Former FEMA director testifies before Senate committee

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Michael Brown suggested the administration's focus on terrorism may have slowed the response to the disaster.

WASHINGTON -- Former federal disaster chief Michael Brown testified Friday he notified top White House and Homeland Security officials on the day Hurricane Katrina roared ashore that "we were realizing our worst nightmare" and New Orleans was seriously flooding.

He dismissed as "just baloney" and "a little disingenuous" claims by agency officials that they didn't know about the severity of the damage until the next day.

Testifying before a Senate committee, Brown said he agreed with members who characterized him as a scapegoat. "I feel somewhat abandoned," said Brown, who quit under fire as chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency just days after the storm ravaged much of the Gulf Coast of the United States.

Brown suggested the administration's fixation with fighting terrorism may have been to blame, in part, for the slow government response.

Because of a focus on terrorism, natural disasters "had become the stepchild of the Department of Homeland Security," he said.

Had there been a report that "a terrorist had blown up the 17th Street Canal levee, then everybody would have jumped all over that," Brown added.

The storm slammed into New Orleans and the Gulf coast on the morning of Aug. 29.

Brown said he spoke by phone to a top White House official -- he said he believed it was Joe Hagin, the deputy chief of staff -- "on at least two occasions on that day to inform him of what was going on."

Hagin was with the president, who began the day at his ranch in Texas then traveled to Arizona and California for policy speeches. Brown was in Baton Rouge, La.

"I think I told him that we were realizing our worst nightmare, that everything we had planned about, worried about, that FEMA, frankly, had worried about for 10 years was coming true," Brown said.

He said he made similar comments in an e-mail message to White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card.

In an appearance before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that was at turns both cooperative and confrontational, Brown went far further than he had previously in blaming other elements of the Bush administration for the government's halting reaction to the massive storm.

The Aug. 29 maelstrom killed more than 1,300 people, displaced hundreds of thousands of others, and caused tens of billions in damage, including widespread destruction in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities.

"There was a cultural clash that didn't recognize the absolute inherent science of preparing for a disaster," he testified. "Any time you break that cycle ... you're doomed to failure."

He added: "The policies and decisions implemented by the DHS put FEMA on a path to failure."

Brown, who is widely viewed as the public face of the government's missteps during and after the storm, staunchly defended his role and appeared eager to answer any questions -- particularly those that shifted the blame elsewhere.

He insisted he provided information to White House and Homeland Security officials the day of the storm. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has said he did not know the levees were breached until the following day.

Under pointed questioning by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Brown said several times he could not clearly recall what was said in some of those conversations.

"Do you specifically remember asking Hagin for the White House to take action?" asked Lieberman, the Senate panel's top Democrat.

"Nothing specific -- I just thought they needed to be aware," Brown answered.

He said he preferred going right to the White House rather than having to deal with wading through the "additional bureaucracy" of Homeland Security.

Brown recounted his success in managing previous disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, fires and the 2003 Columbia space shuttle explosion.

A management audit prepared by Brown months before the Aug. 29 storm showed that the agency had a lack of adequate and consistent situational awareness to size up emergencies, and was unable to properly control inventory and track assets, Collins told fellow committee members.

Collins said the audit also showed that FEMA misunderstood standard response procedures.

Brown's appearance in front of the Senate investigative panel came as new documents reveal that 28 federal, state and local agencies -- including the White House -- reported levee failures on Aug. 29, according to a timeline of e-mails, situation updates and weather reports.

That litany was at odds with the administration's contention that it didn't know the extent of the problem until much later. At the time, President Bush said, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

At the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan said Friday that there were conflicting reports about the levees in the immediate aftermath of the storm. "Some were saying it was over top, some were saying it was breached," he said.

"We knew of the flooding that was going on," McClellan said. "That's why our top priority was focused on saving lives."

"The cause of the flooding was secondary to that top priority and that's the way it should be," the spokesman said at an occasionally contentious briefing.

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