Former FEMA chief defends post-Katrina actions

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WASHINGTON – Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown on Tuesday emphasized what he called failings at state and local levels, and defended his own leadership, as well as FEMA’s, in heading the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

Brown, who resigned from his position as director on Sept. 12 following criticism of his management while directing FEMA’s response, appeared this week before an investigative congressional committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Throughout the hearing, questions for Brown dealt with issues involving inadequate evacuation procedures in Louisiana, delayed relief to the devastated Gulf Coast following the storm, and the unlivable conditions that resulted at the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center.

Brown was especially critical of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco in their handling of the situation.

“My biggest mistake was not recognizing by (Aug. 27) that Louisiana was dysfunctional,” Brown said. “I was madder than a wet hen at the mayor.”

In the neighboring states of Alabama and Mississippi, evacuations and government relief were more efficient, he said.

“Evacuation was a day late in New Orleans (compared to the two states),” Brown said. “I want this committee to know that FEMA pushed forward with every resource we had. It is my belief FEMA did a good job in the Gulf states.”

One of his most regrettable mistakes in handling the disaster was his inability to foster better cooperation between Nagin and Blanco, he said.

Committee member William Jefferson (D-La.), whose congressional district includes New Orleans, criticized Brown’s assertions.

“I find it absolutely stunning that this hearing would start out with you blaming FEMA’s failings on (Nagin and Blanco),” he said. “Would it surprise you to know that (citizens) in Mississippi and Alabama have the same complaints (about federal response)?”

FEMA is not designated to act as a first responder in any disaster situation, but rather is intended to supplement the response led by state and local entities, including law enforcement, Brown said.

“Many might be surprised to learn FEMA is not a first responder,” he said. “This event stretched FEMA beyond its capabilities. FEMA is a coordinating agency, not a law enforcement agency. Law enforcement is purely a state and local role.”

FEMA is a small agency, he added, and falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, which limits its independent authority.

The agency began monitoring the storm, which made landfall on Aug. 29, at least a week in advance, and immediately positioned supplies to be sent to the region, Brown said. He added that in its preparation for and response to Katrina, FEMA implemented the same approach it had used during prior disasters, including the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia and the unprecedented California wildfires, both of which occurred in 2003.

Jefferson criticized FEMA for operating in the same way it had during past disasters, emphasizing that before Katrina hit, the government recognized that the storm had the potential of bringing destruction more severe than ever before witnessed in the United States.

If FEMA was overwhelmed in trying to respond to the disaster, state and local governments were surely overwhelmed to an even greater extent, he added.

He also said that President George W. Bush declared the state a disaster area two days before Katrina hit.

There was, therefore, a clear appeal for help to the federal government already, Jefferson said.

“One has to have the government match the threat out there,” Jefferson said. “The response that was contemplated was a federal response, not a local response. Documents from your own (federal) government suggested (that Katrina was) something quite different, and yet (FEMA) proceeded in the usual way. We have a right to expect an explanation.”

Brown was covering for himself, said Tom Hogen-Esch, a political science professor at CSUN.

“He’s coming from an administration that a lot of people think has taken responsibility for things that have gone wrong,” Hogen-Esch said.

He also said Brown’s explanation that he was not able to get Nagin and Blanco working together was “a less than candid appraisal of his agency’s shortcomings, as well as his personal failures.”

“Clearly state and local officials could’ve done a better job, but in a disaster of this magnitude, state and local officials don’t have the capacity to respond. And it’s at that point that federal agencies are required to act.”

The Katrina disaster, which is estimated to cost about $100 billion, according to news reports, exposes the shortcomings in our federal government, he said.

The Hurricane Katrina death toll left at least 1,000 people dead.

Heather Warren can be reached at city@sundial.csun.edu.