WASHINGTON - An angry Michael Brown blamed the Louisiana governor, the New Orleans mayor and even the Bush White House that appointed him for the dismal response to Hurricane Katrina in a fiery appearance Tuesday before Congress. In response, lawmakers alternately lambasted and mocked the former FEMA director.
House members' scathing treatment of Brown, in a hearing stretching nearly six and a half hours, underscored how he has become an emblem of the deaths, lingering floods and stranded survivors after the Aug. 29 storm.
Well aware of President Bush's sunken poll ratings, legislators of both parties tried to distance themselves from the federal preparations for Katrina, as well as from the storm's aftermath.
Brown admitted making mistakes during the storm and subsequent flooding that devastated large swaths of the Gulf Coast. But he accused New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, both Democrats, of fostering chaos by failing to order a mandatory evacuation more than a day before Katrina hit.
"My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional," Brown told a special panel set up by House Republican leaders to investigate the catastrophe. which killed more than 1,000 people across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
"I very strongly personally regret that I was unable to persuade Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down, get over their differences and work together. I just couldn't pull that off."
Brown also said he warned Bush, White House chief of staff Andrew Card and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin that "this is going to be a bad one" in e-mails and phone conversations leading up to the storm. Under pointed questioning, he said some needs outlined to the White House, Pentagon and Homeland Security Department were not answered in "the timeline that we requested."
Blanco vehemently denied that she waited until the eve of the storm to order an evacuation of New Orleans. She said her order came on the morning of Aug. 27 - two days before the storm - resulting in 1.3 million people evacuating the city.
Brown says there are a few important uses for ice, and food isn't one of them.
"Such falsehoods and misleading statements, made under oath before Congress, are shocking," Blanco said in a statement.
Nagin said in New Orleans, "I think it's too early to get into name-blame and all that stuff. ... I think the feds, local, state, all across the board, did not have the processes to deal with a storm of this magnitude."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, "It's important that Congress move forward and do a thorough investigation of what went wrong and what went right and look at lessons learned."
Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike gave harsh assessments of Brown's explanations and said they were glad he no longer headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Brown resigned Sept. 12 after being relieved of his onsite command of the response effort three days earlier.
He had held the post for more than two years after joining FEMA in 2001.
"I'm happy you left," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. "Because that kind of, you know, look in the lights like a deer tells me that you weren't capable to do the job."
"You get an F-minus in my book," said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss.
At several points, Brown turned red in the face and slapped the table in front of him.
"So I guess you want me to be the superhero, to step in there and take everyone out of New Orleans," Brown said.
"What I wanted you to do is do your job and coordinate," Shays retorted.
Brown, who remains on FEMA's payroll for two more weeks before he leaves his post, rejected accusations that he was inexperienced for a job during which he oversaw 150 presidentially declared disasters. Prior to joining FEMA, he was an attorney, held local government posts and headed the International Arabian Horse Association.
"I know what I'm doing, and I think I do a pretty darn good job of it," he said.
He said FEMA is generally tasked with coordinating and managing disaster response, and should not be held responsible for on-the-ground missions that generally are carried out by state and local authorities. Brown also said the agency was stretched too thin to respond to a catastrophe of Katrina's size.
"We were prepared but overwhelmed is the best way I can put it," he said.
Brown described FEMA as a politically powerless arm of Homeland Security, which he said had siphoned more than $77 million from his agency over the past three years. Additionally, he said Homeland Security cut FEMA budget requests - including one for hurricane preparedness - before they were ever presented to Congress.
Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., who oversees House spending on homeland security operations, said Congress has approved spending levels for FEMA and other preparedness programs far above requests.
In Miami, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters that Brown "speaks for himself and he's entitled to his point of view and I don't have anything to add."
Brown said he had been "just tired and misspoke" when a television interviewer appeared to be the first to tell him that there were desperate residents at the New Orleans Convention Center. He testified that he had already learned, one day before the interview, that people were flocking to the center.
Brown struck a conciliatory tone with Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who chastised him for not seeking fiscal or oversight help from Congress before the storm.
"I don't know how you can sleep at night," Granger said. "You lost the battle."
Brown, his voice dropping slightly, responded: "I probably should have just resigned my post earlier and gone public with some of these things, because I have a great admiration for the men and women of FEMA and what they do, and they don't deserve what they've been getting."
Originally published on September 27, 2005