FEMA's New Deal in California

As fires raged in California this week, FEMA Director David Paulison gave federal disaster relief a pat on the back, calling his agency the "new FEMA."

"We're working together as partners," he said at a Wednesday press conference. "That's how it's supposed to work."

Paulison, a 30-year veteran of fire and rescue work, was likely taking a swipe at Michael D. Brown, the former FEMA chief who resigned in the maelstrom of Hurricane Katrina.

Now, in what some see as great irony, Brown is promoting his expertise in disaster management to do for California what some say he failed to do in New Orleans.

Brown, the man who led FEMA immediately after the 2005 hurricane, when tens of thousands of people on the Gulf Coast went without food, power or water for weeks, is out offering his consulting services to California businesses affected by the fires. He's also defending his handling of Katrina and pointing out that the agency now has some advantages he didn't have.

"Dave [Paulison] is in difficult position," Brown told ABC News. "He really has to do what the administration wants, but has the advantage that Congress is throwing money at him."

But the man whom President Bush called "Brownie" and whose seemingly insensitive e-mails and thin emergency services resume contributed to his downfall, said he has learned from the Katrina experience.

"I never did say I didn't make mistakes," Brown told ABCNEWS.com.

"The biggest mistake I made was in communications," he said. "There are talking points the White House wants you to say. I should have been more up front with the public. I should have been more truthful about the team work and the state being overwhelmed."

'Politics of Disaster'

Brown, in the past a vocal critic of Bush, said his former boss has given California quicker and better support than he received in Louisiana.

"I think the president has learned the politics of disaster," said Brown. "You have to be up front and support the troops and teams. That lesson everyone learned from Katrina."

During congressional testimony, Brown pointed the finger of blame at then Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

Nagin, who has openly criticized Brown, told ABCNEWS.com, "I haven't gotten a call from anyone in California for a reference on him, but I would not recommend him."

"I was a mayor on the ground, and my city was devastated," said Nagin. "I looked to the government for help, but it was slow in coming."

Blanco declined to comment for this story.

Brown, a lawyer by profession, was appointed as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in January 2003 but stepped down Sept. 12, 2005, barely two weeks after the levees broke and devastation hit New Orleans.

For two months he continued working within FEMA before going into consulting on a variety of issues, including national security and data mining. Prior to that, he had spent 11 years overseeing horse trial judges for the Arabian Horse Association.

"My last worst act was Katrina, and that's the mindset," he said. "But my clients say, here is a guy who has been at the top of the mountain and the pits of the valley where he can fill in the gaps about what does and doesn't work and not be caught off guard again."

Brown has been both lambasted by former President Clinton and praised by former New York Mayor and Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani.

Just last August, Democratic presidential contender and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards proposed "Brownie's Law," requiring that "qualified people, not political hacks" lead federal agencies.

Iceberg Dead Ahead

Comparing himself to the doomed captain of the Titanic, Brown said he placated his bosses, who ignored his warnings about impending disaster.

"The captain complained to the engineers about the ship and the schedule, but he was still a good employee and doing what the owners wanted," said Brown. "He did make some mistakes when they found the iceberg -- he complained about the life boats. But he was a good soldier."

Today, Brown, 52, has parlayed his work with Homeland Security as a consultant and public speaker to students and stores like Nordstrom's -- where he joked in e-mails at the height of Katrina that the clothes made him look like a "fashion god."

In his new role as director of Cotton Companies, which specializes in emergency fire and water damage restoration services, he sells advice to California residents and businesses on "proper relief and recovery efforts and future disaster preparedness."

"Private industry has a lot to offer," said Brown, whose company is helping some California hotels remediate problems from the fires.

People in Louisiana may not agree.

"My initial reaction is, who does he think he's kidding?" said Leslie March of Mandeville, La., a Katrina volunteer who worked to convince FEMA that evacuee trailers were contaminated with health-threatening formaldehyde.

"It was well-exposed that Michael Brown had little knowledge of disaster management and disregarded the advice of the professionals working for him and was more concerned about what clothes he wore on TV when the tragedy unfolded in front of him," said March.

But Brown said Katrina is precisely why he is uniquely qualified to offer up advice in California -- even if public perception is that he bungled the job.

"The media looks for a scapegoat, and I was the face of the administration and the target of that," said Brown, who said he spent nearly three years "moving up the ladder" in 161 declared disasters from Sept. 11 to the 2004 tsunami.

Embarrassing E-mails

Brown was vilified as insensitive when the press got hold of his personal e-mail exchanges that showed images of a man who needed extra time to eat at a Louisiana restaurant as the situation at the Convention Center became more desperate.

When those on the ground told him levees had burst and the situation was "past critical," Brown's response was, "Thanks for update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?"

Memos even showed aides telling him to roll up his sleeves before television cameras to make it look like he was "working hard."

E-mails also revealed Brown's own desperation. On the day the hurricane struck, he asked a colleague: "Can I quit now? Can I go home?" And as the situation got worse: "I'm trapped now, please rescue me."

Brown maintains that those e-mails were taken out of context: "Those e-mails are no different than from a doctor sitting in an operating room and joking with others to keep them motivated."

The response by the California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the current disaster has been impressive, Brown said.

"He's very smart, up front and communicates well and knows his role," said Brown. "He got on the news media, told what they were doing and ordered evacuation and didn't dally around. That would have made a huge difference in Katrina."

In 2006, Brown testified before Congress that Katrina -- the worst natural disaster to strike the United States -- "was beyond the capacity of the state and local governments, and it was beyond the capacity of FEMA."

But today, Brown said agencies can better handle these catastrophes by looking at "lessons learned, not lessons observed." Prevention is worth more than response, especially in California where homeowners continue to build in areas prone to wildfires, according to Brown.

The same could be said of New Orleans, where Brown has still not returned. Though Mayor Nagin told ABCNEWS.com his city was "coming back," Brown disagrees.

"No progress has been made in the systemic problems there in terms of social economics and politics," said Brown. "And the infrastructure of the levee system is the proof it is still struggling."

Still, Brown is sensitive about the blame game.

"What the public has not really learned is what their responsibility is," said Brown. "People under a lot of stress criticize, and there is still a segment of society that wants to blame."

.

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