FEMA Chief Pulled from Leading Katrina Aid

FEMA Director Michael Brown

FEMA Director Michael Brown listens September 9 as U.S. Coast Guard Vice-Admiral Thad Allen is named leader of the federal government's Hurricane Katrina relief operations. Brian Snyder/Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Brian Snyder/Reuters

Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Brown, barraged by criticism for the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, will no longer lead the relief effort on Gulf Coast and instead will work on "big picture" issues in Washington, D.C.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, a court rules that dirty bomb suspect Jose Padilla can continue to be held without being charged. But, first, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown has been removed from his role as manager of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. He has not been removed as head of FEMA. Here's Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): I have directed Mike Brown to return to administering FEMA nationally. And I have appointed Vice Admiral Thad Allen of the Coast Guard as the principal federal official overseeing the Hurricane Katrina response and recovery effort in the field.

BRAND: For more on this story, we turn now to NPR's White House correspondent David Greene.

And, David, what happened there?

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Well, Madeleine, this came as a real surprise. A lot of us here at the White House were actually out listening to the president speak about September 11th when we got word of this. Mike Chertoff came to the podium, said he was taking Brown out as the head of the day-to-day operations along the Gulf Coast. He said he appreciates his work; he did a good job, but he was going to replace him with Thad Allen, who's a Coast Guard vice admiral. Chertoff made the announcement, but there's absolutely no doubt that this doesn't happen unless the president of the United States signs off on it. And in recent days here at the White House you got the sense that maybe something like this was coming. Officials said that the president was still not satisfied with what was happening on the Gulf Coast, and when you hear something like that, it's likely you're going to at least see someone out.

BRAND: Yeah. And there have been calls from across the spectrum for him to step down. But is he just a fall guy in all this?

GREENE: Well, it's hard to say. There's no doubt that he was not solely responsible for whatever some say was a slow response by the federal government. We're beginning to get a sense that it was across the board. I mean, there were decisions perhaps the president could have made, there were some decisions the governor, the mayor of New Orleans could have made that might have made things better.

But what made Michael Brown such a target is that he was a political appointee; he was a college buddy of Joe Allbaugh, who was always a close political ally of the president. And Mr. Bush put him in a very important position without any experience responding to disasters. So it made him an easy target for a lot critics. And he also did some interviews in the beginning in which he just didn't seem to know what was going on. There were reporters at the Convention Center in New Orleans who were telling him that there were people trapped there with no food.

BRAND: Now this is a president who is extremely loyal to the people in his administration, so this is pretty unusual.

GREENE: It really is. You see this president sticking by people through thick and thin. He's very loyal, especially he's loyal to people who have ties to him politically. And what you might be seeing here is the president trying to play it both ways: `We're going to stick by Mike Brown, no matter what he did, and keep him at the head of FEMA. We're just not going to let him deal with the hurricane.'

BRAND: And quickly tell us a little bit about his replacement.

GREENE: Well, we're just learning a little more about him now. It certainly appears that he has much more day-to-day experience in the military dealing with the types of things that he'll be facing down on the Gulf Coast. But it was interesting, he was on NPR yesterday--he had just been brought in to lead the efforts in New Orleans, and he said, `I'm going to be focusing on local stuff. I'm going to be paying local attention.' It's certainly not going to be local anymore.

BRAND: NPR's David Greene at the White House. Thanks, David.

GREENE: Sure thing.

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