Brown Portrays FEMA to Panel
As Broken and Resource-Starved
By ROBERT BLOCK
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
September 28, 2005; Page A3
WASHINGTON -- Michael Brown, former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief who resigned under fire for the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, went before a congressional panel to lay most of the blame on state and local officials, but in more than six hours of tough questioning portrayed his agency as broken and starved of the resources needed to prepare the country for disasters.
"I predicted privately for several years that we were going to reach this point [of crisis] because of the lack of resources and the lack of attention being paid to what was [once]...a very robust organization," Mr. Brown said.
He went on to say that his agency was bad at logistics, and often was unable to track shipments of emergency supplies after FEMA had requested them.
He also said that he didn't know if FEMA got all the support that it needed from other federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense. For example, he said, before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, FEMA was requesting air and ground support from the Pentagon, including a request to airlift eight "swift water" rescue teams to Louisiana from Travis and March Air Force bases.
"I need to find out why some of those requests put into the system either did or did not end up actually taking place," he said. "I have no record sometimes of whether...some of those things actually got to where we asked them to go."
The special congressional committee to investigate the response to Katrina was set up by House Republican leaders to look at the government's handling of one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever hit the Gulf Coast. Democrats, who want an independent investigation not under the control of majority Republicans, largely boycotted the hearing. However, two Democrats, Reps. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, and William Jefferson of Louisiana, did take part.
Although there have been other hearings in the House and the Senate in recent weeks, yesterday's interrogation of Mr. Brown was the first with a senior administration official who was directly involved in the response.
As the head of FEMA during the Katrina aftermath and the federal official charged with coordinating the response, Mr. Brown became a symbol for many of Washington's failures during the natural disaster that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people, mostly in New Orleans, but also in Alabama and Mississippi.
Mr. Brown resigned as the head of FEMA earlier this month after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff removed him from responsibility in the disaster zone. Mr. 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.
However, he adamantly 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.
Mr. Brown tried to distance the White House from any blame, but said that he had told White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card several days before Katrina made landfall that "this is going to be a bad one."
The poor response, he said, was clearly the fault of a lack of coordination and planning by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin -- charges he has made before and which have been rejected by both Ms. Blanco and Mr. Nagin.
But Mr. Brown pressed the charge again, saying that most of the bungling that took place was directly or indirectly the result of Gov. Blanco's failure to work with Mayor Nagin and order a mandatory evacuation from New Orleans before the storm hit. Ms. Blanco called for the exodus on Sunday, Aug. 28, but Mr. Brown said that he had been pressing for the evacuation call 24 hours earlier.
But his statements only angered members of the panel, particularly Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut. At one point, Mr. Shays suggested that the FEMA director just "threw up his hands" when he was unable to convince Gov. Blanco to evacuate New Orleans.
"I guess you want me to be this superhero that is going to step in there and suddenly take everyone out of New Orleans," Mr. Brown shouted.
"No. No, what I wanted you to do was do your job of coordinating," Mr. Shays shot back.
The panel also was mystified why FEMA hasn't implemented the lessons it learned a year before in a mock catastrophic hurricane exercise called "Hurricane Pam" that accurately predicted many of the same problems experienced during last month's storm.
The reason, Mr. Brown said, was the Department of Homeland Security, to which FEMA belongs, rejected his funding requests to build on the exercise. Mr. Brown then told the panel that the department's focus on terrorism had resulted in about $80 million of FEMA's base operating funds being taken from its budget by the department to fund programs in other agencies. At one point, he said, the 2,500-strong agency was left with 500 unfilled positions.
The reason he said that he could sleep at night, was because he battled against the cuts in resources and manpower.
"I don't know how you can sleep at night," replied Rep. Kay Granger of Texas. "You lost the battle."
Mr. Brown said he was happy to be a scapegoat if it resulted in FEMA regaining the prestige and funding levels it had before being folded into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. He also indirectly criticized a suggestion by the White House for the U.S. military to have the right to take over the lead of disaster response from states. "If we break that concept of federalism, we minimize our effectiveness and maximize our potential for failure," he warned.
REP. DAVIS: Based on what you know now, what would you do differently?
MR. BROWN: Let me start out by addressing the premise of the question, which I don't entirely agree with, that what could FEMA have done in terms of the evacuation, what could FEMA have done in terms of communications, law enforcement. Those are not FEMA roles. FEMA doesn't evacuate communities. FEMA does not do law enforcement. FEMA does not do communications. But having said that, I've got to tell you in hindsight there were things that I, as the former director of FEMA, wish that I had done that maybe would address those particular areas. … My mistake was in recognizing that -- for whatever reason … Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco were reticent to order a mandatory evacuation. And if I … could have done something to convince them that this was "the big one" and they needed to order a mandatory evacuation, I would have done it. … My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional.
REP. JEFFERSON: 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. I think it's fair to say that there are perhaps mistakes made all around, but I don't think the response of the federal government can be explained on the basis of, as you have said here, that you could not persuade the governor and the mayor to sit down and coordinate a response. …
MR. BROWN: Before landfall, I had numerous conversations with Governor Blanco specifically asking about mandatory evacuations and whether she was going to order those or not. I never understood what the reticence was in not ordering those mandatory evacuations, but I did push and push her on that regard. … Now, I'm not here to point blame, I'm not here to point fingers, I'm here just to tell the truth, I'm here to tell what I saw and what I witnessed. And that's what we witnessed.
REP. ROGERS: On Friday around 4:00 the National Weather Service issued the warning: category 4 or 5 on the way. And oh, by the way, the levee only takes a category 3. No evacuation yet ordered, correct?
MR. BROWN: That's correct.
REP. ROGERS: Now, on Saturday, the director of the National Hurricane Center testified last week that he personally called all three governors and the mayor of New Orleans. Personally called. He said he's only done that one time in his life. I think it's 35 years of service. He personally called them to give them warnings that this was the real thing. Are you familiar with that?
MR. BROWN: Yes, I am, sir.
REP. ROGERS: And was the evacuation then ordered by the governor and the mayor?
MR. BROWN: No. The evacuation was not ordered until sometime Sunday before noon.
REP. ROGERS: And that was only after the National Weather Service advisory said that Katrina was a, quote, "potentially catastrophic," quote, storm. Is that correct?
MR. BROWN: That's correct. That's correct.
REP. ROGERS: But the evacuation was not ordered until what time on Sunday?
MR. BROWN: I --I know that I tried to reach the governor numerous times Sunday morning -- finally reached --
REP. ROGERS: What time did they issue the warning?
MR. BROWN: Pardon?
REP. ROGERS: When did they order the evacuation?
MR. BROWN: I -- I recall sometime between 11:00 and 12:00 on Sunday. …
REP. ROGERS: Now, under federal, state and local law … who has the authority to order the evacuation of a city or a state or an area?
MR. BROWN: Well, I can tell you the federal government does not, and the state and locals do. …
REP. ROGERS: So you had no authority to order an evacuation of New Orleans?
MR. BROWN: That's correct. And that's why my regret is, is that I could not do more personally to convince them to order that evacuation sooner than what they did.
On Landreneau actually getting stuff done by ignoring Blanco:
On the other states that had no problem with FEMA or evacuations:
Brown was the Republican sacrificial lamb.
The only question remaining is whether Blanco and Nagin will suffer the same fate. I'm guessing that they won't. For some reason, their constituents seem to reward incompetence with another term.
As long as they keeps the Welfare checks a comin'!