ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been sent back to Washington. He's being replaced as manager of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort by a top Coast Guard officer. The Bush administration has been widely criticized for its slow response to the hurricane, and FEMA's director has been singled out for much of the blame. NPR's Pam Fessler has our report.
PAM FESSLER reporting:
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff tried to put the best face on what's about as close to a demotion as the Bush administration has ever come. With the FEMA director by his side, Chertoff told a Baton Rouge news conference that Brown had to leave because he's needed elsewhere.
Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): FEMA has responsibility not only to participate in this response and recovery effort. It's got a lot of other responsibilities. We've got tropical storms and hurricanes brewing in the ocean. We could have other kinds of disasters, natural and man-made. And while it's very important to focus an enormous amount of attention and effort to what is going on here, we cannot afford to let our guard down with respect to other things that might happen.
FESSLER: Chertoff said the massive hurricane relief effort needs to be overseen by someone who can give it his full attention. He announced that Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, who earlier this week was put in charge of the New Orleans recovery operation, will take over for the entire Gulf region. Still, Chertoff praised Brown's work and bristled at suggestions that he's been pushed aside.
Unidentified Reporter: Is this the first step in Mr. Brown's resignation? Can you answer that, Mr. Brown, please? And also, how do you respond to reports that you embellished your resume? There was a report in Time magazine.
Sec. CHERTOFF: Here are the ground rules. I'm going to answer the questions. I've explained what we're doing. I thought I was about as clear as I possibly could be in English as to what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. Next question.
FESSLER: President Bush and other administration officials have defended Brown repeatedly over the past week and a half, but the controversy threatened to overshadow recovery efforts. Lawmakers, local officials and others complained that the FEMA director did not have an adequate background in emergency preparedness and that it showed in his agency's performance. Throughout the 1990s Brown, an attorney, worked for the International Arabian Horse Association. Dick Durbin of Illinois and three other Senate Democrats sent a letter to President Bush today saying that Brown should still be fired.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Everybody's talked about his real background, which had nothing to do with disaster management. So we've got to be careful to bring real professionals to the job who have the qualifications and background to handle major emergencies.
FESSLER: Brown's supporters say the current disaster is far greater than most people had anticipated and that he's been unfairly singled out. But even as recently as yesterday there was widespread confusion over FEMA's plans to distribute $2,000 debit cards to hurricane victims.
Immediately after Chertoff's announcement, Vice Admiral Allen came to the podium and displayed the no-nonsense take-charge attitude he's been praised for by colleagues. He said he'll work closely with the military and state and local officials as they continue to recover bodies and to restore services.
Vice Admiral THAD ALLEN (US Coast Guard): And when we're through with this press availability here, I'm going to hold an all-hands meeting with everybody in this building, and we'll have an open and frank conversation on the way forward and we will move out.
FESSLER: For his part, Brown told the Associated Press that he's anxious to get back to Washington to correct all the inaccuracies and lies about his performance. He said he looks forward to hugging his wife and having a stiff margarita. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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