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In Katrina's aftermath, FEMA chief mused about his future

WASHINGTON—Even as subordinates warned him that the flooding of New Orleans was a matter of life or death, Michael Brown, the now-dismissed head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, remained strangely detached from the crisis, e-mails made public Wednesday show.

He mused about his future, joked about a new shirt and wondered how he looked on TV.

On Aug. 31, two days after the storm flooded the city, a FEMA regional director sent Brown an urgent e-mail about patients dying "within hours," a lack of food and water, hundreds of rescues and a situation "past critical."

Brown's response? "Thanks for update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?"

The e-mails were released as part of the ongoing congressional investigation into the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Members of Congress said the e-mails show that Brown was not focused on the rescue and relief efforts he was supposedly leading.

The e-mails "reveal that Mr. Brown made few decisions and seemed out of touch," said Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Louisiana Democrat who pushed for the e-mails' release. "They depict a leader who seemed overwhelmed."

The e-mails indicate that Brown had intended to leave the FEMA job before Katrina hit. In one dated Sept. 2 he tells a colleague of his plans: "Last hurrah was supposed to have been Labor Day. I'm trapped now, please rescue me."

On Sept. 1, Brown had several exchanges with his scheduler, Tillie James, about finding a dog-sitter in suburban Washington, adding: "I should have done my announcement (to leave FEMA) a week early."

Brown, who resigned under fire on Sept.12, did not respond Wednesday. A spokesperson for FEMA, Nicol Andrews, said the most recent e-mail release "may not necessarily paint an accurate picture of what was going on—it's a sliver of a much larger picture."

Brown told the House committee investigating Katrina response on Sept. 27 that FEMA "put every asset it had" into the response and defended his management skills and personal involvement.

The e-mails indicate, however, that Brown had many other things on his mind. On the morning that the storm hit, Cindy Taylor, FEMA's deputy director of public affairs, told Brown he looked "fabulous" during a TV appearance and complimented him on his shirt.

Brown joked that he was a "fashion god" and responded: "I got it at Nordstrom's. ... Are you proud of me? Can I quit now? Can I come home now?"

Brown's plans to leave FEMA had surfaced previously. Last week, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairman of the Senate investigation, said those plans "may explain in part his curious detachment during this catastrophe."

E-mails released last month by Collins' committee showed that Brown and his press secretary, Sharon Worthy, were concerned about time for dinner at a Baton Rouge, La., restaurant and an upcoming TV interview while a FEMA regional director, Marty Bahamonde, warned of the desperate situation at the New Orleans Superdome.

Wednesday's release added further insight into their concerns, with one showing Worthy advising Brown to roll up his sleeves to "just below the elbow" the way President Bush did: "In this crisis and on TV you just need to look more hard-working ... ROLL UP THE SLEEVES."

The e-mails also show Brown spent time responding to criticism of his lack of experience and his work for the Arabian Horse Association. He told staffers he would get them information on several friends who could vouch for his prior work.

Melancon said that FEMA has released about 1,000 pages of e-mail correspondence involving Brown, but not exchanges with White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card or Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House investigation, complained at a hearing Wednesday that the White House, the Defense Department and the Army Corps of Engineers had not turned over documents sought by the committee.

"We will not be stonewalled here, and we won't hesitate to issue subpoenas," Davis said.

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(Davies reports for The Miami Herald)

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Here is verbatim text of some of the e-mails released Wednesday:

"My eyes must certainly be deceiving me. You look fabulous—and I'm not talking the makeup!"—Cindy Taylor, FEMA deputy director of public affairs, to Brown, commenting on Brown's TV appearance on the morning of Aug. 29, when Katrina hit.

Brown's response: "I got it at Nordstrom's. Email (FEMA spokeswoman Lee Anne) McBride and make sure she knows! Are you proud of me? Can I quit now? Can I go home?"

An hour later, Brown e-mailed Taylor: "If you look at my lovely FEMA attire you'll really vomit. I am a fashion god."

"Is this your last hurrah? I'll be in DC the end of next week and would love to see you. Suspect you might still be in La/Ms etc—especially knowing how much you love to hang around DC/DHS/NAC etc."—Betty Guhman, a colleague who just left Homeland Security (DHS), to Brown on Sept. 1.

Brown's response: "Last hurrah was supposed to have been Labor Day. I'm trapped now, please rescue me."

"Sir, I know that you know the situation is past critical. Here some things you might not know. Hotels are kicking people out, thousands gathering in the streets with no food or water. Hundreds still being rescued from homes.

"The dying patients at the DMAT (disaster medical assistance team) tent being medivac. Estimates are many will die within hours. Evacuation in process. Plans developing for dome evacuation but hotel situation adding to problem. We are out of food and running out of water at the dome, plans in works to address the critical need.

"FEMA staff is OK and holding own. DMAT staff working in deplorable conditions. The sooner we can get the medical patients out, the sooner we can get them out.

"Phone connectivity impossible."—Marty Bahamonde, FEMA regional director, to Brown, describing the situation in New Orleans on Aug. 31.

Brown's response: "Thanks for update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?"

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Michael Brown

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