Brown Resigns as FEMA Chief Amid Criticism

Mike Brown, the embattled director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has resigned just one day after being demoted. His work marshaling aid for the Hurricane Katrina relief effort was widely criticized, and he's come under fire for being underqualified for the post. Alex Chadwick gets an update from David Greene.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, we hear from the Gulf Coast, where relief operations continue for victims of Hurricane Katrina. First, the lead. The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Mike Brown, resigned today following intense criticism of his handling of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. David Greene is NPR's White House correspondent. We spoke earlier.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Not an enormous surprise. This comes just a few days after he was transferred out as the head of relief operations for Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf region. And if you think about what kind of message the president and Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff were sending to him at that point...

CHADWICK: Yeah.

GREENE: ...they left him in charge of FEMA, but they were basically taking him off what is its primary, perhaps only, task at this point. Certainly the message was sent, and evidently Brown received it.

CHADWICK: So they told him to go home, go back to Washington from New Orleans, and they were going to put someone else in charge of the operation there.

GREENE: Exactly. And Chertoff tried to frame it as, `Well, we have other hurricanes out there in the Atlantic that we might need someone to handle.' That might not be exactly what was taking place.

CHADWICK: Yeah. So he had drawn a lot of criticism; there was criticism about his--you know, questions about his background, how he got this job and certainly a lot of criticism beyond him but directed at the administration as well.

GREENE: He really became a focal point for the criticism, and it's interesting because if you set aside the question of his leadership and his competence for a moment, it was almost as if that criticism took on a life of its own. He was a very attractive target for critics. He didn't have much experience dealing with disasters. His last job before coming to FEMA was commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. He was a political appointee, a college buddy of Joe Allbaugh, who was the campaign manager for President Bush in 2000. So aside from questions about how he did his job, the criticism was just boiling. And it appeared to be very dangerous for the president, as his poll numbers were just plummeting on Katrina.

CHADWICK: Here's the president today--now the president's been down in the Gulf Coast. This is an AP story I'm quoting from. I gather he'd been getting a couple of questions--he's talking to reporters--getting questions about, `Well, so what's gone wrong here?' Here's a quote: `Look, there's going to be plenty of time to play the blame game. That's what you're trying to do. You're trying to say somebody is at fault. And, look, I want to know. I want to know exactly what went on and how it went on, and we'll continually assess inside my administration."

You cover Mr. Bush. It sounds to me as though he's getting kind of sensitive on this.

GREENE: He is. There's no doubt about it. And you have to believe--he made those comments actually after touring the French Quarter and other neighborhoods in New Orleans. He almost certainly knew that this was coming later in the day. In addition to those comments, he said, you know, that, `I sent Secretary Chertoff down to the region to make some decisions. The decision he made, I supported it.' So he was trying to do two things: One was say, `It's not the time for a blame game. We'll worry about all of that later'; at the same time suggesting that perhaps the person who has been heavily criticized, `I've taken him out. We're moving on.'

CHADWICK: Yeah. There is this vice admiral of the Coast Guard, who's in charge of operations down there for the time being, in New Orleans. But he's not the director of FEMA. Indeed, there are other hurricanes, other things coming along. At this point you can't really leave this job open for very long. What are they going to do?

GREENE: Not only can you not leave the job open for very long, but this might be a golden opportunity for Mr. Bush to try to regain some confidence among the American people. As I said, his polls have been going down. This is a perfect opportunity to find someone who can instill confidence and reassure the country that this job is going to be handled well. Thad Allen, the vice admiral of the Coast Guard, who you spoke about, certainly had far more experience than Mike Brown in dealing with disasters. He's been in the Coast Guard for three decades. He helped lead its response to the September 11th attacks. But here's another moment for the president to really put his stamp on an agency, and it'll be interesting. He took a lot of criticism for naming a political appointee to this job. I can't say it's likely he'll do that again.

CHADWICK: That's NPR White House correspondent David Greene speaking with us from Washington.

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