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Ex-FEMA Leader Says 
Bush Aides Knew of Floods 

ERIC LIPTON / New York Times 11feb2006

[Also see: Transcript of Senate Hearing on Government's Response to Hurricane Katrina 10feb2006]

 

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10 Michael D. Brown, the former federal emergency management chief who became a ridiculed symbol of the Bush administration's flawed response to Hurricane Katrina, returned in anger to Capitol Hill on Friday and lashed back at his former superiors.

Former FEMA Director Michael Brown engages in a heated exchange with Sen. Normal Coleman, R-Minn., before Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill Friday, Feb. 10, 2006., during a hearing on the response to Hurricane Katrina. . (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)

Former FEMA Director Michael Brown engages in a heated exchange with Sen. Normal Coleman, R-Minn., before Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill Friday, Feb. 10, 2006., during a hearing on the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Photo: Dennis Cook/AP

Mr. Brown said that he told a senior White House official early on of the New Orleans flooding, and that the administration was too focused on terrorism to respond properly to natural disasters.

Testifying before a Senate committee, Mr. Brown said he notified a senior White House official who he said was probably Joe Hagin, the deputy White House chief of staff, but might have been Andrew H. Card Jr., the chief of staff on the day the hurricane hit to report that it had turned into his "worst nightmare" and that New Orleans was flooding.

It was the first public identification of any White House official who was said to have directly received reports of extensive flooding on Monday, Aug. 29, the day Hurricane Katrina hit.

In the aftermath of the storm, administration officials said they were caught by surprise when they were told of the levee breach on Tuesday, Aug. 30. Mr. Hagin was the senior staff member with President Bush on the day the hurricane hit, when Mr. Bush was traveling in California.

Mr. Brown's politically charged appearance before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs quickly divided the panel's members by party.

Several Republican senators peppered him with hostile questions and suggested he was trying to deflect the blame from his own failures.

In contrast, Mr. Brown drew a gentle, even warm response from Democrats who said he had unfairly been made a scapegoat by the administration, though last year it was frequently Mr. Brown himself who drew the most fire from Democrats in Washington.

In contrast to low-key statements in the past, Mr. Brown, who resigned under pressure on Sept. 12 as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was aggressively on the defensive, saying he was "sick and tired" of his remarks or e-mail messages being taken out of context or hearing that he lacked the leadership skills for his job.

Mr. Brown said it was "baloney" for Department of Homeland Security officials to claim they did not know of the extent of the flooding until Tuesday, because he and other FEMA officials had notified them the day before.

In response to questioning, Mr. Brown also said he believed he told the White House on Monday that a breach had occurred in the 17th Street Canal levee, passing on observations made by one of his staff members on the ground in New Orleans that day.

"Everything that we had planned about, worried about, that FEMA, frankly, had worried about for 10 years was coming true," Mr. Brown said he told the White House aide.

Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said Friday morning while the hearing was under way that the administration already knew the city was being flooded. Regardless of the call from Mr. Brown, there were conflicting reports about whether a levee had been breached, Mr. McClellan said.

"The top priority at that time was on saving lives; it was on search and rescue operations," Mr. McClellan said.

Mr. Brown said that he could not recall if he personally called the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, to relay the account of the levee breach. Even if he had, Mr. Brown said, it would have been a waste of time because FEMA's role within the Homeland Security Department had been subordinated to fighting terror. As a result of that, he said, he was unable to quickly get the kind of action he needed, unless he called the White House staff.

The Bush administration, as a whole, he said, did not seem to care enough about natural disasters and had relegated natural disasters to a "stepchild" of national security.

"It is my belief," Mr. Brown told the senators, that if "we've confirmed that a terrorist has blown up the 17th Street Canal levee, then everybody would have jumped all over that and been trying to do everything they could."

Republicans, including Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the chairwoman, said Mr. Brown's disdain for the new domestic security structure left the department without crucial information it needed about what was happening in New Orleans. Senator Norm Coleman, Republican of Minnesota, said Mr. Brown was shifting attention away from his own lack of responsiveness to the disaster.

"You're not prepared to kind of put a mirror in front of your face and recognize your own inadequacies and say, 'You know something, I made some big mistakes. I wasn't focused. I didn't get things done,' " Mr. Coleman said.

The remark provoked Mr. Brown to raise his voice almost to a shout.

"What do you want me to say?" Mr. Brown said. "I have admitted to mistakes publicly. I've admitted to mistakes in hearings. What more, Senator Coleman, do you want from me?"

Mr. Coleman responded: "A little more candor would suffice."

Democrats, including Senator Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, said Mr. Brown was being made a scapegoat to deflect criticism from the White House.

"Keep your chin up and fight back," Mr. Lautenberg said.

Several senators, including Democrats, said they were surprised by Mr. Brown's inability to remember crucial details from the early days of the storm, including which White House aide he spoke with and whether Mr. Bush participated in the telephone call.

Mr. Brown also gave differing answers about whether he actually mentioned the levee breach to the White House. At first he said he could not recall whether he used those words but then later he said that he was sure Mr. Hagin or Mr. Card knew it and that he would have told one of them about the breach during the conversation.

He said he could not recall whether he told the White House aide that he needed any particular help at a time when the city was flooding, thousands were packed into the Superdome without adequate supplies and others were beginning to climb to roofs or attics to avoid drowning.

Two senior Homeland Security Department officials, who testified after Mr. Brown, said that his unwillingness to honor the chain of command and give regular updates to Mr. Chertoff or others in the department severely hampered the department's response.

"We have a president, we have a secretary that are seeing things on television, we're getting reports, what is going on down there?" said Gen. Matthew E. Broderick, who served as the director of the Homeland Security Department's information center in Washington during the storm, recalling his request to FEMA for more information.

source: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/11/politics/11katrina.html?hp&ex=1139634000&en=d1ba9d3faa7eef17&ei=5094&partner=homepage 10feb2006


Brown Blames Superiors For Response to Katrina

SPENCER S. HSU / Washington Post 11feb2006

 

Michael D. Brown, the former Federal Emergency Management Agency director, accused the Bush administration yesterday of setting the nation's disaster preparedness on a "path to failure" before Hurricane Katrina by overemphasizing the threat of terrorism, and of discounting warnings on the day the storm hit that a worst-case flood was enveloping New Orleans.

Brown called "a little disingenuous" and "just baloney" assertions by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and other top Bush administration officials that they were unaware of the severity of the catastrophe for a day after Katrina struck on Aug. 29. Investigators say their inaction delayed the launch of federal emergency measures, rescue efforts and aid to tens of thousands of stranded New Orleans residents.

Brown's highly charged testimony before a Senate investigative panel was a striking about-face from his comments to its House counterpart in September, when he was still on the administration payroll. At that time, Brown leveled his harshest criticism for what President Bush has called an "inadequate" response at Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D), who Brown said failed to fully evacuate the city and to forge a unified command.

His sometimes combative exchanges with senators also offered a rare glimpse of a former Bush official publicly criticizing the administration. He sharpened his earlier criticism and named people whom he had previously described only in general terms.

After the White House declined to offer Brown a legal defense of executive privilege, which would have allowed him not to testify to lawmakers, Brown said yesterday that Chertoff and his predecessor, Tom Ridge, paved the way for FEMA's Katrina failures by fomenting a "cultural clash" between FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. DHS absorbed FEMA in 2003, and the head of the emergency agency stopped reporting to the president.

Internal turf wars siphoned away FEMA's disaster response capability and funding, Brown said. If not repaired, he said, the Department of Homeland Security is "doomed to fail, and that will fail the country."

Brown also cited a "disconnect" with Bush officials in the hours before and after Katrina hit. He said they were distracted by the fight against terrorism from the general threat posed by recurring natural disasters and from specific warnings that a direct hit by a projected Category 5 hurricane would swamp New Orleans and strand as many as 100,000 people.

Brown said he called and spoke at least twice on Aug. 29 with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joseph Hagin or Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., telling them: "New Orleans is flooding; it's the worst-case scenario." But the message apparently did not get through to Homeland Security officials.

"They should have had awareness of it, because they were receiving the same information that we were," Brown said.

"Had there been a report coming out . . . that said, 'Yes, we've confirmed that a terrorist has blown up the 17th Street Canal levee,' then everybody would have jumped all over that and been trying to do everything they could," Brown said. "But because this was a natural disaster, that has become the stepchild within the Department of Homeland Security."

The Category 3 storm eventually killed 1,321 people, including 1,072 in Louisiana; displaced about 2 million people; and caused more than $150 billion in damage.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan cited "conflicting reports" immediately after the storm hit. "Some were saying" the levee system "was overtopped," he said. "Some were saying it was breached. And, again, we knew of the flooding that was going on -- that's why our top priority was focused on saving lives."

Testifying after Brown, Matthew Broderick, the department's director of operations coordination, and Robert B. Stephan, assistant secretary for infrastructure protection, faulted Brown for failing to communicate with the chain of command.

"Mr. Brown should have picked up the phone and called the secretary right away," Broderick said.

Brown, who first received reports that city levees were failing at 10 a.m. on Aug. 29, said that he relayed them to headquarters for confirmation and alerted Hagin, who was with Bush at the president's Texas ranch as well as in Arizona and California that day.

Brown said he could not recall whether Bush was on the line, but he added: "I knew that in speaking to Joe, I was talking directly to the president." Brown later said that he did not ask Hagin for any particular help, and that he regretted not calling for military assistance the weekend before Katrina made landfall.

Brown, a Bush political loyalist who became the face of the government's failed response, said under questioning that he repeatedly asked the White House and other federal agencies for help, but that his authority was limited by FEMA's position within the Department of Homeland Security and that the agency's resources were overwhelmed.

He has been criticized for his lack of leadership after the storm, for his own lack of awareness of the developing crisis and for misstatements about conditions at New Orleans's convention center, where thousands were stranded without food and water. Leaked e-mails have portrayed Brown as more concerned with his public appearance and planned departure from FEMA than with disaster operations.

Brown's deputy at FEMA, Patrick Rhode, testified yesterday that he participated in a conference call on the afternoon of Aug. 29 detailing catastrophic levee failures and alerted the department's Homeland Security Operations Center, which was feeding reports to the White House.

Senators released a timeline showing that authorities received 16 reports from federal, state and local agencies and the American Red Cross that New Orleans's levees had been breached between 8:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Aug. 29, though the Homeland Security Operations Center reported the contrary at 6 p.m.

A perplexed Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate investigation, asked why the official reaction of Washington and the military was that New Orleans had "dodged the bullet" despite reports from the ground that the city was 80 percent flooded, its levee system had failed and thousands faced death.

"All they had to do," Brown said, was listen to the Homeland Security teleconferences "and pay attention."

Collins singled out Chertoff and other department officials for a "lack of awareness" of fundamental emergency operations and a "slow, hesitant response." She said that though "DHS's playbook appears designed to distance" top officials from FEMA, they "must answer for decisions that they made or failed to make."

Under questioning, Brown said he did not directly brief Chertoff -- who was "gone or going to Atlanta" for an Aug. 30 event on the possible flu pandemic -- because "it would have wasted my time." He said he preferred to call Card or Hagin directly.

Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) called Brown's remarks "staggering." He said they demonstrated "a dysfunctional department to a degree far greater than any we've seen."

After Brown spoke to the Senate, he was subpoenaed to reappear before House investigators.

Next week, Chertoff and Frances Fragos Townsend, the White House's homeland security adviser, are scheduled to discuss internal reforms changes. And the House investigative committee is scheduled to issue its Katrina report.

source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/10/AR2006021000267.html?nav=rss_politics/administration 10feb2006

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