pick," he told reporters. "I did threaten to physically beat a couple of people in the last couple of days, figuratively speaking."

It's not uncommon for the Federal Emergency Management Agency — and whoever is in charge at the time — to catch blame in the messy aftermath of disaster.

It happened after Hugo hit South Carolina in 1989 and Andrew struck Florida in 1992.

FEMA scapegoated in previous disasters
After Andrew, Mikulski slammed the agency for a "pathetically sluggish" response, and on the ground, Dade County emergency director Kathleen Hale famously summed up the frustration felt throughout the stricken areas when she cried, "Where the hell is the cavalry?"

"There is nothing more powerful than the urge to blame," said Eric Dezenhall, a crisis-management consultant who helps corporate leaders and other prominent figures try to repair tattered images. "It happens every time. It is a deeply embedded archetype in the human mind."

He said the Brown episode is playing out in classic fashion.

"You can follow the steps," he said. "First, outrage. Second, the headline: 'What went wrong?' Third, the telltale memo that supposedly suggests somebody knew and did nothing. I just don't find this to be unique at all."

Brown, a 50-year-old lawyer, in some ways is an easy target.

The former head of the International Arabian Horse Association, Brown had no background in disaster relief when old college friend and then-FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh hired him to serve as the agency's general counsel in 2001.

"There is a Jay Leno-esque comic undertone to his background," said Dezenhall. "It sort of conjures up a who's-on-first kind of thing."

Questionable qualifications?
But the dim view of Brown's qualifications by senators seems to have emerged only in hindsight. Members of both parties seemed little troubled by his background at 2002 Senate hearings that led to his confirmation as deputy FEMA chief.

Indeed, Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who led those hearings, called Brown's long-ago stint as assistant city manager in Edmond, Okla., a "particularly useful experience" because he had responsibility for local emergency services.

As FEMA chief, Brown has pressed for greater attention to natural disaster planning, including strategies for a major hurricane in New Orleans, and he has had to contend with cuts to FEMA's operating budget while more attention was paid to fighting terrorism.

But as the enormity of the Gulf Coast damage gradually came into clearer focus, Brown did not help his case with a number of comments seen as insensitive or ill-advised. For example, he acknowledged last week that he didn't know there were some 20,000 evacuees enduring heinous conditions at the New Orleans convention center until a day after their difficulties had been widely reported in the news.

ABC's Ted Koppel was incredulous as he asked Brown, "Don't you guys watch television? Don't you guys listen to the radio?"

"Forgive me for beating up on you there," Koppel later told Brown, "but you are the only guy from the federal government who is coming out to take your medicine."

Support from Bush
The doses keep getting stronger. But, for now at least, President Bush is standing by his embattled FEMA chief.

"Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," the president told him last week.

And Brown, for his part, is trying to shrug off the criticism.

"People want to lash out at me, lash out at FEMA," he told reporters. "I think that's fine. Just lash out, because my job is to continue to save lives."