FEMA Director Singled Out by Response Critics
By Spencer S. Hsu and Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 6, 2005; A01
Michael D. Brown has been called the accidental director of the Federal
Emergency Management Agency, caricatured as the failed head of an Arabian
horse sporting group who was plucked from obscurity to become President
Bush's point man for the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
Amid the swirl of human misery along the Gulf Coast, Brown admitted
initially underestimating the impact of Hurricane Katrina, whose winds and
water swamped the agency's preparations. As the nation reeled at images of
the calamity, he appeared to blame storm victims by noting that the crisis
was worsened by New Orleans residents who did not comply with a mandatory
By last weekend, facing mounting calls for his resignation, he told
reporters: "People want to lash out at me, lash out at FEMA. I think that's
fine. Just lash out, because my job is to continue to save lives." More
broadly, the 50-year-old Oklahoma lawyer and the agency he leads have become
the focus of a broad reappraisal of U.S. homeland security efforts four
years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In recent days, politicians and officials in both parties have derided
Brown's qualifications to head the nation's chief disaster-response agency
-- as well as the performance of the agency and its federal, state and local
At a time when homeland security experts called for greater domestic focus
on preparing for calamity, Brown faced years of funding cuts, personnel
departures and FEMA's downgrading from an independent, Cabinet-level agency.
As recently as three weeks ago, state emergency managers urged Homeland
Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and his deputy, Michael P. Jackson, to
ease the department's focus on terrorism, warning that the shift away from
traditional disaster management left FEMA a bureaucratic backwater less able
to respond to natural events such as hurricanes and earthquakes.
The Times-Picayune, Louisiana's largest newspaper, published an open letter
on Sunday to President Bush, calling for every FEMA official to be fired,
"Director Michael Brown especially," joining critics in the state and
"We're angry, Mr. President, and we'll be angry long after our beloved city
and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry," the editorial said. "Our
people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That's to the
government's shame. . . . No expense should have been spared. No excuses
should have been voiced."
Brown's defenders say he is the scapegoat of a cataclysmic storm and failure
of New Orleans's levee system that, in the words of President Bush and
Chertoff, could not be foreseen.
"Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," Bush said Friday during a tour of
the state, a day before Chertoff voiced his confidence.
"It's easy to play the blame game, find a scapegoat, but no one person could
be responsible for the challenges we face and the lives lost," said W. Craig
Fugate, emergency management director for Florida, where Bush's brother is
governor, who worked with FEMA through four hurricanes in 2004. He said
state and local authorities share responsibility for the death toll likely
to emerge in coming days.
Joe M. Allbaugh -- a college friend, former Bush campaign manager and past
FEMA director who hired Brown as FEMA general counsel in 2001 -- offered a
Allbaugh called the government's overall performance "unacceptable" but
added: "Blaming one agency, you cannot do that." Still, he acknowledged that
FEMA had lost independence and clout with the White House. "I had a unique
relationship with the president, having been his chief of staff," Allbaugh
said. "If you don't have that kind of relationship, it just makes things
If anything, Brown's political background has become a liability, leading to
charges that he was given his job as patronage. He got his start in politics
as an Oklahoma native with Allbaugh but ran unsuccessfully for Congress in
1988, winning 27 percent of the vote. He has chaired the Oklahoma Municipal
Power Authority and served as a City Council member, examiner for the
Oklahoma and Colorado supreme courts, and assistant city manager.
Allbaugh hired Brown after an acrimonious end to a nine-year stint as
commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. Former
officials say he was forced out; a friend and lawyer of Brown's said he
negotiated a settlement after withstanding numerous lawsuits against his
enforcement of rules for judges and stewards.
Defending his qualifications, Brown said he has overseen responses to 164
presidential declared emergencies and disasters as FEMA counsel and general
counsel, including the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster and the California
wildfires in 2003. "I have been through a few disasters," he said at a news
Reviews of the government's response to Katrina are beginning. Already,
members of Congress such as Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Sen. Hillary
Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) are pushing to move FEMA out of its department and
back to Cabinet-level status. Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman
Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.)
have launched an investigation, and committee members will meet with
department officials tomorrow.
While Chertoff said the levee breach that flooded New Orleans "exceeded the
foresight of planners," Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane
Center, said Brown and other top federal officials were briefed as much as
32 hours in advance of landfall that Hurricane Katrina's storm surge was
likely to overtop levees and cause catastrophic flooding.
"They knew that this one was different," Mayfield said yesterday. "I don't
think Mike Brown or anyone else in FEMA could have any reason to have any
problem with our calls. . . . They were told. . . . We said the levees could
Louisiana officials have blamed FEMA and Brown for bureaucratic bottlenecks,
accusing FEMA of ignoring pre-storm offers of aid from Chicago Mayor Richard
M. Daley (D), New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) and the American Ambulance
In his last extended TV interview on CNN,Brown admitted Thursday that the
federal government did not know that thousands of survivors without food or
water had taken shelter at the city's convention center, despite a day of
Since then, Brown has been eclipsed by his boss, Chertoff -- who flew
overnight Sunday to take charge of integrating military with civilian
efforts -- and by a new deputy, U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen,
whom Chertoff named yesterday to take charge of federal recovery efforts in
Bruce P. Baughman, Alabama emergency management director, head of the
National Emergency Management Association and the official in charge of
FEMA's response to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks in 2001, said
Katrina will leave its mark on federal disaster management. "It's time to
realize, whoever is in charge of FEMA does need an emergency management
background. . . . It's something you learn by experience, and a lot of that
experience is gone," he said.