Ex-FEMA Chief Deflects Blame for Katrina Response

Former FEMA Director Michael Brown blames Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and other top agency officials for the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina. Brown testified Friday before the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Today, former FEMA director Michael Brown blamed Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and others for his inability to respond adequately to hurricane Katrina. Brown told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that he tried to circumvent the bureaucracy by going straight to the White House for help. But others testified that it was Brown who hampered the recovery by failing to share information and to coordinate the Federal response.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: If nothing else, it's clear there was a massive schism between Brown and his bosses at the homeland security department. Brown said there was a serious culture clash between his disaster agency and the big new counterterrorism department.

MICHAEL BROWN: And the policies and the decisions that were implemented by DHS put FEMA on a path to failure.

FESSLER: He called his agency a department stepchild and said he lacked the resources he needed to respond to major disasters. So when the hurricane hit, he went directly to the White House. Brown said he talked with top officials there, including President Bush, repeatedly in the days leading up to and during the storm. But committee chairwoman Susan Collins said that didn't explain the administration's lack of awareness of what was going on.

SUSAN COLLINS: People dying, thousands of people waiting to be rescued, and the official reaction among many of the key leaders in Washington and in (unintelligible) command, that somehow New Orleans had dodged the bullet.

FESSLER: In fact, White House officials have said they received conflicting information about whether or not the levees had broken. Collins said Chertoff and other top Homeland Security officials have also told the committee that despite numerous reports inside the government that the levees had broken, they didn't learn about it until the following day.

Brown noted, though, that those officials participated with him in daily video conference calls.

BROWN: So for them to now claim that we didn't have awareness of it, I think, is just bologna. They should have had awareness of it because they were receiving the same information that we were.

FESSLER: But lawmakers had a hard time pinning Brown down on exactly what he told whom and when. Joseph Lieberman, the committee's ranking Democrat, asked Brown specifically about his calls to White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagen on the day the storm hit.

JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Did you tell Mr. Hagen in that phone call that New Orleans was flooding?

BROWN: I think I told him that we were realizing our worst nightmare, that everything that we had planned about, worried about, that FEMA, frankly, had worried about for ten years was coming true.

LIEBERMAN: Do you remember if you told him that the levees had broken?

BROWN: You know, I, I, being on a witness stand, I feel obligated to say that I don't recall specifically saying those words.

FESSLER: Brown also couldn't recall whether he had specifically asked the White House for help, although he said Hagen always offered him whatever he needed. Matthew Broderick, Homeland Security's Operation Director, testified after Brown. He said part of the confusion resulted from the then FEMA director's failure to work with the rest of the agency.

MATTHEW BRODERICK: It was a prevailing attitude for Mr. Brown that he did not want Homeland Security to interfere with any of his operations or what he was doing. And that came through loud and clear. So we trusted, based on their past record, that they would do the proper thing, take the proper actions, and keep us informed.

FESSLER: And republican Norm Coleman said he wasn't buying Brown's defense that he was a victim of a dysfunctional organization. Coleman noted that FEMA didn't order food and water for those stuck at the New Orleans convention center until two days after Brown said he had realized that thousands of people were there. He noted that Brown had failed to follow up.

NORM COLEMAN: You're not prepared to kind of put a mirror in front of your face and recognize your own inadequacies, and say, you know something, I made some big mistakes. I wasn't focused. I didn't get things done. And instead what you got, is I was, you know, the problems are structural, I knew it upfront, I really tried to change it. The record, the entirety of the record doesn't reflect that.

FESSLER: But Brown didn't budge.

BROWN: What do you want me to say? I have admitted to mistakes, publicly, I've admitted to mistakes in hearings. What more, Senator Coleman, do you want from me?

FESSLER: Next week, the panel will hear from Brown's former boss Michael Chertoff. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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Timeline: Who Knew When the Levees Broke

A Texas Army National Guard helicopter deposits a 6,000 pound-plus bag of sand and gravel  i i

A Texas Army National Guard helicopter deposits a 6,000 pound-plus bag of sand and gravel to try to close the breach in the 17th Street Canal, Sept. 4, 2005. U.S. Army Corp of Engineers photo by Alan Dooley hide caption

itoggle caption U.S. Army Corp of Engineers photo by Alan Dooley
A Texas Army National Guard helicopter deposits a 6,000 pound-plus bag of sand and gravel

A Texas Army National Guard helicopter deposits a 6,000 pound-plus bag of sand and gravel to try to close the breach in the 17th Street Canal, Sept. 4, 2005.

U.S. Army Corp of Engineers photo by Alan Dooley
Residents are evacuated from their homes by a FEMA search and rescue team, Aug. 31, 2005.

New Orleans residents are evacuated from their homes by a FEMA search and rescue team, Aug. 31, 2005. Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA hide caption

itoggle caption Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

A timeline released by a Senate investigative panel shows 28 reports of levee failures the day Katrina made landfall in New Orleans. The information is at odds with contentions from Bush administration officials who say they didn't learn about the levee failures until the following day.

MONDAY, AUG. 29, 2005

8:30 a.m.: FEMA's regional office is informed that "a twenty-foot tidal surge… came up and breached the levee system in the canal."

9:08 a.m.: A brief from the Transportation Security Administration notes that the Industrial Canal levee has been breached. "There is heavy street flooding throughout Orleans, St. Bernard, and Jefferson parishes," the brief notes. A senior watch officer at the Homeland Security Operations Center receives the brief at 11:41 a.m.

9:14 a.m.: A flash flood warning from the National Weather service notes: "A levee breach occurred along the Industrial Canal… 3-8 feet of water is expected."

9:36 a.m.: FEMA coordinator Matthew Green e-mails FEMA's Michael Lowder, deputy director of response, that the Industrial Canal Levee has failed.

10 a.m.: Department of Homeland Security adviser Louis Dabdoub sends an e-mail to officials at Homeland Security and its main operation center. It reads: "It is getting bad. Major flooding in some parts of the city. People are calling in for rescue… The bad part has not hit here yet."

10:12 a.m.: Michael Heath, special assistant to then-FEMA chief Michael Brown, sends an e-mail to FEMA's chief of staff and acting director that reports: "Severe flooding in the St. Bernard/Orleans parish line... People are trapped in attics."

11:51 a.m.: Heath sends an e-mail to Michael Lowder, FEMA's deputy directory of response, informing him that the 17th Street Canal has been breached, as reported by Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA official on the ground in New Orleans. Brown responds: "I'm being told here water over not a breach."

12 p.m.- 5 p.m.: Levee breaches are reported by, among others, the Louisiana State Police, the National Weather Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security.

6 p.m.: A report from the Homeland Security Operation Center says: "Preliminary reports indicate the levees in New Orleans have not been breached."

6:08 p.m. The American Red Cross e-mails officials at the White House and Department of Homeland Security about reports of levee breaches and "extensive flooding" in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish.

9 p.m.: Appearing on CNN, then-FEMA Chief Michael Brown says: "We have some, I'm not going to call them breaches, but we have some areas where the lake and the rivers are continuing to spill over."

9:29 p.m.: John Wood, chief of staff for Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, is sent an e-mail that reads in part: "the first (unconfirmed) reports they are getting from aerial surveys in New Orleans are far more serious than media reports are currently reflecting."

10:30 p.m.: A Homeland Security situation report reads: "There is a quarter-mile [breach] in the levee near the 17th Street Canal… an estimated 2/3 to 75% of the city is under water… a few bodies were seen floating in the water." This report reaches the White House around midnight, according to congressional investigators.

11:05 p.m.: Michael Jackson, deputy secretary of Homeland Security, is sent an e-mail summarizing reports of the extensive flooding that followed the collapse of the 17th Street Canal levee. The reports had been submitted by Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA official on the scene, beginning at 10:12 a.m. that day.

TUESDAY, AUG. 30, 2005

6 a.m.: A Homeland Security situation report states that the Industrial Canal and 17th Street Canal levees have been breached. It says: "Much of downtown and east New Orleans is underwater, depth unknown at this time… Widespread and significant flooding has occurred throughout the city."

Source: Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (See the full timeline released by the Senate committee.)

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