Michael D. Brown, the ousted director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, appeared before a House panel this morning and blamed Louisiana officials for what he called a "dysfunctional" response to Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,000 people and caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage on the Gulf Coast.
Brown also strongly defended himself against what he said were "false, defamatory statements" spread by the news media about his qualifications.
"I have overseen over 150 presidentially declared disasters," said Brown, who is currently serving as a transitional adviser at FEMA with full pay. "I know what I am doing. And I think I do a pretty darn good job of it."
In an opening statement before the House Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, Brown acknowledged "a couple of specific mistakes I made." But in explaining them, he cast blame on the governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, and the mayor of New Orleans, C. Ray Nagin, both Democrats. By contrast, Brown told the committee, FEMA's approach worked in Mississippi and Alabama, whose governors are both Republicans.
Of the disastrous flooding that stranded thousands for days in New Orleans, Brown said in prepared testimony, "The only variable was the state government officials involved." He said later in answer to a question that he did not want to make a "partisan" distinction and "can't help it" that the state governments he praised are run by Republicans, while Louisiana is governed by a Democrat.
The way FEMA works with state officials in disasters is "well established and works well," Brown said in emphatic tones in his opening statement, pointing his finger and shaking a clenched hand at lawmakers. "Unfortunately, this is the approach that FEMA had great difficulty in getting established in Louisiana."
Brown said one of his mistakes was that he "failed to set up regular briefings to the media" and instead "became tied" to television news shows in the morning and late at night. As for his second mistake, he said, "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. . . . I just couldn't pull that off."
Under questioning by the House panel's chairman, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), Brown said that "for whatever reason, Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco were reticent to order a mandatory evacuation." He said he "should have pushed harder" to get them to order an evacuation earlier than they did -- on Sunday, Aug. 28, a day before Hurricane Katrina struck.
"My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday [Aug. 27] that Louisiana was dysfunctional," Brown said.
Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), who participated in the hearing although he is not a member of the committee, disputed Brown's description of Louisiana as dysfunctional and accused him of providing "a very weak explanation of what happened."
"I find it absolutely stunning that this hearing would start out with you . . . laying blame at the feet of the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans," Jefferson said. He cited a 2004 FEMA study of hurricane impacts on Louisiana and the National Response Plan, which predicted that local police and firefighters would become storm victims, that the state would be overwhelmed and that a "proactive federal response" would be required.
"The help just didn't come . . . and people suffered from it," Jefferson said. He noted that President Bush called the federal response "unacceptable."
In response to questions, Brown also cited the government's failure to mobilize the military's help, and he acknowledged he was unclear about the Pentagon's initial response.
"I don't know what I could have done, again, except" tell Louisiana's National Guard commander to get "the best troops he has" or make a request to the president to federalize the National Guard, Brown said. "Maybe I could have done that earlier."
Brown said he was trying determine what became of requests to the Defense Department before landfall for air and ground support, for a mobilization center, for the provision of beds and shelters and for the airlift of eight water rescue teams. "I need to find out why some of those requests we put into the system either did or did not end up actually taking place," Brown said.
Later, Brown engaged in a testy exchange with Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) over his actions as Katrina was bearing down on the Gulf Coast. Brown said he began asking the White House for help on the Saturday and Sunday (Aug. 27 and 28) before the storm hit, exchanging phone calls and e-mails with Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, and Joseph Hagin, the deputy chief of staff.
Brown said the exchanges were intended "to get them to get the mayor and the governor to order the mandatory evacuation" of New Orleans and other Louisiana locations in the hurricane's path.
Pressed on how, as a self-described coordinator, he had "coordinated the evacuation," Brown said, "By urging the governor and the mayor to order the mandatory evacuation."
"And that's coordinating?" Shays asked.
"What would you like for me to do, congressman?" Brown replied.
"And that's why I'm happy you left," Shays retorted, suggesting that Brown's response conveyed the impression "that you weren't capable to do the job." Brown said he took "great umbrage" at the comment.
Brown was the sole witness called to testify before the first hearing of the new House select committee.
Democrats have protested the GOP congressional leadership's decision to lead coordinated House and Senate inquiries, saying the president's party cannot be impartial in grading the administration. Today, Democrats initially boycotted the hearing, calling it a partisan whitewash, although Jefferson and Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) arrived after it began.
Partisan positioning began even before Brown made his way past a gantlet of television cameras at the House Rayburn Office Building.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the hearing a sham "photo opportunity" orchestrated by a GOP leadership in lieu of stringent congressional oversight of the administration.
"Questioning one Republican crony will not get to the truth of the disastrous federal response to Hurricane Katrina and prevent it from happening again," Pelosi said.
Davis called her remarks partisan and divisive and promised a tough, thorough inquiry.
"The public, not me, and not Mrs. Pelosi, will be the ultimate judge of whether we've done our job well, and done it fairly," Davis said. "Today, both House Democrats and the American people will wonder why more Democrats chose not to do their jobs and question Mike Brown."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), head of the Senate investigation, told reporters at a breakfast meeting that she also planned to call Brown and would meet with Davis to coordinate "a searching, extensive" investigation.
But she acknowledged that while her panel would ask the White House for documents and call on President Bush's homeland security adviser Fran Townsend to testify, members of the president's staff "usually don't testify to Congress."
Brown, a lawyer and former commissioner of an Arabian horse association, became the focal point of anger as the official in charge of federal government's bungled response to Katrina, which flooded New Orleans and demolished much of coastal Mississippi and Alabama.
To critics, Brown's political ties to the White House and lack of emergency management qualifications came to symbolize what they charged was the administration's inept handling of the crisis in particular and homeland security in general.
The president initially stood by Brown, 50. "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," Bush said during his first visit to the region Sept. 2.
In a rare rebuke that reflected the depth of White House concern, however, Brown was first relieved of command, then recalled from the field Sept. 9 amid criticism that he or department officials had embellished his resume. He resigned three days later.
Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said after Brown's reassignment to Washington that he "has done everything he possibly could to coordinate the federal response to this unprecedented challenge."
Brown was replaced as Katrina response chief by U.S. Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen and was succeeded at FEMA by R. David Paulison, who became acting director of the agency.