Michael D. Brown is a startling sight in coat, tie and polished leather shoes. Much more familiar is Brown in muddy work boots and navy windbreaker emblazoned in gold with the letters FEMA.
Trudging through storm devastation, often with President Bush, Brown is a walking advertisement for the Federal Emergency Management Agency he directs.
Michael D. Brown toured tornado-ravaged Pierce City, Mo., in May 2003. He directs FEMA, which has become part of the Department of Homeland Security.
(Charlie Riedel -- AP)
Michael D. Brown
Title: Undersecretary of homeland security for emergency preparedness and response/director, Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Education: Bachelor's degree, from what is now the University of Central Oklahoma; law degree, Oklahoma City University School of Law.
Family: Married; two children; one grandchild.
Career highlights: Deputy director and general counsel, FEMA; lawyer, Colorado and Oklahoma; staff director, Oklahoma Senate Finance Committee; assistant city manager, Edmond, Okla.; city council member, Edmond.
Pastimes: Hiking, fly-fishing.
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"We're here to help; we'll stay as long as you need us," the cheerful Brown told Floridians as he toured communities hit by a string of hurricanes last summer and fall. For weeks at a time, Brown was handing out bags of ice, serving up food to victims and volunteers and opening a 1,000-person temporary headquarters in Orlando.
Even before the first hurricane hit Florida's Gulf Coast, Brown dispatched people and equipment to the state, impressing the locals who had been frustrated by FEMA's slow response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
In the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era, FEMA has become part of the Department of Homeland Security, which has some inside and outside the agency fearful the switch will mean less attention for disaster relief. James Lee Witt, who ran Arkansas's emergency response office and then took over FEMA in the Clinton administration, urged Congress to keep FEMA independent.
"I hear from emergency managers, local and state leaders, and first responders nearly every day that the FEMA they knew and worked well with has now disappeared," he testified in March. "They are suffering the impact of dealing with a behemoth federal department, rather than the small agile independent agency that coordinates federal response effectively and efficiently and understands the needs of its local and state partners."
When Witt was director, the job was elevated to Cabinet level. But Brown is an undersecretary in the sprawling new department, which includes 22 agencies.
Brown says that joining Homeland Security has given FEMA easy access to "assets," such as helicopters and boats, that can be invaluable whether disasters are accidental or intentional.
"Florida was a giant terrorist event," Brown said in a recent interview. "It's just that Mother Nature was the terrorist."
Although most of the Department of Homeland Security is focused on trying to "prevent the bad guys or bad things from getting in, our job is the exact opposite," he said. "When bad guys or bad things get through, we are there to respond, recover and mitigate."
FEMA's central role in terrorism is to "take the terrorism out of it," Brown explained. "We respond quickly, get people the help they need and get life back to normal as quickly as possible."
And that means money. Through Florida's four hurricanes, Brown set records for handing out checks -- not to mention ice, water, food, tents, tarps, medical supplies and portable toilets. On the first day of Hurricane Charley, Brown's crews delivered 560,000 pounds of ice and 200,000 liters of water. All told, the agency dispensed more than $926 million in assistance to Floridians.
The criticism now being directed at FEMA is over a portion of that money. At the behest of lawmakers, the inspector general's office at Homeland Security is investigating allegations of widespread fraud in the distribution of $28 million in furniture, clothes and appliances to Miami-Dade County, though the area experienced minimal hurricane damage. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that FEMA inspectors paid for new cars, dental bills, a funeral and damage from ice and snow, although there was no ice or snow and no deaths in the county from Hurricane Frances.
FEMA spokeswoman LeaAnne McBride said 1.55 percent of Miami-Dade households received disaster assistance, compared with 60 percent of the residences in hard-hit Hardee County.