In the days leading up to Katrina, former FEMA Director Michael Brown sent jocular e-mails to colleagues about his clothing, finding a dog-sitter and asking if he could quit, an investigation revealed.
The House panel investigating the government’s slow response to the storm has released pages of internal e-mail dating from before Katrina hit on Aug. 29 in which Brown appears focused on issues other than the catastrophe at hand.
Brown resigned as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sept. 12 after being made the main scapegoat for the government’s lack of preparedness for Katrina, which killed more than 1,000 people.
Shortly after 7 a.m. on the morning of the storm, a FEMA public affairs official sent Brown an e-mail complimenting him on the outfit he wore during a national television briefing. In response to the e-mail, whose subject was “Re: New Orleans update,” Brown said, “I got it at Nordstroms,” then added, “Are you proud of me? Can I quit now? Can I go home?”
Hours later, Brown received e-mails about levee breaches and pieces falling off the roof of the New Orleans Superdome, used as a shelter during the storm.
Casual responses at a critical time
On Aug. 31, FEMA official Marty Bahamonde sent Brown a desperate e-mail from New Orleans, calling the situation “past critical.” Describing patients in temporary emergency shelters, Bahamonde wrote, “Estimates are many will die within hours.”
He also wrote, “We are out of food and running out of water at the dome, plans in works to address the critical need.”
Brown’s reply to the e-mail was: “Thanks for the update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?”
A few days after Katrina’s devastation, FEMA aide Sharon Worthy sent an e-mail to Brown suggesting he roll up his sleeves when making television appearances.
“Even the President rolled up his sleeves to just below the elbow,” the e-mail reads. “In these crises and on TV you just need to look more hard-working.”
‘Order a #2’ for dinner, Brown suggested
The following week, Brown responded to Worthy’s e-mail about her fast food options during a business trip to Florida.
“Order a #2, tater tots, large diet cherry limeade,” Brown wrote on Sept. 6.
A week after Brown corresponded with co-workers about who would look after his dog while he traveled to the Gulf Coast, federal employees forwarded press releases to him and urged him to do more to rescue pets stranded by Katrina.
“If you don’t take action to save these creatures of God who are part of the family of the victims, may God forgive you because the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the rest of America, and the world, will not. I guarantee you that!” a government official wrote on Sept. 8.
Brown then ordered an action plan to be developed among his employees who were scattered in the recovery zone.
“If evacuees are refusing to leave because they can’t take their pets with them, I understand that,” he wrote. “So, we need to facilitate the evacuation of those people by figuring out a way to allow them to take their pets.”
Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., decried Brown’s e-mails, saying they “depict a leader who seemed overwhelmed and rarely made key decisions.”
After being relieved of his duties as the head of FEMA, Brown had 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 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 resignation came three days after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff sent him back to headquarters from the gulf area, where he had been the point man in the region. It also came little more than a week after President Bush, on his first post-storm visit to the region, said, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”
Following Brown’s resignation, Bush chose FEMA official R. David Paulison to be the agency’s acting director.