By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
The former FEMA director says fault lies with his bosses, the Louisiana governor, the New Orleans mayor, the media and victims.
WASHINGTON - Finally given the chance to question the man who has become the public face of the inept response to Hurricane Katrina, congressional investigators on Tuesday were a bit surprised to find that Michael Brown was unapologetic.
At times pounding his palm on the table and at times combative, the 50-year-old former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency told members of the select House committee investigating the government response to Katrina that he was a scapegoat, taking the fall for the failure of others.
He blamed New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco for tussling over turf and failing to evacuate residents until it was too late. He blamed the media for skewering him and undermining his effectiveness.
He blamed his bosses in the Bush administration for failing to provide FEMA with the people, money and equipment it needed. He blamed the people for failing to have a realistic vision of what the federal government can and should provide, and said Americans need to be better prepared for disaster.
"You see, I get it when it comes to ... emergency management," said Brown, who is still serving as a FEMA consultant at his $148,000-a-year salary, at least for the next two weeks. "I know what I'm doing."
He added, "My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday" - two days before the storm made landfall - "that Louisiana was dysfunctional."
The committee was unconvinced.
Most members acknowledged there was plenty of blame to go around, and some Republicans suggested the White House may bear a hefty chunk of it, but they criticized Brown for failing to plug known gaps. They marveled at his slavish devotion to bureaucratic definitions of what was and wasn't FEMA's job, and some members noted a sharp disconnect between how Brown envisioned FEMA's role and what storm victims needed.
How about providing gas so stranded motorists could evacuate? asked Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., who lost his home in the storm.
Not the federal government's job, Brown said.
And what about ice? Taylor and Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., said ice was promised for days after the storm, but it never arrived.
"I don't think that's a federal government responsibility to keep my hamburger meat ... fresh," Brown said.
Jefferson roughly reminded him that many elderly in New Orleans were killed by the stifling heat. Taylor recalled meeting with a Mississippi funeral home owner who was near tears. Without electricity or ice, he was unable to stop the corpses of storm victims from rotting.
"The disconnect was, people thought there was some federal expertise out there," Taylor drawled. "There wasn't. Not from you."
President Bush initially lauded "Brownie" for doing "a heck of a job" after Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on Aug. 29, but reports piled up that FEMA was overwhelmed. Brown was recalled to Washington and resigned soon after.
Both parties have called for investigating what went wrong, but the House committee has become a political flash point in Washington. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has not appointed any Democrats because Republicans refused to give them an equal number of slots or full subpoena power. She has repeatedly called it a "sham," incapable of investigating the Bush administration.
Republicans invited several Gulf Coast Democrats to join the committee anyway.
Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., was especially interested in whether the White House was responsive to Brown's requests for help.
Brown said he talked to President Bush and several top aides many times, and they provided everything he asked.
But, after some pressing, Brown acknowledged he had been watching FEMA crumble from the inside since it was put under the Department of Homeland Security.
At one point recently, 500 of FEMA's 3,000 positions were empty, and he was unable to fill them. While Congress has steadily given FEMA more money, Homeland Security officials have shifted more than $200-million from FEMA to other purposes since 2003.
"It has been a personal struggle over the course of two to three years to keep this organization together because of the resource problems," Brown said. "I am happy to be a scapegoat ... if it means the FEMA I knew when I got here would be reborn."
He never told anyone outside the administration, except a few lawmakers privately, that he was worried about FEMA's health, he said, because he believed he should work within the system.
"I can go to bed at night and sleep because I know I fought that battle," he said.
Several members of the panel were incredulous: If FEMA is understaffed and underfunded, Congress wants to know, they said.
"I don't know how you sleep at night," Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, said. "You lost that battle. That statement shocked me."
Members quizzed him repeatedly about anecdotes they had heard from the storm, many of which have become legendary: about FEMA workers turning supplies and volunteers away, about truckloads of food and water that never arrived at their destinations, about a doctor told to stop administering CPR because FEMA didn't use volunteer doctors.
To these and other allegations, Brown just shrugged. He was trying to manage a disaster across three states and couldn't monitor every problem.
But he did try to debunk one infamous story: how he told a TV interviewer that he was unaware that thousands of people were stranded without food or water at the New Orleans convention center, even as millions of Americans had been watching the chaotic scene on television for hours.
"I was just tired and misspoke," Brown said. "What I meant is we were just learning about it 24 hours earlier, 36 hours earlier."
Brown insisted he was fired because the media raised unfair questions about his resume and incorrectly reported that he had less experience than he had claimed. In his written statement to the committee, he included affidavits that showed, contrary to some reports, he had taught law in Oklahoma and held an important city job in Edmond, Okla.
"No, because you didn't do a good job is why you were let go," Shays said. "Because you were clueless. ... Because you let your department be eviscerated, without speaking out."