Former Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael D. Brown said yesterday that it was not his job to take over the evacuation of New Orleans and rescue the drowning city from Hurricane Katrina, blaming Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and "dysfunctional" state officials for the government's failed response to the disaster.
Over six hours of tense and at times angry testimony to a House investigative panel whose members condemned and derided him, Brown strongly defended his agency and himself against what he called "false, defamatory statements" spread by the news media about the agency's capabilities after the hurricane.
But he also spread responsibility widely for what President Bush has called an inadequate response -- to a White House that he said was fully apprised before Katrina's Aug. 29 landfall, to a Department of Homeland Security whose leaders cut money and staff for three years as they pursued the "emaciation of FEMA," and to a military he said was slow to react.
Brown admitted that FEMA's ability to move life-sustaining supplies was flawed and "easily overwhelmed" by Katrina's scale. He said that emergency communications broke down because the country made little "real progress" in learning from the 2001 terrorist attacks, and he warned that if U.S. authorities remain focused on preparing for terrorism instead of natural disasters, "then we're going to fail."
Brown said he is "happy to be a scapegoat . . . if it means that the FEMA that I knew when I came here is going to be able to be reborn and we're going to be able to get it back to where it was" when he joined the agency in 2001.
Brown, 50, took responsibility for two mistakes. He said he should have set up regular media briefings instead of conducting numerous television interviews. He added: "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."
"You want me to be this superhero," Brown told Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). Instead, he said, his role as federal coordinator was to talk to Blanco and Nagin and encourage them "to do their obligation to their citizens. I am not a dictator, and I . . . cannot go in there and force them to do that. "
Shays expressed shock. "The whole reason why I think you're there is to take command of coordinating -- working with, not just complaining about, what other people are doing," Shays said.
"You can try to throw as much as you can on the backs of Louisianans, but I'm a witness as to what happened in Mississippi. You folks fell on your face," said Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), who lost his home to the hurricane.
In Baton Rouge, La., Blanco spokeswoman Denise Bottcher said, "Mike Brown wasn't engaged then, and he surely isn't now. He should have been watching CNN instead of the Disney Channel."
Nagin spokeswoman Sally Forman said, "The governor and the mayor were totally on the same page."
The much-anticipated testimony of Bush's ousted disaster management director came against a backdrop of partisan fighting over the administration's handling of the Katrina crisis. It handed new ammunition to leaders in both parties who have expressed growing misgivings over the course of homeland security.
Except for Taylor and Rep. William J. Jefferson (La.), Democrats boycotted the panel, which Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) called a partisan whitewash. They said they will seek a floor vote on forming an independent investigation akin to the one that explored the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), chairman of the GOP-led House select investigative committee, promised a thorough, fair inquiry.
Brown, a lawyer and former commissioner of an Arabian horse association, became the focal point of anger after the storm, which killed more than 1,000 people and caused more than $100 billion in damage. Bush initially stood by Brown, saying he was "doing a heck of a job," before Brown was recalled to Washington on Sept. 9. He resigned three days later.
Critics have said Brown's political ties to the White House and lack of qualifications symbolized an inept and inattentive administration.
Yesterday, Brown took his turn defending himself, speaking in alternately combative and contrite tones, flanked by FEMA's counsel and his personal lawyer.
"The way that FEMA works with state and local officials is well-established, and it's worked well," said Brown, who remains on the FEMA payroll until Oct. 10 at $148,000 a year as a consultant on a Katrina review. "Unfortunately, this is the approach that FEMA had great difficulty in getting established within Louisiana."
Brown said he communicated several times with the White House, including Bush and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and his deputy, Joseph Hagin, starting two days before the storm.
But Brown said that over three years, FEMA's operating funds were cut 14.5 percent by the Department of Homeland Security and that he probably should have resigned in protest.
He acknowledged that he should have asked the president to push state and city officials to call an evacuation and perhaps federalized the National Guard earlier, and said he did not know what happened to his early requests for military help. He also said he learned at 10 a.m. Aug. 29 that New Orleans's levees had broken, a day earlier than officials have acknowledged.
Staff writers Charles Babington, William Branigin and Susan B. Glasser in Washington and Ceci Connolly in New Orleans contributed to this report.