Brown Defends FEMA's Efforts

Michael D. Brown testified for six hours in front of a House panel investigating the response to Hurricane Katrina.
Michael D. Brown testified for six hours in front of a House panel investigating the response to Hurricane Katrina. (By Joe Raedle -- Getty Images)
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Former Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael D. Brown said yesterday that it was not his job to take over the evacuation of New Orleans and rescue the drowning city from Hurricane Katrina, blaming Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and "dysfunctional" state officials for the government's failed response to the disaster.

Over six hours of tense and at times angry testimony to a House investigative panel whose members condemned and derided him, Brown strongly defended his agency and himself against what he called "false, defamatory statements" spread by the news media about the agency's capabilities after the hurricane.

But he also spread responsibility widely for what President Bush has called an inadequate response -- to a White House that he said was fully apprised before Katrina's Aug. 29 landfall, to a Department of Homeland Security whose leaders cut money and staff for three years as they pursued the "emaciation of FEMA," and to a military he said was slow to react.

Brown admitted that FEMA's ability to move life-sustaining supplies was flawed and "easily overwhelmed" by Katrina's scale. He said that emergency communications broke down because the country made little "real progress" in learning from the 2001 terrorist attacks, and he warned that if U.S. authorities remain focused on preparing for terrorism instead of natural disasters, "then we're going to fail."

Brown said he is "happy to be a scapegoat . . . if it means that the FEMA that I knew when I came here is going to be able to be reborn and we're going to be able to get it back to where it was" when he joined the agency in 2001.

Brown, 50, took responsibility for two mistakes. He said he should have set up regular media briefings instead of conducting numerous television interviews. He added: "I very strongly, personally regret that I was unable to persuade Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down, get over their differences and work together."

"You want me to be this superhero," Brown told Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). Instead, he said, his role as federal coordinator was to talk to Blanco and Nagin and encourage them "to do their obligation to their citizens. I am not a dictator, and I . . . cannot go in there and force them to do that. "

Shays expressed shock. "The whole reason why I think you're there is to take command of coordinating -- working with, not just complaining about, what other people are doing," Shays said.

"You can try to throw as much as you can on the backs of Louisianans, but I'm a witness as to what happened in Mississippi. You folks fell on your face," said Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), who lost his home to the hurricane.

In Baton Rouge, La., Blanco spokeswoman Denise Bottcher said, "Mike Brown wasn't engaged then, and he surely isn't now. He should have been watching CNN instead of the Disney Channel."

Nagin spokeswoman Sally Forman said, "The governor and the mayor were totally on the same page."

The much-anticipated testimony of Bush's ousted disaster management director came against a backdrop of partisan fighting over the administration's handling of the Katrina crisis. It handed new ammunition to leaders in both parties who have expressed growing misgivings over the course of homeland security.

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