Disgraced former FEMA director to speak at conference

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 28, 2009 

MBR

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, center and FEMA director, Mike Brown, right, speak about rescue efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina, September 4, 2005.

ALLISON LONG — Allison Long / Kansas City Star / MCT

WASHINGTON — Did we read that right?

On the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the Alliance of Hazardous Materials Professionals is holding its convention, featuring . . . Michael Brown, the FEMA director forced out of his job for his weak response to the hurricane.

"There are a lot of lessons learned — whether he did them right or wrong — that our people need to hear," said Cedric Calhoun, group's executive director.

Brown is getting $10,000 for his appearance at the three-day San Diego convention that begins Sunday, and Calhoun expects some "yelling and screaming."

Calhoun, who said his group was approached by Brown's representatives, was initially wary of having Brown speak. "We were hesitant," he said, but he felt that the former FEMA director's willingness to take questions and interact with convention-goers changed his mind.

"We said, 'We've got to get beyond Katrina'" and the aftermath, Calhoun said. "He was there. He saw it. There are lessons learned. Politics aside, whether he did it well or poorly, you've got him for three whole days, if you want to talk to him or rip into him."

Some of the nearly 1,000 registered convention attendees already have complained, Calhoun said, although no one from hard-hit New Orleans or the Mississippi Gulf Coast has objected.

Kimberly Belser, a Madison, Miss., environmental expert for an aerospace company, said from the convention Friday that her reaction to Brown's appearance was "mixed."

"Knowing the devastation of Katrina and how the government handled and mishandled the response, you want to place blame," Belser said. "And he's that person for us in Mississippi."

"On the other hand," she added, "I am so interested in what he has to say, face to face, in the question and answer session."

Belser wonders whether Brown is trying to rehabilitate himself with the hazardous materials professionals — who include first responders, private industry experts and health and safety workers in local and state government — despite his lack of credentials.

Brown, a lawyer, was a top official of the International Arabian Horse Association from 1989 to 2001, when he was forced to resign.

He joined FEMA in 2001, hired by his friend, then-FEMA director Joe Allbaugh, and held various positions until being named director in 2003. He resigned on Sept. 12, 2005.

Brown's inept handling of Katrina helped sour public opinion of President George W. Bush and his administration, magnified by Bush's frequently mocked quote on his first post-storm visit: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

Brown is scheduled to speak at a Tuesday morning session at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina, but he will attend all three days of the convention.

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