Ex-FEMA Director Defends Agency's Response
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
A vehement defense today from the man being blamed for many of the problems with the response to Hurricane Katrina. Michael Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was on Capitol Hill for what turned into a contentious hearing. He said his agency did what it could, but it was hampered by limited resources and a lack of cooperation from state and local officials. As NPR's Pam Fessler reports, lawmakers from both parties were clearly irritated by many of Brown's explanations.
PAM FESSLER reporting:
The former FEMA director who resigned under fire two weeks ago was largely unapologetic. He told a House select committee set up by Republicans to investigate the hurricane response that his agency was prepared but overwhelmed by the storm, that much of what went wrong was out of his control. What missteps he did acknowledge were fairly narrow.
Mr. MICHAEL BROWN (Former Director, Federal Emergency Management Agency): I assume that today some of you are going to ask me whether I did all that I could or whether I would have done anything differently. The answer is yes.
FESSLER: He said he should have held more media briefings and that he also regretted that he was unable to convince New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to order an earlier mandatory evacuation of the city.
Mr. BROWN: My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional.
FESSLER: Brown said he was unable even a day before the storm hit to find out who in Louisiana was in charge, and that coordination was much better in Alabama and Mississippi.
Mr. BROWN: With all due respect--I do not want to make this partisan, so I can't help it that Alabama and Mississippi are governed by Republican governors and that Louisiana's governed by a Democratic governor. That's not an issue with me.
FESSLER: Both Nagin and Blanco this afternoon disagreed with Brown's characterization of events. Blanco said it was another reason for an independent investigation into the government's response, something Democrats are demanding.
In the meantime, Brown told today's hearing that it's not FEMA's role to tell state and local officials what to do, but to help coordinate the emergency response. Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays said he failed to see how Brown did even that.
Representative CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (Republican, Connecticut): I want to know how you coordinated the evacuation.
Mr. BROWN: By urging the governor and the mayor to order the mandatory evacuation.
Rep. SHAYS: And that's coordinating?
Mr. BROWN: What would you like for me to do, Congressman?
Rep. SHAYS: Well--and that's why I'm happy you left, because that kind of, you know, look in the lights like a deer tells me that you weren't capable to do the job. I would have liked you to do a lot of things.
Mr. BROWN: I take--no, I take great umbrage to that comment, Congressman.
Rep. SHAYS: Why?
FESSLER: Because, said Brown, his agency had prepositioned emergency supplies and personnel in those states expected to be hit by the storm. Even then, said Brown, people should know that in a disaster, it can take several days before help arrives. Mississippi Congressman Gene Taylor, one of two Democrats at the hearing, said his constituents are still waiting for help.
Representative GENE TAYLOR (Democrat, Mississippi): Again, you can try to throw as much as you can on the backs of Louisianans, but I'm a witness as to what happened in Mississippi. You folks fell on your face. You get an F-minus in my book.
FESSLER: Taylor said at one point, local officials in his state had to loot area stores because they were so desperate for supplies.
Rep. TAYLOR: So I guess what you are telling me is that in the face of an unprecedented storm, that in flooded areas that had not flooded since the Europeans landed in south Mississippi, that it was indeed part of FEMA's plan that the cities of Bay Saint Louis, Waveland, Hancock County and many other communities are expected to loot the local grocery store because help is, quote, unquote, "on the way"?
Mr. BROWN: No...
Rep. TAYLOR: If I may, sir.
Mr. BROWN: Sure.
Rep. TAYLOR: And then when you asked, since I was there, and I don't recall seeing you there--when you say--what does that mean, `Well, it's in the pipeline'? OK, how long is the pipeline? Does that mean--does it get here tomorrow? Does it get here Thursday? Does it get here Friday? Again, no answer from FEMA.
FESSLER: Brown admitted that his former agency has problems keeping track of where all emergency supplies are in the midst of a disaster, but he took issue with the implication that he didn't care about those who suffered.
Mr. BROWN: Mr. Taylor, let me assure you that I have been to plenty of disasters. I have had friends die by terrorist incidents. I lost my Sunday school teacher in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building. I know what death and destruction is. So I don't expect you to lecture me about not knowing how people suffer; I know how they suffer.
FESSLER: Some lawmakers did come to Brown's defense. Texas Republican Mac Thornberry said that federal officials began to round up buses to start evacuating New Orleans residents from the Superdome after it became clear that local evacuation efforts had failed.
Representative MAC THORNBERRY (Republican, Texas): You saw that they clearly couldn't, wouldn't, weren't getting it done, and at some point--in this case, Wednesday--FEMA says, `All right, by gosh, we'll do it.'
FESSLER: Brown said if he failed at all, it was not alerting Congress to the fact that FEMA was short-staffed and that its funding was being diverted elsewhere within the Department of Homeland Security, of which FEMA is a part. He said he had asked for money to follow up on a hurricane exercise last year which revealed major communications problems, but that his request was denied by higher-ups. But Republican Christopher Shays said that was no excuse.
Rep. SHAYS: You warned them, but you didn't warn us.
Mr. BROWN: Well, you should come over here and sit in this chair and see how protected you feel, feel how it feels to be yanked out of where you were trying to do your damnedest to make something work and told to go back home and make the decision that you're going to quit because you're no longer effective, and you're no longer effective because the media's spreading lies about a resume...
Rep. SHAYS: No, because you didn't do a good job is why you were let go, because you were clueless about what was happening and because you allowed the department to be eviscerated without publicly speaking out and making sure it didn't happen. That's what...
Mr. BROWN: Well, you make--Congressman, you make your choice about how to deal with it, and I've made my choice about how to deal with it. And I think that you and I can just respectfully disagree. However, I don't think that I'm clueless. I think I know exactly what I've been doing and what I've been trying to accomplish.
FESSLER: Which he said is to better equip FEMA to deal with future emergencies. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.