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RITA'S AFTERMATH

Brown Tries to Deflect Blame

September 28, 2005|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Former FEMA director Michael D. Brown gave an emotional, sometimes angry account Tuesday of what went wrong with the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, blaming much of the failure on Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin.

Brown, who recently resigned as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's chief amid harsh criticism of his own performance and credentials for the job, told a House committee that Louisiana's efforts were "dysfunctional" as Katrina bore down on New Orleans. Brown's remarks represented his first full public accounting of how he handled the emergency relief effort.

But in more than six hours of testimony, Brown also blamed the Bush administration for what he termed the "emaciation" of FEMA. He depicted an agency that had lost key personnel, budget fights and a sense of mission after being merged with the mammoth Department of Homeland Security.

His account of missteps in the response to Katrina and problems surrounding FEMA met with withering attacks from committee members.

Two lawmakers told Brown they were glad he was no longer FEMA's chief. One of them, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), derided Brown as "clueless," and questioned why he was still on FEMA's payroll after resigning Sept. 12.

The sometimes caustic exchanges between Brown and panel members -- most of them Republicans -- appeared likely to keep the Bush administration on the political defensive as it tries to project a strong commitment and direction in dealing with rebuilding New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast.

Democrats have made Brown an example of what they say is cronyism rampant in the Bush administration, and polls have found that the president's handling of the response to Hurricane Katrina damaged his image as a strong and competent leader.

Bush traveled again Tuesday to the Gulf Coast region, underscoring his direct involvement in recovery efforts underway for Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which hit eastern Texas and southern Louisiana early Saturday.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that while many in Washington were focused on "finger-pointing," Bush "is focused on problem solving.... He wants to make sure things are getting done that need to get done."

Blanco, Louisiana's governor, defended herself against Brown's allegations. She is to testify today before a Senate committee on how the crisis was handled.

Blanco said Brown was wrong to suggest that she belatedly issued a mandatory evacuation order for New Orleans, and she accused Brown of "falsehoods and misleading statements" in his testimony.

"It clearly demonstrates the appalling degree to which Mr. Brown is either out of touch with the truth or reality," she said.

She also said the hearing proved the need for the sort of independent inquiry that Democrats continued to demand Tuesday.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) refused to appoint Democrats to the special House committee investigating the government's response to Katrina. Pelosi complained that because the panel would have a GOP majority, Republicans would control who was called to testify and the committee's findings would be a "sham" and a "whitewash."

But two Democrats from the region -- Reps. Gene Taylor of Mississippi and William J. Jefferson of Louisiana -- sat in on Tuesday's hearing and were allowed by Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) to question Brown at length.

And Brown's testimony appeared to offer Republicans and Democrats ammunition in their fight over who should shoulder most of the blame for lapses in the initial response to Katrina.

Some GOP leaders have said that responsibility rests mainly with state and local officials.

Brown testified that he grew so alarmed by Blanco and Nagin's failures to order a mandatory evacuation on the Saturday before the storm hit Aug. 29 that he e-mailed and phoned warnings to Bush, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin.

"I told them we needed help," Brown said. He said he asked the White House to help him persuade Blanco and Nagin "to order a mandatory evacuation," and also began urging residents to evacuate in television interviews.

Blanco said Brown was wrong to suggest that she issued a mandatory evacuation order for New Orleans only on Aug. 28.

"In fact, the evacuation was ordered on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 27," she said. "Within 48 hours, 1.3 million citizens -- representing more than 90% of the region -- were safely evacuated in the state's extraordinarily effective evacuation plan."

Nagin, the New Orleans mayor, said of Brown's statements: "I don't know what he's talking about."

Brown's comments about FEMA could buttress Democratic attacks on the agency.

Brown said FEMA had suffered from budget shortfalls and a shortage of qualified personnel since it was subsumed in the gigantic Homeland Security Department, which was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

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