Brown out as FEMA chief

The president taps a former Miami-Dade fire chief to lead the agency for now. Brown says he had become a distraction.

By wire services
Published September 13, 2005

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.

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 had 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.

"Michael Brown's departure from FEMA is long overdue, and his resignation is the right thing for the country and for the people of the Gulf Coast states," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. But she and other critics said more needs to be done to fix the problems that plagued the federal government's response to Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., stopped short of criticizing Brown but said he was pleased with the leadership now in place in what he described as a governmentwide failure in responding to Katrina. Brown was replaced in the gulf area by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen.

"Michael Brown's departure from FEMA is long overdue, and his resignation is the right thing for the country and for the people of the Gulf Coast states."

- REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., House minority leader

The president was told of Brown's resignation earlier Monday and spoke to Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff, who was Brown's boss, from Air Force One in the afternoon as he flew back to Washington from an overnight visit to the region.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the White House did not seek Brown's resignation.

"This was Mike Brown's decision and we respect his decision," McClellan said.

McClellan praised Brown's work but conspicuously left out any reference to his contribution to the Katrina efforts.

"The president appreciates Mike Brown's service," he said. "Mike has done a lot of great work on a number of hurricanes."

In an interview, Brown said he feared he had become a distraction.

"I think it's in the best interest of the agency and the best interest of the president to do that and get the media focused on the good things that are going on, instead of me," he said.

His resignation came three days after he was sent back to headquarters from the gulf area, where he had been the government's disaster point-man. It also came a little more than a week after Bush, on his first visit to the region after the storm, said, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

Polls show most Americans believe Bush could have done more to help Katrina's victims, though they also blame leaders of Louisiana and New Orleans. Bush's overall job approval rating is at the lowest point of his presidency.

Brown had conceded that all the resources the agency had in place before the storm were overwhelmed and that he did not anticipate the total breakdown in communications. But he also defended its response.

"For anyone to claim that FEMA fell on its face, or that FEMA did not do its job with Hurricane Katrina, I think is just, just incorrect," he said.

His limited, prior experience in disaster relief also became an issue.

In Paulison, the Bush administration gets someone who has 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 longstanding 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 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.

--Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers and the Associated Press was used in this report.