WASHINGTON—The ousted chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency blamed Louisiana officials Tuesday for much of the botched government response to Hurricane Katrina.
Former Director Michael Brown angrily denounced suggestions that he could have done more and even took aim at the Bush administration. He told a House committee investigating the Katrina response that FEMA had been gutted by several years of budget cuts by the Department of Homeland Security.
FEMA was rapidly "overwhelmed" by the massive storm, Brown said, but generally had performed well in the Gulf states. Bickering between Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin complicated preparations before the storm and relief efforts that followed it, he said.
Brown said he began urging Blanco as early as Aug. 27 to order a mandatory evacuation but said she didn't do so until midday Aug. 28, less than 24 hours before Katrina struck New Orleans early Aug. 29.
"My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday (Aug. 27) that Louisiana was dysfunctional," Brown told lawmakers. "It was almost a `Who's On First' kind of routine."
Blanco disputed Brown's comments, saying the evacuation began Aug. 27.
"Such falsehoods and misleading statements, made under oath before Congress, are shocking," the governor said in a statement.
Nagin called Brown's remarks "sad," adding, "I think he's kind of stressed."
Brown's deflection of blame Tuesday drew rebukes from Republicans and Democrats alike.
"I find it absolutely stunning that this hearing would start out with you, Mr. Brown, laying the blame for FEMA's failings at the feet of the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans," said Rep. William Jefferson, D-La.
After Brown said that his role was to coordinate the federal response, Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., pressed Brown on what he'd done.
"I'm happy you left," Shays said. "Because that kind of look in the lights like a deer tells me you weren't capable of doing the job."
Shays went on to unfavorably compare Brown to New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who won widespread acclaim for his take-charge response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I guess you want me to be this superhero that is going to step in there and suddenly take everybody out of New Orleans," Brown said.
"No, what I wanted you to do was to do your job coordinating," Shays fired back.
Speaking to reporters in Miami on Tuesday, Brown's former boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, appeared to distance himself from Brown's shifting the blame to local and state officials.
"I think he speaks for himself, and he's entitled to his view," Chertoff said.
Brown has become a symbol of the flawed government response to the storm. He resigned Sept. 12 amid a firestorm of criticism for his handling of the disaster but said Tuesday that he's still being paid his $148,000-a-year salary as a consultant for FEMA, helping prepare for the congressional inquiry into the hurricane response. It's expected that he'll stay on the payroll for about two weeks.
Brown said his two greatest mistakes during Katrina were his failure to hold regular media briefings and his failure to get Blanco and Nagin on the same page.
"I just couldn't pull that off," he said.
He also said that the Department of Defense did not respond promptly to all requests for help.
Brown said that much of the criticism being directed at FEMA comes from a flawed understanding of what the agency does. At the hearing Tuesday, he clearly outlined what it doesn't do. FEMA is not a first responder, he said. It does not do law enforcement, communications or evacuations.
"FEMA doesn't own fire trucks. We don't own ambulances. We don't own search-and-rescue equipment," he said.
Brown, a former official of an Arabian horse association, joined FEMA in 2001 as general counsel and rose quickly to become its director in 2001 after his friend Joe Allbaugh, a confidant of President Bush, departed.
Under his tenure, FEMA has been absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security and has faced budget cuts that Brown said have hobbled the agency. Between fiscal years 2003 and 2006, $200 million was transferred from FEMA to other priorities in the department, Brown said.
He said he fought those cuts but was overruled by top officials at the Department of Homeland Security.
"I sleep at night because I fought the battle," Brown said.
That drew an incredulous rebuke from Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas.
"I don't know how you can sleep at night. You lost the battle," she said.
(Gary Fineout of The Miami Herald contributed to this story.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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