E-Mails Show Brown Disputed Levee Breach

The Associated Press
Tuesday, May 9, 2006; 8:22 PM

WASHINGTON -- Former FEMA director Michael Brown disputed that floodwaters had breached New Orleans' levees in the early hours after Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, new e-mails released Tuesday show.

The 928 pages of e-mails, obtained and released by the Center for Public Integrity, also portray Brown and the Federal Emergency Management Agency as obsessed with media coverage in the days leading up to and immediately following the Aug. 29, 2005, disaster. At one point early that morning, Brown reported to an aide that he was "sitting in the chair, putting mousse in my hair," as he waited for media interviews to begin.

Later that morning, at 9:50 a.m., a FEMA staffer at the National Hurricane Center sent department brass an alert from a local TV station report "a levee breach occurred along the industrial canal" near the city's low-income Ninth Ward.

More than two hours later, at 12:09 p.m., Brown sent a message back to one of his aides, saying: "I'm being told here water over not a breach."

The aide, Michael Lowder, replied: "Ok. You probably have better info there. Just wanted to pass you what we hear."

The e-mail exchange provides the latest evidence of rampant government confusion over whether the levees had been breached _ that is, broken by the storm surge _ or merely overtopped by floodwaters. Critics have questioned whether discovering breaches earlier could have speeded repair efforts and lessened flooding.

Brown did not immediately respond to messages left on his cell phone and e-mail Tuesday afternoon.

Since quitting FEMA on Sept. 12, Brown has sharply criticized the Bush administration for failing to respond quickly to reports about levee breaches. He has said previously he was convinced of a levee breach by 1 p.m. the day Katrina roared ashore.

The documents, which were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Washington-based government watchdog group, encompass all of Brown's e-mail messages over a 14-day period before and after Katrina hit.

While the e-mails cover much of the same ground previously highlighted by congressional investigations earlier this year, they illustrate anew how concerned the beleaguered agency was with having a favorable public image during the storm. Many of the documents released Tuesday consist of talking points, press releases, interview schedules and media reports of the storm's onslaught.

Brown's own schedule was booked with media interviews in the days immediately before and after the storm. At 6:21 a.m. the day Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, Brown was prepping for an interview and e-mailing with his then-deputy, Patrick Rhode.

"Yea, sitting in the chair, putting mousse in my hair," Brown e-mailed Rhode.

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