Michael Brown speaks out

Hurricane Katrina blew through the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, destroying homes and upending lives.
By Ed O'Keefe
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 9:08 PM

Most Americans learned of Michael D. Brown about five years ago this week when President George W. Bush declared, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" leading the Federal Emergency Management Agency's efforts after Hurricane Katrina.

But Brown was out of a job within days and returned to Colorado. He now hosts a radio talk show and spoke about what he has learned since Katrina, which led to the deaths of more than 1,800 .

Five years later, what do you take away from Katrina - especially the charges that the federal government didn't do enough?

I think the most important point is that everything that I was saying to [former homeland security secretaries] Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff prior to Katrina making landfall all came true. The people at FEMA who will now tell you that Washington had become too Washington-centric are absolutely true.

And that was a function of a giant sucking hole of the Department of Homeland Security that was taking resources and taking manpower out of the field and using it up to make everything emanate from Washington, D.C. Which was the antithesis of what FEMA had always been about.

But let me ask again: What would you have done differently if you could do it all over again?

I really needed the president to get the attention of the entire administration. I needed every Cabinet secretary to be full hands on deck. . . .

I'm not sure anyone outside the Beltway gets this, but the power of the president using that bully pulpit, yes, it's good for the public and the victims, but it's just as important for those political appointees who need to understand the boss is on top of it. He says it's the number one priority, so do everything it takes. Not having him do that was a tipping point.

Do people still call or stop you on the street and call you "Brownie"?

Oh, yeah. . . . It is really amazing that five years after, you still get stopped in airports or restaurants or hotels or wherever and people still recognize you. . . .

One was at Denver International Airport. This couple stopped me. He was a doctor and was very sympathetic toward me. He was apologetic for how I was treated and very kind. His wife stood aloof, she was still mad. . . .

Do you have any advice for people like you who come to Washington for political positions and end up as the fall guy?

You've heard the line "I serve at the pleasure of the president." That's not a trite statement, it's the absolute truth. You are putting yourself out there, hoping to do the best you can do, recognizing that you're working in a purely political vacuum and that anything can happen. . . .

When it happens, unless you committed a crime, if you get caught in a political [expletive] storm, then what you need to do is hold your head up, walk away and move on. It's not the end of the world.

The lesson to be learned about this is first of all, every agency is going to make missteps. There are always going to be errors made. It's the nature of the beast. . . .

Whatever your persuasion is, we have to recognize that this federal government of the United States is so large and cumbersome that we really can't, and should not, expect it to be this kind of well-oiled, well-running machine. It's not.

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