WASHINGTON – After months of being pummeled as the poster boy for the government’s sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, former federal disaster chief Michael Brown finally hit back.
Claims by the Homeland Security Department that it didn’t quickly realize the scope of the Aug. 29 storm’s devastation are “just baloney,” Brown testified at a Senate hearing on Friday. Told by one senator that he lacked the leadership to manage the response, Brown angrily replied: “I absolutely resent you sitting here and saying that.”
And in a punch to the president whom he says he still respects, Brown testified that he told top White House officials the day Katrina hit about massive flooding in New Orleans and warned that “we were realizing our worst nightmare.”
More defiant than defensive, the former Federal Emergency Management Agency director took aim at the Bush administration – a far cry from his last congressional appearance, nearly six months ago, when he heaped the bulk of blame on state and local officials.
Brown told senators that he dealt directly with White House officials the day Katrina hit, including chief of staff Andrew Card and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin. He also said that officials from the Homeland Security Department were getting regular briefings that day.
Administration officials have said they did not realize the severe damage Katrina had caused until after the storm had passed. And under oath, Brown told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that he could not explain why his appeals failed to produce a faster response.
In the end, the storm claimed more than 1,300 lives, uprooted hundreds of thousands more and caused tens of billions in damage.
Brown, in his second Capitol Hill appearance since Katrina, told his side to the senators five months after he quit under fire as chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
He agreed with some senators who characterized him as a scapegoat for government failures. “I feel somewhat abandoned,” Brown said.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has said he did not know that New Orleans’ levees were breached until Aug. 30. Bush at the time said, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.”
The disjointed federal response, Brown said, was in part the result of FEMA being swallowed in 2003 by the newly created Homeland Security Department, which he said was focused on fighting terrorism.
Natural disasters “had become the stepchild of the Department of Homeland Security,” he said. Had there been a report that “a terrorist had blown up the 17th Street Canal levee, then everybody would have jumped all over that,” he added.
At an occasionally contentious White House briefing Friday, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said there were conflicting reports about the levees in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
“We knew of the flooding that was going on,” McClellan said. “That’s why our top priority was focused on saving lives. … The cause of the flooding was secondary to that top priority and that’s the way it should be.”