WASHINGTON—Criticized for the slow response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and for putting inexperienced people in charge of the nation's disaster agency, President Bush turned to a veteran fire chief on Monday to pick up the pieces of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The agency's director, Michael Brown, resigned Monday and was replaced temporarily by the highest-ranking permanent professional in FEMA, R. David Paulison, a former fire chief in Miami-Dade County in Florida.
But the big question remains who will fill the job permanently. Disaster-management experts said that with all the problems facing FEMA, it needs to be run by someone with emergency experience who also has a good relationship with the president. Not many people possess both attributes.
In an agency where few senior appointees had prior emergency management experience, Paulison stood out. In 2001, he was appointed director of the U.S. Fire Administration. In 2003, he took on an additional job as director of the Department of Homeland Security's preparedness division.
Paulison "brings actual hands-on experience, and you can't replace that," said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez. "When you've had to actually deal with emergencies, when you've been personally exposed to things that bureaucrats don't even think about and making sure those things get accomplished, you've gained 100 percent. That's what he brings to the table."
Brown wasn't only under fire for FEMA's poor response to Katrina, but in the last several days he also was accused of padding his resume, beefing up what little emergency-related experience he said he had before he was named general counsel of FEMA in 2001.
Brown, who'd worked as an attorney for the International Arabian Horse Association and as a private lawyer, claimed to have been an assistant city manager in charge of emergency services in Edmond, Okla., but city officials said his job was closer to that of an intern. On Monday, before Brown resigned, FEMA changed his official biography to "assistant to the city manager."
"It is important that I leave now to avoid further distraction from the ongoing mission of FEMA," Brown said in a statement released by the agency.
In Paulison, the Bush administration gets someone who's dealt with disasters.
He was named Miami-Dade fire chief two months before Hurricane Andrew smashed half the county in 1992. Four years later, a ValuJet plane crashed in the Everglades, killing 110 people.
Paulison was picked by Bush to be the nation's top firefighter 10 days after terrorists hijacked four American jetliners and flew two into New York's World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon—ultimately killing 343 firefighters.
"He understands the front end of preparing for disasters," said former Florida emergency management director Joe Myers. "He's been through Andrew. If you've been in Dade County fire, you've witnessed a few things."
But it's not an appointment that makes everyone happy, given the long-standing bureaucratic friction between fire chiefs and emergency managers over who's in charge.
"That's not what we need," Dale Shipley, a former Ohio emergency management chief, said upon first hearing of Paulison's appointment. But then he added that the appointment could work because Paulison is "a smart guy."
While Paulison is a good choice for the interim job, Myers said, "They'll have to have a whole different perspective for the full-time job."
The key is emergency management experience, New York University public service professor Paul C. Light said. Bush's first two FEMA chiefs had no experience in the field. After being elected, Bush appointed his campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh to run FEMA. Allbaugh hired Brown, who was his college roommate.
During the Clinton administration, when FEMA got a reputation for fast response, the director was the former Arkansas emergency management chief.
Many within the emergency management field see several candidates as possible permanent FEMA directors.
Besides Paulison, they include:
_Richard Andrews, former disaster chief for California under Republican governors and a member of Bush's homeland security advisory board.
_Jerry Hauer, former New York City emergency management director under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a former assistant health and human services secretary in the president's first term.
_Former Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Adm. James Loy, a retiree who's fixed problems in the agency before.
_Ellis Stanley, Los Angeles' emergency management director under Republicans and Democrats.
_Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who's coordinating the military response to Katrina.
_White House Homeland Security Adviser Frances Fragos Townsend, who fits the Bush profile: an up-by-your-bootstraps, tough-talking, no-nonsense, results-oriented bureaucrat with a dash of political savvy.
Giuliani, who earned high praise for his leadership in New York during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, is unlikely to be interested in such a job, according to aides.
(Steinback reports for The Miami Herald. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents William Douglas and Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KATRINA-FEMA
Need to map