FEMA's New Deal in California

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.

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