Ex-FEMA Chief Points to Others in Katrina Failures

Former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Michael Brown appeared before a congressional panel Tuesday to answer questions about the government's slow response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Brown blamed Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin for many mistakes.

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Congress today continues a series of hearings into the slow response to Hurricane Katrina. The focus on Capitol Hill yesterday was on Michael Brown. The former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it wasn't his fault there were so many problems in the aftermath of the storm. In an angry defense of his actions, he told a House select committee that state and local officials were to blame for some of the chaos and that his agency lacked resources. And, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, both Democrats and Republicans on the panel were unswayed.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

Michael Brown admitted that yes, there were some things he would have done differently. He regretted most of all that he was unable to convince Louisiana officials earlier on to evacuate New Orleans. Brown said he found that state to be largely dysfunctional in its preparations for the storm.

(Soundbite of House hearings)

Mr. MICHAEL BROWN (Former Director, Federal Emergency Management Agency): I very strongly, personally regret that I was unable to persuade Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down, get over their differences and work together.

FESSLER: That drew an angry response from both Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who disputed Brown's description of events. Blanco and Nagin are Democrats. Brown noted that in his testimony. He also noted that the Republican-led states of Mississippi and Alabama had had fewer problems. That set off Gene Taylor of Mississippi, one of two Democrats at the Republican-led hearing. Taylor said Brown could try to shift the blame in Louisiana...

(Soundbite of House hearings)

Representative GENE TAYLOR (Democrat, Mississippi): 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. Now we are into the bureaucratic stage, but even now I'm not pleased with what I'm seeing, because, you know, again, you're trying to throw the monkey on the backs of the disconnected. The disconnect was people thought there were some federal expertise out there. It wasn't, not from you.

FESSLER: Taylor said local officials were left to fend for themselves for days. Some were so desperate, they looted local grocery stores for supplies. He said something as simple as providing poor people with gasoline to evacuate would have made a difference. But Brown said many people have an unrealistic expectation of what FEMA, a relatively small agency, is supposed to do.

(Soundbite of House hearings)

Mr. BROWN: While my heart goes out to people on fixed incomes, it is primarily a state and local responsibility, and in my opinion, it's the responsibility of faith-based organizations, of churches and charities and others to help those people. If you want to sit there and berate me because FEMA did not provide five gallons of gas for someone to evacuate because they were on fixed income, I take great offense to that, Congressman.

FESSLER: He said instead, FEMA is there to help coordinate the response, that state and local officials are in charge. But lawmakers said it should have been clear that that wasn't working in this case. Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays scoffed when Brown said he couldn't do much more than urge state officials to evacuate New Orleans prior to the storm.

(Soundbite of House hearings)

Representative CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (Republican, Connecticut): 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.

FESSLER: Shays noted that FEMA participated in an exercise in Louisiana last year with a fictitious Hurricane Pam, and it was clear from that that there would be serious problems. Brown told Shays he asked for additional funds to try to fix some of those problems, but his request was denied by the administration.

(Soundbite of House hearings)

Rep. SHAYS: What money didn't you have that you needed?

Mr. BROWN: Well, we learned--for example, Hurricane Pam tells us that communications are going to break down.

Rep. SHAYS: Right.

Mr. BROWN: Now am I supposed to magically pull out of the air somewhere and say, `OK, now I'm going to put into New Orleans...'

Rep. SHAYS: That happened a year ago.

Mr. BROWN: `...a huge communications system?

Rep. SHAYS: That happened a year ago.

FESSLER: Shays chastised Brown for not coming to Congress earlier with his concerns. Lawmakers said there was plenty of blame to go around for the disastrous response to the hurricane, but they were clearly unhappy that Brown appeared to accept so little of it. The former FEMA director disputed criticism that he wasn't qualified for his job. He said he had overseen 150 presidentially declared disasters.

(Soundbite of House hearings)

Mr. BROWN: I know what I'm doing, and I think I do a pretty darn good job of it.

FESSLER: But that's a matter of dispute. His performance and that of other federal, state and local officials will be the subject of many more congressional hearings. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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