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Ex-FEMA Chief Deflects Blame for Katrina Response

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Today, former FEMA director Michael Brown blamed Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and others for his inability to respond adequately to hurricane Katrina. Brown told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that he tried to circumvent the bureaucracy by going straight to the White House for help. But others testified that it was Brown who hampered the recovery by failing to share information and to coordinate the Federal response.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: If nothing else, it's clear there was a massive schism between Brown and his bosses at the homeland security department. Brown said there was a serious culture clash between his disaster agency and the big new counterterrorism department.

MICHAEL BROWN: And the policies and the decisions that were implemented by DHS put FEMA on a path to failure.

FESSLER: He called his agency a department stepchild and said he lacked the resources he needed to respond to major disasters. So when the hurricane hit, he went directly to the White House. Brown said he talked with top officials there, including President Bush, repeatedly in the days leading up to and during the storm. But committee chairwoman Susan Collins said that didn't explain the administration's lack of awareness of what was going on.

SUSAN COLLINS: People dying, thousands of people waiting to be rescued, and the official reaction among many of the key leaders in Washington and in (unintelligible) command, that somehow New Orleans had dodged the bullet.

FESSLER: In fact, White House officials have said they received conflicting information about whether or not the levees had broken. Collins said Chertoff and other top Homeland Security officials have also told the committee that despite numerous reports inside the government that the levees had broken, they didn't learn about it until the following day.

Brown noted, though, that those officials participated with him in daily video conference calls.

BROWN: So for them to now claim that we didn't have awareness of it, I think, is just bologna. They should have had awareness of it because they were receiving the same information that we were.

FESSLER: But lawmakers had a hard time pinning Brown down on exactly what he told whom and when. Joseph Lieberman, the committee's ranking Democrat, asked Brown specifically about his calls to White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagen on the day the storm hit.

JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Did you tell Mr. Hagen in that phone call that New Orleans was flooding?

BROWN: I think I told him that we were realizing our worst nightmare, that everything that we had planned about, worried about, that FEMA, frankly, had worried about for ten years was coming true.

LIEBERMAN: Do you remember if you told him that the levees had broken?

BROWN: You know, I, I, being on a witness stand, I feel obligated to say that I don't recall specifically saying those words.

FESSLER: Brown also couldn't recall whether he had specifically asked the White House for help, although he said Hagen always offered him whatever he needed. Matthew Broderick, Homeland Security's Operation Director, testified after Brown. He said part of the confusion resulted from the then FEMA director's failure to work with the rest of the agency.

MATTHEW BRODERICK: It was a prevailing attitude for Mr. Brown that he did not want Homeland Security to interfere with any of his operations or what he was doing. And that came through loud and clear. So we trusted, based on their past record, that they would do the proper thing, take the proper actions, and keep us informed.

FESSLER: And republican Norm Coleman said he wasn't buying Brown's defense that he was a victim of a dysfunctional organization. Coleman noted that FEMA didn't order food and water for those stuck at the New Orleans convention center until two days after Brown said he had realized that thousands of people were there. He noted that Brown had failed to follow up.

NORM COLEMAN: You're not prepared to kind of put a mirror in front of your face and recognize your own inadequacies, and say, you know something, I made some big mistakes. I wasn't focused. I didn't get things done. And instead what you got, is I was, you know, the problems are structural, I knew it upfront, I really tried to change it. The record, the entirety of the record doesn't reflect that.

FESSLER: But Brown didn't budge.

BROWN: What do you want me to say? I have admitted to mistakes, publicly, I've admitted to mistakes in hearings. What more, Senator Coleman, do you want from me?

FESSLER: Next week, the panel will hear from Brown's former boss Michael Chertoff. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.
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