Sharing Katrina's lessons
"I should have been a troublemaker,'' the former FEMA director says.
By SHADI RAHIMI
Published July 28, 2006
SARASOTA -- He quit his job during a whirlwind of turmoil, forever becoming the official face of the federal government's botched response to Hurricane Katrina.
But Michael Brown hasn't gone away.
The former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency has parlayed the notoriety into a profitable speaking and consulting career.
"Good afternoon," he said as he began a speech in front of about 60 emergency managers at a conference in Sarasota on Thursday.
"My name is Michael Brown, and I'm a recovering bureaucrat."
Since leaving FEMA in September, Brown has emerged as a celebrity of sorts -- recognized by people in airports and restaurants and invited to appear on faux news shows on Comedy Central. He's also planning to write a book about his experience.
Brown accepts blame for not speaking out when the Army helicopters, buses and other emergency aid he requested didn't arrive soon enough to help New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
But he said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times on Thursday that he still refuses to "be the scapegoat for Homeland Security."
Now, he's using his mistakes as a teaching tool. Brown charges from $2,500 to $10,000 for most speeches. He says he's making more now than he did as FEMA director, which paid $148,000 a year.
The speech on Thursday, for which he was not paid, was part of his duties as the new chief strategist for OnScreen Technologies, a Portland, Ore., company launching a line of portable marquee signs to be used in disasters.
"Don't ever let what happened to me deter you from doing what is right," Brown told the attendees at the Emergency Preparedness Association's annual conference. "Because at the end of the day, I can tell you right now, I can sleep at night."
Brown told the Times that he remembers the months after leaving FEMA as "the darkest days of my life."
The Category 3 hurricane that hit Aug. 29 killed more than 1,300 people and did tens of billions of dollars in damage.
Despite harsh criticism over the feckless response, President Bush famously declared, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job." But Brown would continue to bear the brunt of the blame for the government's response.
Brown said Thursday that he had feared the government's response to Katrina would be inadequate. But he said his warning fell on deaf ears. He thinks he received a measure of redemption in March when the Associated Press published transcripts of briefings that he had with the president in which he expressed his concerns.
Brown blames federal, state and local governments equally, accusing Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff of being "out of his league" and not knowing "the first thing about running a disaster."
Bush was "overconfident," Brown said, adding that the president and other federal officials seemed to think Katrina would be "just another hurricane."
In hindsight, what could the president have done differently?
Bush should have come to New Orleans right away, Brown said, instead of flying over in Air Force One. Brown is convinced that Bush's presence on the ground would have expedited the relief efforts.
"He could have landed that plane, dammit," Brown said. "He could have landed Air Force One and sat down with the governor at that point, instead of waiting four days."
Brown regrets not calling Air Force One and telling the president just that.
"I should have been a troublemaker," he said.
During his tenure as FEMA director, Brown said, he oversaw about 168 national disasters.
"All successful, except for Katrina," he added.
Brown told the emergency managers at the conference that he had hoped his FEMA legacy would be "true catastrophic disaster planning."
But he knows it's more likely he'll forever be remembered for being forced out in the aftermath of one of the worst disasters in the nation's history.
"It has marked me for life," Brown said.