More than 900 pages of government e-mails to and from former FEMA director Michael Brown during the Hurricane Katrina crisis chronicle a succession of problems, from cell phone and communications breakdowns to underreporting the severity of levee breaks. The e-mails were provided to ABC News in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The e-mails also document a range of other preoccupations, including Brown's hair styling and praise and criticism from ordinary Americans watching the crisis unfold on TV.
Many of the e-mails have never been publicly available, while others were previously released by congressional committees investigating FEMA's performance. Together they offer additional insight into what occupied Brown's time during the early days of Katrina, before his dismissal.
Brown's name became synonymous with government ineptitude in the aftermath of the hurricane, which struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. He resigned from FEMA shortly after the storm.
FEMA redacted and withheld certain communications to protect the "internal decision-making process of government" and privacy where relevant. These exceptions to disclosure are allowed under the Freedom of Information Act.
Communications appeared doomed even before Katrina's landfall, when cell phones apparently did not work properly in FEMA's Washington headquarters, hundreds of miles away from the approaching storm.
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco urgently tried to reach Brown on the Saturday morning before Katrina hit land, but the FEMA director was out of cell phone range while sitting in FEMA headquarters. Brown wrote to a staffer, "I'll try to call her [Blanco] back in just a bit. FYI I'm at HQ but down in the studio most of the rest of the a.m. Cell isn't working down there."
In another e-mail later that day, Brown wrote, "the cell may not work while at HQ on the mezzanine."
Later that afternoon, the director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management wrote Brown to offer the state's resources to help storm victims if Katrina avoided a second landfall in that state.
Brown wrote back, "This one has me really worried ... look at this scenario compared to the cat planning we did for New Orleans and, well you get the picture."
Brown added, "I wish a certain governor was from Louisianam ... and his emergency manager" -- an apparent reference to Brown's preference for working with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush over Blanco and her staff.
At 6:21 a.m. on the morning of Katrina's landfall, Brown wrote to his deputy Patrick Rhode to say, "Yes, sitting in the chair, putting mousse in my hair. ..."
One hour later, the e-mails took a more serious tone.
At 7:36, an e-mail to Brown alerted, "NBC reporting that windows being blown out at the Hyatt Regency in NO." Another at 9:09, with the subject line "Superdome" said, "CNN reporting a massive piece of the superdome roof blew off, people being moved."
At 9:39, Brown was informed of a report that "the levee in Arabi has failed ... next to the industrial canal."
At 9:53 a.m., an e-mail to Brown contained this bulletin from WWL TV, "A LEVEE BREACHED OCCURRED ALONG THE INDUSTRIAL CANAL AT TENNESSE STREET. 3 TO 8 FEET OF WATER EXPECTED DUE TO THE BREACH ... LOCATIONS IN THE WARNING INCLUDE BUT ARE NOT LIMITED TO ARABI AND 9TH WARD OF NEW ORLEANS."
The news got worse at 11:51 a.m. with information in an e-mail attributed to FEMA's own public affairs employee, Marty Bahamonde, that said, "New Orleans FD is reporting 20 foot wide breech on the lake ponchatrain side levy [sic]."
At 12:09 p.m., Brown downplayed the situation, however, and replied, "I'm being told here water over not a breach."
On Tuesday evening, Brown was still beset with basic communications problems. "Did you get through to [Mississippi Gov.] Haley [Barbour]" one message asked. Brown replied, "Not yet. I can't get out on my cell."
Brown received an e-mail, apparently from a friend who was having trouble locating his elderly mother, saying her last known location was a Ramada Inn in Gulfport, Miss. Brown forwarded the request to FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer William Carwile, with the heading, "Subject: Mom's Hotel info."
"Bill, do you have any intel on the Ramada Inn he's referring to?" Brown asked.
Carwile responded that he lost his ability to survey the damage by air because the aircraft went to a "higher priority medical mission in Louisiana."
Brown used the exchange to look for a targeted way to counter some of the criticism FEMA was beginning to receive for its slow response. Brown wrote back, "Expect a call from HQ regarding Bay St. Louis. CNN asking where's FEMA. Would like to air drop or do something there."
Carwile replied, "I am afraid we have built expectations over the years that might not be achievable for this catastrophic event." Meanwhile, Brown's friend wrote back to inform him that he, "now has contact with mom so no worries."
By Friday Brown was receiving a stream of hate e-mail. One from New York had the subject line "A little less 'I' and a little more help." It read, "Stop being such a shameless self-promoter and get those poor people the help they need. If they were white people in central business district like NY during 9/11, would it be taking this long. All we hear is you talking about yourself and what you've done. It's not enough. Your are going down."
Brown forwarded the e-mail to his deputy Patrick Rhode adding, "This is my world now. ..."
Rhode replied, "I've got 100 telling me to get off my ass and do something."
Another from a nuclear engineer at Ohio State University warned, "In the coming days, expect to receive great criticism for your remarks tonight: You go on television blaming victims, while it is becoming clear that in our 'homeland security' posture in 2005, Americans can literally be left out to die for lack of an automobile."
"What have you guys been doing all this time since the inception of homeland security? Twiddling your thumbs? Collecting a paycheck and congratulating yourselves on bamboozling the American people into paying for nothing? If someone attacks us without warning, we are screwed. Thanks for nothing," another e-mail said.
One e-mail sent to Brown on Monday, Sept. 5, simply had the subject line: "Subject: Resign!"
Some writers, however, offered encouragement. "I am so proud of how well you answered Ted Koppel's questions on 'Nightline,'" one sender-redacted e-mail stated.
Another person from Huntsville, Ala., wrote, "I would like to add my voice to those with praise for what has been accomplished in response to Katrina."
Another e-mail offered this: "Please try to do some yoga or meditate to keep your stress levels down for at least 20 mins each day. ... I don't want you to be having a heart attack or stroke over stupid people who know what was coming and then blame everyone for their own misfortune. So try to RELAX, know that you're amazing at what you do, and don't get shot!!!"
Dozens of e-mails from Sept. 5 and 6 deal with criticism of Brown's qualifications to run FEMA and his previous work as commissioner for the Arabian Horse Association.
One e-mail read, "Mike, Spoke to [name redacted] (note she is the largest breeder of Arabian Horses in the United States), and she indicated that she would be able confirm for any media inquiry that your service as the AHA [Arabian Horse Association] Commissioner was outstanding. ... Hang in there -- I was in Washington for 30 years, nothing but snakes."
Many of the e-mails dealt with numerous media inquiries, "Another call from ABC New NY ... wanting to confirm that you had been asked to leave AHA." And "CNN reporter Lisa Sylvester called form (sic) the D.C. bureau and was doing a story. I again provided very favorable comments on your service with the Arabian Horse Association."
One FEMA public affairs official brought to Brown's attention a Washington Post article titled, "'Refugee': A Word of Trouble," which reported many evacuees took offense to the term "refugees." Brown wrote back, "Just so you know, this is old news. The term refugee is forbidden here. These are Americans who are hurricane victims, they are evacuees displaced from their homes. I am tired, no angered, by charges of racism. You know that neither me nor anyone associated with me is a racist. Grrrr."
As a non sequitur Brown added, "How was that Sonic burger?"
Many of the e-mails expressed concern about pet owners who refused to evacuate in order to take care of their pets, or simply were forced to leave them behind.
On Sept. 8, Brown wrote to his staff, "I want us to start planning for dealing with pets. If evacuees are refusing to leave because they can't take their pets with them, I understand that. So, we need to facilitate the evacuation of those people by figuring out a way to allow them to take their pets. Bill [Carwile] and Ron [Sherman], this may not be an issue for you in AL and MS, but it is a huge issue in LA. Please get some sort of plan together to start handling pets. Thanks. MB."
Brown was being inundated with offers of assistance from other state and federal agencies, including NASA, the Department of Transportation and firefighters in Oregon. Brown responded to one offer with the reply, "Gracias. Send me a margarita, kiddo. ... MB"
Companies including Home Depot and Microsoft made offers of assistance directly to Brown.