Katrina Effort Moves Along without FEMA's Brown

Much-criticized Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown has been sent back to Washington, D.C. He will no longer be involved with his agency's most pressing job, the Katrina relief operation.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Today we'll hear from areas around the country that now make up a widening diaspora of the Gulf Coast region. But first, Hurricane Katrina has yet to chase out the entire population of New Orleans. There are still any number of stragglers remaining. But Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is out of the state of Louisiana. Mr. Brown has been removed as commander of day-to-day relief operations and replaced by Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen. Mr. Brown had become a growing political problem for President Bush. NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Michael Brown was in charge of the federal relief effort for a week and a half, and none of it was smooth. A few days after the storm hit, CNN's Paula Zahn asked him about the New Orleans Convention Center. Americans had been watching television images from that chaotic place, crowded with victims who were hungry and thirsty. News organizations had found their way there, but not the government.

(Soundbite from CNN program)

Mr. MICHAEL BROWN (Federal Emergency Management Agency): ...were there.

Ms. PAULA ZAHN (Host): Sir, you're not telling me you just learned...

Mr. BROWN: And I'll tell you also--I will tell you...

Ms. ZAHN: ...that the folks at the Convention Center didn't have food and water until today, are you?

Mr. BROWN: Paula, the federal government did not even know about the Convention Center people until today.

GREENE: Brown became a punching bag, a symbol for what critics said was an inept federal response. In many ways, he was an easy target, a political appointee, a college buddy of Joe Allbaugh, President Bush's 2000 campaign manager and first FEMA director. Prior to coming to FEMA, Brown had little experience dealing with disasters. Still, when the president landed on the Gulf Coast, he praised him.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And, Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA director is working 24...

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENE: But the criticism became politically dangerous for the White House. This week a CBS poll showed 58 percent of Americans disapproved of the president's handling of Katrina. That was up from a mere 12 percent who disapproved a week before. Yesterday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan's endorsement of Brown was unenthusiastic.

Unidentified Reporter: Has Mike Brown resigned?

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Spokesman): No.

Unidentified Reporter: Has the president asked for his resignation today?

Mr. McCLELLAN: No.

Unidentified Reporter: Does the president have full faith and confidence in Mike Brown?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Yeah. Again, what we are continuing to do is to support those all in the region who are carrying out the operational activities.

GREENE: But that would no longer include Brown. Yesterday afternoon, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters in Baton Rouge that he's sending Brown back to Washington. He'll stay in his job, but no longer oversee his agency's biggest task.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): We need to be prepared to deal effectively with the possibility of other hurricanes as well as other disasters, whether they be natural or manmade. Therefore, I have directed Mike Brown to return to administering FEMA nationally.

GREENE: And that was not all. In yet another embarrassment for Brown, FEMA announced late yesterday it is ending a program to distribute debit cards to hurricane evacuees. Brown touted the cards earlier in the week.

Mr. BROWN: We're putting together a very unique program for the debit cards to get into folks that register with us or are in the shelters right now, to get them a debit card with a minimum of $2,000 on there.

GREENE: Brown said nothing about limited distribution of the cards, but now administration officials say they were only part of a pilot program that will end once cards are given out at several Texas shelters. Officials plan to try to get the money to other evacuees through direct deposit into bank accounts or by check. As for Brown, he's been replaced by Thad Allen, a vice admiral in the US Coast Guard. Brown, for his part, says the media made him a scapegoat. David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

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