Thread: who to blame?
September 27th, 2005, 07:28 PM #1
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who to blame?
Brown puts blame on Louisiana officials
Former director defends FEMA's Katrina response
Programming Note: Candy Crowley examines allegations of cronyism in the Bush administration and in previous presidencies, tonight, 8 p.m. ET.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In sometimes heated testimony before a congressional committee Tuesday, former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown blamed Louisiana's leaders for dragging their heels last month as Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast.
Brown faced sharp questions during a House select committee probing the federal, state and local response to Katrina. The storm devastated Mississippi coastal towns and left most of New Orleans flooded when the city's protective levees failed at several points.
Brown said Mississippi and Alabama had evacuated properly but that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco were reluctant to order an evacuation. (Watch Congressmen grill Brown -- 4:40)
"My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday [August 27] that Louisiana was dysfunctional," he said in his opening testimony.
Later, he testified, "My mistake was in recognizing that, for whatever reasons, ... Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco were reticent to order a mandatory evacuation."
Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation on August 28, a day before the storm made landfall.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday about Brown's comments, Nagin said the former FEMA chief was trying to deflect attention.
"I don't know what he's referring to," Nagin said, adding that "obviously, Mr. Brown is maybe under a lot of pressure. I feel sorry for him."
Brown resigned on September 12 as Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Emergency Preparedness and Response after two weeks of intense criticism of FEMA's response to Katrina and questions about his qualifications to lead the agency.
In a heated exchange, Rep. Christopher Shays questioned whether Brown did enough to coordinate the response.
"What would you like for me to do, congressman?" Brown asked the Connecticut Republican.
"That's why I'm happy you left," Shays said, "because that kind of, you know, look in the lights like a deer, tells me that you weren't capable to do the job."
Brown said he wasn't a dictator and couldn't make state or local officials do anything.
"I guess you want me to be the superhero that is going to step in there and suddenly take everybody out of New Orleans," he said.
"No, what I wanted you to do was do your job of coordinating," Shays responded.
Pelosi blasts 'whitewash'
Democrats have refused to appoint members to the committee in protest and continue to call for an independent investigation.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California on Tuesday referred to the proceedings as "a whitewash committee hearing."
The committee invited four Democrats to sit in on the hearings, and three accepted: Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana, Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi and Rep. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana.
Jefferson and Taylor were present; Melancon's staff said he would be there after a tour of the hurricane damage.
The Democratic congressmen will not have any voting privileges and are not present in an official capacity.
Jefferson took issue with Brown's testimony.
"I find it absolutely stunning that this hearing would start out with you, Mr. Brown, laying the blame for FEMA's failings at the feet of the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans," Jefferson said.
"I think it's fair to say that perhaps mistakes [were] made all around, but I don't think the response of the federal government can be explained on the basis of, as you have said here, you could not persuade the governor and the mayor to sit down and coordinate a response." (Watch Brown criticism of Louisiana officials -- 3:51)
Jefferson noted that the governor had requested a disaster declaration from the federal government three days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, which was approved by President Bush a day after it was made.
In his opening remarks Tuesday, Brown said he did all he could in response to the storm, which devastated the Gulf Coast and is blamed for more than 1,000 deaths.
Brown told the panel that FEMA was a coordinating agency, not a first responder, and stressed that it was vital that "emergency management begins at the local level."
"The reason that this primary responsibility, this first response is at the local level is that it is inherently impractical, totally impractical for the federal government to respond to every disaster of whatever size in every community across the country," Brown said. (Watch Brown's defense of FEMA -- 3:02)
Just 10 days before Brown's resignation, President Bush on his first trip to the region had praised him, saying, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
Bush's comments came as thousands of New Orleans residents huddled in the Ernest Morial Convention Center in oppressive heat with little food or water.
Brown also came under fire because of alleged inconsistencies in his resume and his relatively limited emergency management experience.
He said that those claims were not true, and in some cases were defamatory. (Full story)
"I have overseen over 150 presidentially declared disasters. I know what I am doing. And I think I do a pretty darn good job of it," Brown told the panel.
Brown is still being paid as a consultant to help FEMA assess what went wrong. (Watch Brown still on the FEMA payroll -- 3:20)
The former FEMA chief said he has accepted the role as the fall guy for his agency's mistakes.
"I am happy to be a scapegoat, and I am happy be called 'not a Rudy Giuliani,' and I am happy to take whatever barbs that Mr. Taylor or anybody else wishes to throw at me if it means that the FEMA that I knew when I came here is going to be able to be reborn," Brown said.
CNN's Ted Barrett contributed to this report.
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