By Spencer S. Hsu and Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 6, 2005
Michael D. Brown has been called the accidental director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, caricatured as the failed head of an Arabian horse sporting group who was plucked from obscurity to become President Bush's point man for the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
Amid the swirl of human misery along the Gulf Coast, Brown admitted initially underestimating the impact of Hurricane Katrina, whose winds and water swamped the agency's preparations. As the nation reeled at images of the calamity, he appeared to blame storm victims by noting that the crisis was worsened by New Orleans residents who did not comply with a mandatory evacuation order.
By last weekend, facing mounting calls for his resignation, he told reporters: "People want to lash out at me, lash out at FEMA. I think that's fine. Just lash out, because my job is to continue to save lives." More broadly, the 50-year-old Oklahoma lawyer and the agency he leads have become the focus of a broad reappraisal of U.S. homeland security efforts four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In recent days, politicians and officials in both parties have derided Brown's qualifications to head the nation's chief disaster-response agency -- as well as the performance of the agency and its federal, state and local partners.
At a time when homeland security experts called for greater domestic focus on preparing for calamity, Brown faced years of funding cuts, personnel departures and FEMA's downgrading from an independent, Cabinet-level agency.
As recently as three weeks ago, state emergency managers urged Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and his deputy, Michael P. Jackson, to ease the department's focus on terrorism, warning that the shift away from traditional disaster management left FEMA a bureaucratic backwater less able to respond to natural events such as hurricanes and earthquakes.
The Times-Picayune, Louisiana's largest newspaper, published an open letter on Sunday to President Bush, calling for every FEMA official to be fired, "Director Michael Brown especially," joining critics in the state and Congress.
"We're angry, Mr. President, and we'll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry," the editorial said. "Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That's to the government's shame. . . . No expense should have been spared. No excuses should have been voiced."
Brown's defenders say he is the scapegoat of a cataclysmic storm and failure of New Orleans's levee system that, in the words of President Bush and Chertoff, could not be foreseen.
"Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," Bush said Friday during a tour of the state, a day before Chertoff voiced his confidence.
"It's easy to play the blame game, find a scapegoat, but no one person could be responsible for the challenges we face and the lives lost," said W. Craig Fugate, emergency management director for Florida, where Bush's brother is governor, who worked with FEMA through four hurricanes in 2004. He said state and local authorities share responsibility for the death toll likely to emerge in coming days.
Joe M. Allbaugh -- a college friend, former Bush campaign manager and past FEMA director who hired Brown as FEMA general counsel in 2001 -- offered a qualified defense.
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.