The Bush administration removed Michael D. Brown, the embattled director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, from the Gulf Coast disaster zone yesterday as the White House tried to regain footing amid criticism of its response to Hurricane Katrina.
A week after President Bush praised him for "a heck of a job," Brown was stripped of duties overseeing the relief efforts, ordered back to Washington and replaced by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen. Although Brown remains FEMA director and the administration presented it as a deployment decision, officials said the president's aides wanted a more effective, hands-on manager at the scene.
Also yesterday, FEMA officials said they will discontinue a problem-plagued program in which storm victims were to receive debit cards bearing $2,000 in immediate cash assistance. FEMA officials said they will end the effort after distributing cards this weekend at shelters in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. Evacuees will still be eligible for funds through checks or direct deposits into their bank accounts.
Brown, a lawyer and former official for an Arabian horse association, has become the focal point of anger over the slow, disjointed mobilization when Katrina slammed into the coast last week, drowning New Orleans and wiping out huge parts of Mississippi and Alabama. But demands for his dismissal were also a proxy for assailing Bush's handling of the crisis, as well as past moves restructuring FEMA and populating its top ranks with political allies.
The decision to sideline Brown yesterday was an implicit rebuke of a top aide by Bush, who rarely fires or publicly disciplines lieutenants as long as they are loyal. The move came as the White House announced that Bush will return to the devastated Gulf Coast for a third time tomorrow -- a clear effort to demonstrate his personal involvement and command of the situation.
In traveling to the region on the same day as the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush hopes to rekindle the sense of broad national purpose that rallied the public behind him then.
"America is a strong and resilient nation," he said in one of two public appearances in Washington yesterday that he used to rhetorically link the trials of Katrina to Sept. 11, as he plans to do again today in his weekly radio address. "Our people have the spirit, the resources and the determination to overcome any challenge."
The president made no mention of his staff's performance yesterday, and his spokesman declined to express confidence in Brown when asked at a briefing. Instead, the president left it to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to handle the task of removing Brown.
Appearing at a news conference in Baton Rouge, La., with Brown at his side, Chertoff announced that he was sending the FEMA director back to Washington in case another storm hits the country and putting Allen in charge. "Mike Brown has done everything he possibly could to coordinate the federal response to this unprecedented challenge," Chertoff said. "I appreciate his work, as does everybody here."
Chertoff flashed impatience when a reporter tried to ask Brown if he would resign and if he would respond to a Time magazine report that he inflated his resume. "Here are the ground rules: I'm going to answer the questions," Chertoff interrupted. "I've explained what we're doing. I thought I was about as clear as I possibly could be in English as to what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. Next question."
Although Brown was not allowed to answer, he later told an Associated Press reporter in an interview that it was not his idea to go back to Washington. Asked if he was being made a scapegoat, he said: "By the press, yes. By the president, no."
He angrily denied padding his resume, blaming mistakes on the White House and on FEMA for misrepresenting his background, and he bristled at all the attacks on his handling of the hurricane: "I'm anxious to get back to D.C. to correct all the inaccuracies and lies."
Brown came under fire in Washington for not moving more aggressively as the storm bore down on the coast or in the days afterward. At one point in a televised appearance, he seemed to blame those stranded in flooded New Orleans for their predicament because they did not flee, though many impoverished residents did not have the means. And he seemed uninformed when he told a television interviewer that he did not know that thousands of people were in the city's convention center without food or water.
Bush initially stuck by Brown, offering him a pat on the back during his first visit to the region on Sept. 2. "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," Bush said before cameras.
But other administration officials were not so sure and pulled Brown off television in favor of Chertoff, who brought Allen in as Brown's deputy. Eventually, Chertoff decided to substitute Allen for Brown altogether in hopes of getting "more action," according to a senior official who discussed the internal deliberations on the condition of anonymity.
"The secretary really wanted the type of guy who can get it done," the official said. Allen is "an action-oriented guy," the official said. "He wants to see results, and that's what the secretary is expecting."
The transfer back to Washington did not satisfy critics who have been calling for Brown's dismissal. Some speculated that Chertoff could be next in the line of fire.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and three fellow Democratic senators sent a letter to Bush demanding that he fire Brown outright. "It is not enough to remove Mr. Brown from the disaster scene," they wrote, adding that he "simply doesn't have the ability or the experience to oversee a coordinated federal response of this magnitude."
Brown's fate was not helped by the Time report on his background. FEMA's Web site says that he served as an assistant city manager overseeing emergency services in Oklahoma, while a White House news release announcing his nomination as deputy director of FEMA in 2001 said Brown worked from 1975 to 1978 "overseeing the emergency services divisions" in Edmond, Okla.
But Randel Shadid, a former Edmond mayor, said he thinks that was not true and that Brown was actually an assistant to the mayor, a junior position that did not involve overseeing department heads.
Shadid said the city did not have an emergency management operation in the 1970s. "In discussing this with some other folks that were around about that time, he [Brown] may have been asked by the then-city manager as one of his tasks to prepare an emergency readiness plan" for tornadoes or train derailment, Shadid said in an interview.
"He was a nice guy, hard worker and pretty bright," Shadid said. "But the scope of doing anything in the city of Edmond is nowhere near the scope of trying to handle what's going on in the Gulf right now."
Brown told the Associated Press that he was an assistant to the city manager and did not know why the FEMA site called him an assistant city manager. But he stressed that he worked on plans for natural and man-made disasters.
Democrats continued to pound the president over Katrina in other ways as well. "I do not think that this president cares about everybody in America," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said on CNN.
Dean said the president may be a "nice man," but his policies have devastated many Americans. "The truth is that Americans have suffered deeply under this presidency, 80 percent of Americans," he said, "and that black people, Hispanic people, and poor people and old people have suffered disproportionately. . . . I think there's an indifference in the Republican Party towards people who aren't at the very top of the income level."
The comments came a day after Laura Bush assailed such accusations. "All of those remarks were disgusting, to be perfectly frank, because, of course, President Bush cares about everyone in our country," she told the American Urban Radio Networks as she flew back from meeting evacuees. "And I know that. I mean, I'm the person who lives with him, I know what he's like, and I know what he thinks and I know how he cares about people."
At the same time, she acknowledged that Katrina has exposed the vast gulf between rich and poor in America today. "It was a wake-up call to a lot of people that that's something that we need to address," she said. "We need to address the effects of poverty, and that's something that all of us saw."
On the debit cards for storm victims, FEMA spokeswoman Natalie Rule said the pilot program will run its course. "At this point, there is not the need to launch this in other places," she said. "It will be complete at the end of this weekend."
Rule said $460 million in $2,000 grants had been disbursed to 230,000 households as of yesterday.
Staff writers Dan Balz, Spencer S. Hsu and Christopher Lee contributed to this report.