FEMA Director Replaced as Head Of Relief Effort

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Bush administration removed Michael D. Brown, the embattled director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, from the Gulf Coast disaster zone yesterday as the White House tried to regain footing amid criticism of its response to Hurricane Katrina.

A week after President Bush praised him for "a heck of a job," Brown was stripped of duties overseeing the relief efforts, ordered back to Washington and replaced by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen. Although Brown remains FEMA director and the administration presented it as a deployment decision, officials said the president's aides wanted a more effective, hands-on manager at the scene.

Also yesterday, FEMA officials said they will discontinue a problem-plagued program in which storm victims were to receive debit cards bearing $2,000 in immediate cash assistance. FEMA officials said they will end the effort after distributing cards this weekend at shelters in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. Evacuees will still be eligible for funds through checks or direct deposits into their bank accounts.

Brown, a lawyer and former official for an Arabian horse association, has become the focal point of anger over the slow, disjointed mobilization when Katrina slammed into the coast last week, drowning New Orleans and wiping out huge parts of Mississippi and Alabama. But demands for his dismissal were also a proxy for assailing Bush's handling of the crisis, as well as past moves restructuring FEMA and populating its top ranks with political allies.

The decision to sideline Brown yesterday was an implicit rebuke of a top aide by Bush, who rarely fires or publicly disciplines lieutenants as long as they are loyal. The move came as the White House announced that Bush will return to the devastated Gulf Coast for a third time tomorrow -- a clear effort to demonstrate his personal involvement and command of the situation.

In traveling to the region on the same day as the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush hopes to rekindle the sense of broad national purpose that rallied the public behind him then.

"America is a strong and resilient nation," he said in one of two public appearances in Washington yesterday that he used to rhetorically link the trials of Katrina to Sept. 11, as he plans to do again today in his weekly radio address. "Our people have the spirit, the resources and the determination to overcome any challenge."

The president made no mention of his staff's performance yesterday, and his spokesman declined to express confidence in Brown when asked at a briefing. Instead, the president left it to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to handle the task of removing Brown.

Appearing at a news conference in Baton Rouge, La., with Brown at his side, Chertoff announced that he was sending the FEMA director back to Washington in case another storm hits the country and putting Allen in charge. "Mike Brown has done everything he possibly could to coordinate the federal response to this unprecedented challenge," Chertoff said. "I appreciate his work, as does everybody here."

Chertoff flashed impatience when a reporter tried to ask Brown if he would resign and if he would respond to a Time magazine report that he inflated his résumé. "Here are the ground rules: I'm going to answer the questions," Chertoff interrupted. "I've explained what we're doing. I thought I was about as clear as I possibly could be in English as to what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. Next question."

Although Brown was not allowed to answer, he later told an Associated Press reporter in an interview that it was not his idea to go back to Washington. Asked if he was being made a scapegoat, he said: "By the press, yes. By the president, no."

He angrily denied padding his résumé, blaming mistakes on the White House and on FEMA for misrepresenting his background, and he bristled at all the attacks on his handling of the hurricane: "I'm anxious to get back to D.C. to correct all the inaccuracies and lies."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company