FEMA's Michael Brown Takes Offense at His Katrina Legacy

Former dir. says he was fired, scapegoated after his warnings were ignored.

August 19, 2010, 2:22 PM

Aug. 24, 2010— -- Five years after Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, the man who has been vilified for the federal government's bungling of the response effort wants to try to set the record straight.

As Hurricane Katrina approached, Michael Brown said Friday in a rare interview, "I remember telling the White House, 'I don't think you guys get it.'

"'This is going to be the big one that I've been fighting to get money for, that we've all been worried about. I think this could be it, and nobody seems to care.'"

Brown, who was criticized for being out of touch and unaware of the devastation and suffering in New Orleans, is defensive about the blame he still gets for his actions in the hurricane's aftermath.

But a skeptical Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who now chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, said there's plenty of blame to go around.

"Clearly, Mr. Brown was head of FEMA," said Thompson, the committee's ranking Democrat in 2005. "Clearly, protocols were in place that indicated things that should have been done."

Brown, 55, now living in Colorado and hosting a radio talk show in Denver, said he is writing a book to tell his side of the story.

He said he was singled out by the Bush administration because he was the low man on the totem pole in Washington, as head of FEMA. "Bush wasn't going to fire [former homeland security chief Michael] Chertoff for the screw-ups. He's going to fire me."

But in the days before Brown publicly resigned, he had become the national face of the bungled response. He appeared on national television and radio explaining that the response was going well and that the government was doing all it could to help the people of New Orleans.

On the ground in Louisiana, however, the military had not arrived, bodies were lying in the streets and survivors were struggling to stay alive. "I regret not having gone public when things weren't working, said Brown, who was out of a job two weeks after Katrina hit.

"I mean, I tried to tell the president and everybody else how screwed up things were but it just wasn't soaking in."

Brown Cringed at Bush's False Praise

For days after Aug. 29, thousands of suffering men, women and children sat without food or water at the New Orleans Convention Center, told by authorities that buses would arrive to pick them up and take them to safety. None ever arrived. Children begged for food but there was nothing to eat. At least three dead bodies laid under sheets outside the Convention Center.

Brown said his office didn't know about the plight at the Convention Center because New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's office told him all of the evacuees were huddled at the Super Dome nearby.

"When people began to break into the Convention Center, it took us about 12 hours to learn that people were actually gathering there," Brown said.

"There were definitely holes in a city of that size. You had this spontaneous collection of people at the Convention Center that simply weren't planned for."

With the response lacking, Bush staged the now infamous photo opportunity next to Brown, telling him, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

But moments before the comment, Brown said, he had told Bush that chaos was unfolding in the streets of New Orleans and he knew the false praise would come back to haunt him.

"You could see me sort of cringe on camera when the president said that," Brown said, adding that he knew that the administration hadn't grasped the severity of the devastation.

Brown announced his resignation Sept. 12, 2005, saying the negative publicity surrounding his leadership was a distraction from the job at hand.

The White House refused to discuss his resignation, except to say he was not fired. Brown now admits that he was forced out by the Bush administration.

"They probably would have fired me anyway, if I had gone public with what was really happening," he said, "but at least I would have called attention to how farcical the Department of Homeland Security had become with respect to the way that it does business."

Congressman Thompson said he knew nothing of Brown's contention that he had been fired.

Either way, Thompson said, the "question is, are we a better FEMA or a better Department of Homeland Security. ... The true test will come with the next Katrina-like event."

In the meantime, on this 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Brown will return to New Orleans for a brief visit to the place where many people still blame him for city's chaos and suffering.

Calvin Lawrence Jr. contributed to this story.

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