WASHINGTON—For months now, former FEMA Director Michael Brown has been the butt of late-night TV jokes and a punching bag on Capitol Hill for his handling of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe.
Surprisingly, redemption seems at hand.
Bolstered by Wednesday's release of a videotape and transcripts of federal disaster response sessions in the days just before and after Katrina, Brown and his hurricane team are seen as sounding the alarm of an impending disaster. In contrast, President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff appear impassive the day before Katrina struck as officials predicted that the levees around New Orleans could fail. The president asked no questions.
Now the Bush administration is stepping up the attacks on the former Federal Emergency Management Agency director for sidestepping the chain of command, and the same disaster experts who excoriated Brown, some even cracking jokes about his previous experience with the International Arabian Horse Association, are coming to his side.
On Thursday, Knight Ridder interviewed 12 longtime disaster experts, and most believe Brown should not be the scapegoat for the administration.
All but one of them—which included Republicans and Democrats, two former Federal Emergency Management Agency directors, former state and local disaster chiefs and academics who collectively have more than a century's experience—whom Knight Ridder interviewed Thursday said they had a hard time buying the Bush administration's line.
Seven of them said they were inclined to believe Brown's version of events. Four said both Brown and Chertoff were at fault and Bush was especially culpable for hiring them. Only one said he faulted Brown more.
Nearly all of them chided the Bush administration for merging FEMA into the new and massive Department of Homeland Security in 2003.
"I believe Brown," said James Lee Witt, the FEMA director during the Clinton administration. "Look what he tried to warn them of, and nobody listened."
Former Reagan FEMA chief Gen. Julius Becton, like others, dismissed the White House's claim that Brown's principal failing was his decision to sidestep Chertoff and deal directly with the president and his staff. In an interview Wednesday night, Brown said he made his move to cut through the "fog of bureaucracy" in an effort to speed relief to the Gulf Coast.
"At least Brown has been in the business for a couple of years," Becton said. "When the chain of command is incompetent or you perceive the chain of command is not in the best interest of the agency, you're duty-bound to go around that chain of command."
The experts were critical of much of the government's efforts in the Katrina catastrophe.
"Brown apparently screwed up, Chertoff screwed up and both of them were hired by Bush," said Michael Lindell, the director of the Natural Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. "If you put somebody in charge of the Department of Homeland Security who is riveted with terror attacks and chopping up FEMA ... it was inevitable."
"The problem was from the very bottom—from the city to the state to FEMA to DHS to Bush," Lindell said.
The harsh critique was prompted in part by the videotape and transcripts of a series of federal disaster briefings that were made public Wednesday as part of Brown's counterattack. Brown resigned as FEMA chief less than a month after Katrina struck amid mounting criticism of the federal response.
Penn State University professor Beverly Cigler, who co-chaired a Katrina task force for public administration academics, said Chertoff's behavior in the crisis made her doubt that he knew of the existence of a 426-page National Response Plan, which put him in charge. If he did, she said, "he didn't know what was in it or how to use it."
Shirley Laska, the director of the Center for Hazards Assessment Response and Technology at the University of New Orleans, said she was surprised that Chertoff hadn't been forced to resign yet.
Less than a minute after criticizing Brown for being "willfully insubordinate," Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke brushed aside questions about what the experts said: "We don't have the time to waste to get into a he-said she-said sandbox name-throwing battle."
"We've got a lot of work to do," Knocke said. "June 1"—the beginning of hurricane season—"is coming fast."
The experts' support for Brown now is a far cry from the days after Katrina, when "Brownie," as the president called him once on television, became a national butt of jokes, especially given his pre-2001 job running the International Arabian Horse Association. At the time, Brown was accused of being a crony who exaggerated what little experience he had on his resume. For example, Kate Hale, a former Miami emergency-management chief who ridiculed Brown's horse experience in September, said Thursday: "I've been impressed with the things I've heard him say."
Brown said he thought he could make FEMA work in the new federal department, and that it had functioned well when Tom Ridge was secretary. Ridge had permitted Brown to work directly with the White House during more than 100 disasters. But Brown charged that when Chertoff took over he diminished FEMA and Brown's role, especially during the first exercise of the new National Response Plan. "It told me that FEMA was pretty much irrelevant," Brown said.
Brown said Chertoff got angry at him after Brown met with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and Chertoff told Brown he had to stay in Baton Rouge, La., and not go to the worst disaster areas, something he called a "bonehead decision."
Chertoff, according to Brown, killed a second drill for a major hurricane in New Orleans, which envisioned many of the problems that came about after Katrina struck. Knocke disputed that claim with a terse, "Next he'll say we sunk the Titanic."
The only outside expert to come to Chertoff's defense, and then only halfheartedly, was Jerry Hauer, a former New York City emergency-management chief and a former assistant federal Health and Human Services preparedness chief.
"I think it's Brown (at fault) more than Chertoff," Hauer said. "Somewhere along the line this has become a finger-pointing exercise between Chertoff and Brown, and the bottom line is neither one performed well. Chertoff certainly was lost in the whole arena of things. And Mike Brown did not completely exercise all the assets that he needed."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): FEMA Michael Brown
Need to map