Michael D. Brown, resigned this afternoon as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, becoming the first high-profile Bush administration official to step down amid public criticism of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.
Brown was relieved of command of the recovery effort Friday and recalled to Washington from Louisiana by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who replaced Brown with U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen.
The White House announced that President Bush would name R. David Paulison, now U.S. Fire Administrator and director of preparedness for FEMA, to succeed Brown as acting under secretary for emergency preparedness and response.
"When I came to work this morning my mind still wasn't made up," Brown said in an interview. "What made up my mind was the continued focus of the press with, 'What went wrong? What went right? Is Brown competent or incompetent?' . . . . I'm just one of those guys who knows, when you know what's right, just do it, so I pulled the trigger and resigned."
In a written statement released by the agency, Brown said, "As I told the President, it is important that I leave now to avoid further distraction from the ongoing mission of FEMA."
Brown's resignation came amidst Bush's third trip to the region since the disaster erupted. The president side-stepped questions about Brown's resignation. "Maybe you know something I don't know. I've been working," Bush said to reporters on an inspection tour of damage in Gulfport, Miss.
The departure of FEMA's director came as Bush said Congress should consider whether the federal government should take more authority to intervene in disasters in the states, and as Senate and House panels prepare to hold hearings Wednesday into domestic preparedness in advance of a joint congressional investigation into the Katrina aftermath.
"Michael Brown's resignation is more than understandable following the events of the past two weeks. But his action today will not alone solve all the problems that plagued the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina," Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D) said in a written statement. "The people of our nation, and in particular, the Gulf Coast, deserve and demand full accountability for this administration's missteps."
Brown, 50, who came to FEMA in 2001 after a rocky tenure as an Arabian horse association commissioner, has become a lightning rod for anger over the government's sluggish response to the Aug. 29 storm that flooded New Orleans, wrecked the Mississippi and Alabama coastline and displaced an estimated 1 million people. Critics took aim at Brown's qualifications, ties to Bush political aides and hands-off style, using them to make a broader point about the diminished capability of the nation's disaster response agency under the administration's reorganized Department of Homeland Security.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said the leadership change "begins to recognize the disarray in federal preparedness for this disaster, but it does not solve it. The buck stops at the president's desk."
John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, called Brown's departure a good first step, but added, that his resignation "does nothing to restore the slashed funding for disaster mitigation that FEMA has suffered."
Under a pending Homeland Security Department reorganization, FEMA would be "dismantled," in the words of a Congressional Research Service study, losing its disaster preparedness program to a new, strengthened directorate within the department and retaining only disaster response and recovery offices.
Paulison now heads FEMA's preparedness division. Federal grants that FEMA once administered for state and local preparedness have also been shifted elsewhere.
Brown said today that he made the decision on his own after a long conversation Saturday with his friend, Andy Card, who is Bush's chief of staff.
"He suggested that I just sit down with the family and think about where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do, how I wanted to deal with the media onslaught, and then left that decision up to me," Brown said.
Brown said he notified Chertoff's deputy, Michael Jackson and Card's office shortly after 1 p.m.
Earlier today, Bush toured flood-ravaged New Orleans and denied race or the war in Iraq played a part in the administration's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina.
"The storm didn't discriminate and neither will the recovery effort," Bush said when asked if the government's slow response was due to the fact that many of the storm's victims were poor African-Americans, a charge some U.S. black leaders have levied against the administration.
"When those Coast Guard choppers . . . were pulling people off roofs, they didn't check the color of a person's skin. They wanted to save lives," he said.
Bush said the government will take a "sober look" at "what went on and how it went on" amid continued criticism of what is seen as an inadequate federal response to a national disaster.
Asked by reporters whether the war in Iraq meant U.S. troops were stretched too thin to respond quickly, Bush answered testily that it was "preposterous to claim that the engagement in Iraq meant there weren't enough troops here, pure and simple."
"We've got plenty of troops to do both," he insisted.
The Associated Press also reported today that 45 bodies have been found at a New Orleans hospital that was evacuated more than a week ago after it was surrounded by floodwaters.
The bodies were located Sunday at Memorial Medical Center, said Bob Johannesen, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Hospitals. Johannesen said the bodies were those of patients, but he had no other information. The 317-bed hospital is owned by Tenet Healthcare Corp.
The tour marked Bush's third visit to the region in nine days and came as he is struggling to assert his leadership after a calamity that has spawned bitter exchanges between local and federal officials. Bush's approval ratings have also tumbled to new lows.
Bush made his comments to reporters after touring New Orleans' French Quarter and the 7th Ward to the north in a caravan of military vehicles and accompanied by local officials. He rode in an open, flatbed military truck through flooded streets after spending the night on the USS Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault vehicle that is serving as a recovery command center.
"We have a lot of work to do, a whole lot of work to do," Bush said after the tour. Asked repeatedly about the government's slow response, Bush said there will be plenty of time to play the "blame game."
Bush started the day with a briefing by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who replaced Michael D. Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as commander of federal relief efforts in the Gulf Coast. The briefing was aboard the USS Iwo Jima.
Allen gave the president a slideshow presentation that covered the latest relief and recovery efforts in the three affected states. Bush was seated between New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (D) and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), both of whom have criticized the federal response to the hurricane and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans.
Bush made no public comments during the briefing, but White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said "I have great confidence" in the team now running the federal effort, according to the Associated Press.
Bush arrived in stricken New Orleans Sunday evening as officials reported tentative progress in the mammoth recovery effort.
Later today, he is scheduled to travel to Gulfport, Miss., to review relief efforts there.
In the hours before Bush's arrival in New Orleans, Louisiana's Democratic senator alleged that the administration seeks to blame others for its mistakes.
"While the president is saying he wants to work together as a team, I think the White House operatives have a full-court press on to blame state and local officials, whether they're Republicans or Democrats," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
"We've tried to work together with state and local officials," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and other administration officials have defended the federal response, and have emphasized shortcomings in evacuation and emergency procedures by Gov. Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Nagin.
Blanco defended her state at Houston's Reliant Center, where many evacuees were sent to shelter, saying: Louisiana had a "well-thought-out exit plan. . . . We did a massive evacuation, and if we hadn't, we would have had thousands of deaths. Right now, the numbers are minimal when you consider the amount of damage."
She refused to blame Bush for the slow federal response: "Help in those critical moments was slow in coming, not through any fault of the president."
Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," Nagin said that Bush "for some reason probably did not understand the full magnitude of this catastrophe on the front end."
Nagin also repeated his sharp criticism of FEMA's performance. He joined members of both parties in praising the administration for its decision Friday to remove FEMA chief Brown from Katrina oversight responsibilities.
Before flying to New Orleans Sunday, Bush participated in a White House ceremony to mark the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with a moment of silence. Those attacks produced the iconic moment of his presidency, when he jumped atop a wrecked fire truck amid the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center with a bullhorn and gave rescue workers an impromptu rallying cry that echoed around the world. "I can hear you," he called out to those straining to catch his words. "The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon."
With Hurricane Katrina having spread destruction across 90,000 square miles of the Gulf Coast, Bush faces a catastrophe greater in many ways than Sept. 11. But he has struggled to recapture the imagery that would project that confidence and decisiveness.
Last evening, Bush visited a staging area outside New Orleans that is temporary headquarters for rescue workers. He posed for pictures with firefighters near a Fire Department of New York truck that had been donated by New Orleans after the Sept. 11 attacks. "God Bless America," read a banner hanging next to the truck. "Never Forget."
Bush then entered a sweltering mess tent, where he greeted workers as sweat poured down his face and soaked his shirt.
Staff writers Michael Fletcher and Peter Baker contributed to this report.