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The embattled head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency has stepped down following widespread criticism of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. Michael Brown yesterday sent his resignation to President Bush, who quickly named US fire administrator David Paulison as the agency's acting director. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER reporting:
There was little doubt last week, after Brown was hastily removed from managing the hurricane relief efforts, that his resignation was likely to follow. Rightly or wrongly, the FEMA director became the focal point of complaints about the government's slow and disorganized response. Yesterday Brown told the Associated Press he thought it was best if he stepped aside.
Mr. MICHAEL BROWN (Former FEMA Director): The men and women of FEMA are the greatest people in the world, and I don't want me to become a distraction from them being able to do their work.
FESSLER: Both Democrats and Republicans had criticized Brown's leadership, especially in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. Critics said Brown, who had little emergency management experience, was unqualified for the job. He stunned many when he admitted not knowing about thousands of people stranded in the New Orleans Convention Center. Publicly, the president backed his FEMA director, at one point, saying, `Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.' But yesterday during a trip to New Orleans, the president said he supported Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's decision last week to put a Coast Guard official in charge of relief efforts and to send Brown back to Washington.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: We gotta keep moving forward, and I know there's been a lot of second-guessing. I can assure you I'm not interested in that. What I'm interested in is solving problems, and there'll be time to take a step back and to take a sober look at what went right, what didn't go right.
FESSLER: The White House said Brown's resignation was his own decision. Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff called Brown, quote, "a good man," and said the FEMA director had done everything he possibly could to coordinate the response to such an unprecedented disaster. In his AP interview, Brown defended his agency's work.
Mr. BROWN: For anyone to claim that FEMA fell on its face or that FEMA did not do its job in Hurricane Katrina, I think will find is just incorrect.
FESSLER: And indeed, some believe Brown is the fall guy for a much bigger breakdown in the government's emergency response efforts. Eric Holdeman is head of Emergency Management for King County, Washington. He says just changing FEMA's director is not enough.
Mr. ERIC HOLDEMAN (Emergency Management, King County, Washington): What we're looking at here is more of a systemic problem, and the ability of FEMA to be able to respond--and it's not FEMA's fault--but the fact that there's been this single focus, almost an obsession, with terrorism.
FESSLER: And not enough with emergency preparedness. David Paulison, who's been named FEMA's acting director, has far more experience in that area. According to his official bio, he's worked for 30 years in the fire-rescue field. He began as a firefighter and eventually became chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department. Paulison has been head of the US Fire Administration for the past four years and FEMA's director of preparedness for the past two. One minor blot on his record might be his recommendation two years ago that people keep duct tape in their homes to seal windows and doors in the event of a chemical or biological attack. That advice, which was widely ridiculed, was attributed by many to former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, but it actually came from Paulison. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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