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Friday, September 16, 2005
Brown Makes His Stand, Blames White House

The consensus about the Michael Brown interview story in today's NYT seems to be that he largely approved of the federal government's response to the disaster and largely laid the blame at the feet of the local governments. I have no idea where this idea comes from.

Brown was the head of the Federal Emergency Management Administrationan, an agency whose very existence is predicated on the idea that state and local governments can't handle everything. He wasn't the Director of the Federal Bitch the States Out for Not Doing Their Damn Jobs Administration.

Brown is not even at the surface of reproach, much less above it. Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco each failed in deeply troubling ways. However, what comes through most strongly from the interview is the all too realistic depiction of a federal response that, well, wasn't.

FEMA has only 2,600 employees; its mission is planning and coordination. It has no stockpiles of emergency supplies, no troops, no fleets of buses, helicopters, or ships. It exists to augment the effectiveness of local, state, and especially federal resources by planning ahead and helping them to work together efficiently.

I don’t think Brown was prepared to handle a major disaster on his own, because he wasn’t supposed to. The problem came from the fact that he didn’t know he was on his own. His bosses were working on the situation in their own way, and he wasn’t in the loop.

Long before he resigned in disgrace, he had already been hung out to dry.

One more time, from the September 4th Washington Post:

Behind the scenes, a power struggle emerged, as federal officials tried to wrest authority from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D). Shortly before midnight Friday [August 26], the Bush administration sent her a proposed legal memorandum asking her to request a federal takeover of the evacuation of New Orleans, a source within the state's emergency operations center said Saturday.

Such a takeover, especially in advance of any actual disaster (Katrina didn't hit until the morning of the 29th), would have been completely unprecedented. Keep this in mind, it's important. Now, on to today's yesterday's interview:

WASHINGTON, Sept. 14 - Hours after Hurricane Katrina passed New Orleans on Aug. 29, as the scale of the catastrophe became clear, Michael D. Brown recalls, he placed frantic calls to his boss, Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, and to the office of the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr.

Mr. Brown, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he told the officials in Washington that the Louisiana governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, and her staff were proving incapable of organizing a coherent state effort and that his field officers in the city were reporting an "out of control" situation.

"I am having a horrible time," Mr. Brown said he told Mr. Chertoff and a White House official - either Mr. Card or his deputy, Joe Hagin - in a status report that evening. "I can't get a unified command established."

Note that the "scale of the catastrophe" was only becoming clear to Brown on Monday the 29th. This was two-and-a-half days after the White House had leaned on Gov. Blanco to give up control of her state. Now, either the Bush Administration knew Katrina had catastrophic potential for Louisiana, or saw the storm as an opportunity for a power grab for its own reasons. Either way, Katrina was being taken very seriously at the highest levels of government.

Somehow, Brown didn't know this. From all appearances, he was watching the hurricane's progress and hoping for the best.

By the time of that call, he added, "I was beginning to realize things were going to hell in a handbasket" in Louisiana. A day later, Mr. Brown said, he asked the White House to take over the response effort.

Regardless of the original intentions, the Bushies must have by then made preparations--moved troops and supplies into position, at least--for the takeover. That is, unless they had planned to take the reins in Louisiana long distance from Washington. But Brown didn't know.

But Mr. Brown's account, in which he described making "a blur of calls" all week to Mr. Chertoff, Mr. Card and Mr. Hagin, suggested that Mr. Bush, or at least his top aides, were informed early and repeatedly by the top federal official at the scene that state and local authorities were overwhelmed and that the overall response was going badly.

A senior administration official said Wednesday night that White House officials recalled the conversations with Mr. Brown but did not believe they had the urgency or desperation he described in the interview.

Brown may or may not have cared about New Orleans or its people, but he certainly thought what happened to them was his responsibility. He knew what would happen to him as FEMA director if a federal emergency was mismanaged on his watch. He had to be desperate. And the White House was letting him, and New Orleans, twist in the wind.

Mr. Brown was removed by Mr. Chertoff last week from directing the relief effort. A 50-year-old lawyer and Republican activist who joined FEMA as general counsel in 2001, Mr. Brown said he had been hobbled by limitations on the power of the agency to command resources.

With only 2,600 employees nationwide, he said, FEMA must rely on state workers, the National Guard, private contractors and other federal agencies to supply manpower and equipment.

He said his biggest mistake was in waiting until the end of the day on Aug. 30 to ask the White House explicitly to take over the response from FEMA and state officials.

As FEMA director, Brown didn't have much authority unless and until it was given to him by Chertoff or the president, and that didn't happen until late on Tuesday, a day and a half after Katrina hit the city. Again, the Bushies had been prepared to take over New Orleans, lock, stock, and barrel more than three days earlier, but they hadn't given Brown anything to work with. Meanwhile, people were dying.

To add insult to tragedy, Bush's September 27 state of emergency declaration had already provided the legal go-ahead for full mobilization of all relevant federal resources. Brown (and possibly Chertoff) didn't know.

In Washington, Mr. Chertoff's spokesman, Russ Knocke, said there had been no delay in the federal response. "We pushed absolutely everything we could," Mr. Knocke said, "every employee, every asset, every effort, to save and sustain lives."

Uh, no.

By Saturday afternoon, many residents were leaving. But as the hurricane approached early on Sunday, Mr. Brown said he grew so frustrated with the failure of local authorities to make the evacuation mandatory that he asked Mr. Bush for help.

"Would you please call the mayor and tell him to ask people to evacuate?" Mr. Brown said he asked Mr. Bush in a phone call.

"Mike, you want me to call the mayor?" the president responded in surprise, Mr. Brown said.

Bush's people had been trying to strong-arm the governor into giving up authority over her state, and he was surprised he was being asked to call the mayor? Not that he should lean on him or anything.

On Monday night, Mr. Brown said, he reported his growing worries to Mr. Chertoff and the White House. He said he did not ask for federal active-duty troops to be deployed because he assumed his superiors in Washington were doing all they could. Instead, he said, he repeated a dozen times, "I cannot get a unified command established."

It looks like when the hurricanes hit Florida in 2004, Brown didn't have to call up the troops, line up the supplies, or get the money flowing, because that had already been done for him. That's why he "assumed his superiors in Washington were doing all they could." He'd been through this drill before, and that's how it worked. But not this time.

At the same time, the Superdome was degenerating into "gunfire and anarchy," and on Tuesday the FEMA staff and medical team in New Orleans called to say they were leaving for their own safety.

That night [August 30], Mr. Brown said, he called Mr. Chertoff and the White House again in desperation. "Guys, this is bigger than what we can handle," he told them, he said. "This is bigger than what FEMA can do. I am asking for help."

"Maybe I should have screamed 12 hours earlier," Mr. Brown said in the interview. "But that is hindsight. We were still trying to make things work."

How he expected to handle this kind of situation without the kind of serious federal help it was the purpose of his agency to provide is beyond me.

By Wednesday morning, Mr. Brown said, he learned that [US Army Lt. Gen. Russel] Honoré was on his way. While the general did not have responsibility for the entire relief effort and the Guard, his commanding manner helped mobilize the state's efforts.

"Honoré shows up and he and I have a phone conversation," Mr. Brown said. "He gets the message, and, boom, it starts happening."

Just like that, the army shows up and it starts happening. The green light is given, the resources are put into action, and the situation starts to get under control. Boom.

The Bushies let Brown face the fury of Katrina all on his own. That's what I got out of the interview, and I believe it's what he was trying to get across. He put it rather subtly early on in the interview: "I truly believed the White House was not at fault here." I added emphasis there; I wonder if he did.

With a lot of help from the TPM Hurricane Katrina Timeline. Credit where it's due.