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FEMA Director Singled Out by Response Critics
Allbaugh called the government's overall performance "unacceptable" but added: "Blaming one agency, you cannot do that." Still, he acknowledged that FEMA had lost independence and clout with the White House. "I had a unique relationship with the president, having been his chief of staff," Allbaugh said. "If you don't have that kind of relationship, it just makes things tougher."
If anything, Brown's political background has become a liability, leading to charges that he was given his job as patronage. He got his start in politics as an Oklahoma native with Allbaugh but ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1988, winning 27 percent of the vote. He has chaired the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority and served as a City Council member, examiner for the Oklahoma and Colorado supreme courts, and assistant city manager.
Allbaugh hired Brown after an acrimonious end to a nine-year stint as commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. Former officials say he was forced out; a friend and lawyer of Brown's said he negotiated a settlement after withstanding numerous lawsuits against his enforcement of rules for judges and stewards.
Defending his qualifications, Brown said he has overseen responses to 164 presidential declared emergencies and disasters as FEMA counsel and general counsel, including the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster and the California wildfires in 2003. "I have been through a few disasters," he said at a news conference yesterday.
Reviews of the government's response to Katrina are beginning. Already, members of Congress such as Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) are pushing to move FEMA out of its department and back to Cabinet-level status. Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) have launched an investigation, and committee members will meet with department officials tomorrow.
While Chertoff said the levee breach that flooded New Orleans "exceeded the foresight of planners," Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, said Brown and other top federal officials were briefed as much as 32 hours in advance of landfall that Hurricane Katrina's storm surge was likely to overtop levees and cause catastrophic flooding.
"They knew that this one was different," Mayfield said yesterday. "I don't think Mike Brown or anyone else in FEMA could have any reason to have any problem with our calls. . . . They were told. . . . We said the levees could be topped."
Louisiana officials have blamed FEMA and Brown for bureaucratic bottlenecks, accusing FEMA of ignoring pre-storm offers of aid from Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D), New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) and the American Ambulance Association.
In his last extended TV interview on CNN,Brown admitted Thursday that the federal government did not know that thousands of survivors without food or water had taken shelter at the city's convention center, despite a day of news reports.
Since then, Brown has been eclipsed by his boss, Chertoff -- who flew overnight Sunday to take charge of integrating military with civilian efforts -- and by a new deputy, U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, whom Chertoff named yesterday to take charge of federal recovery efforts in New Orleans.
Bruce P. Baughman, Alabama emergency management director, head of the National Emergency Management Association and the official in charge of FEMA's response to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks in 2001, said Katrina will leave its mark on federal disaster management. "It's time to realize, whoever is in charge of FEMA does need an emergency management background. . . . It's something you learn by experience, and a lot of that experience is gone," he said.