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FEMA's Michael Brown, five years later

By Ed O'Keefe

Former FEMA administrator Michael D. Brown. (Photo by Washington Post)

Most Americans first learned of Michael D. Brown about five years ago when George W. Bush declared, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job." But the former FEMA administrator was out of a job within days as the storm devastated parts of four Gulf states and left more than 1,800 people dead.

Eye Opener

Brown now hosts "The Michael Brown Show" on Denver's KOA-AM radio, which will broadcast tonight from New Orleans. He spoke with The Federal Eye about the anniversary, his frequent run-ins with people at airports and restaurants and his suggestions for folks interested in government service. An edited transcript follows:

Five years later, what do you take away from Katrina – especially the charges that the feds didn’t do enough?

I think the most important point is that everything that I was saying to [former Homeland Security secretaries] Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff prior to Katrina making landfall all came true. The people at FEMA who will now tell you that Washington had become too Washington-centric are absolutely true. And that was a function of a giant sucking hole of DHS that was taking resources and taking manpower out of the field and using it up to make everything emanate from Washington, D.C. Which was the antithesis of what FEMA had always been about. ...

Subsequent to DHS, they start stripping out different functions from FEMA, taking out resources. I told Ridge and Chertoff both that we would face another Hurricane Andrew. By taking the money away, for example, the preparedness grants, which went out for awhile, came back in, that broke the relationship FEMA had with state and locals. The policy guidance, everything. I warned them this is what would happen. That you would show up somewhere, you’d be beyond the capabilities and FEMA wouldn’t have the resources and – I think only people in D.C. get this – when you lose that direct chain of command between FEMA and the White House, you’re screwed. Because at the end of the day you only have one person in charge. It has to be the one person on the ground who can tell them what’s going on.

Do people still call or stop you on the street to yell at you, say hello or call you 'Brownie'?

Oh yeah, it’s amazing. ... One was at Denver International Airport. This couple stopped me. He was a doctor and was very sympathetic toward me. He was apologetic for how I was treated and very kind. His wife stood aloof, she was still mad. It struck me that you can have that polar opposite reaction.

And the second incident was at the Dole Institute of Politics. A woman came up, and she’d been evacuated from New Orleans, she’d lost everything she had and was there with her kids. And she was expressing sympathy for what I went through. And she wanted to know that she held nothing against me and she realized she’d made a mistake by not understanding or knowing what she should do to protect her kids. It was a real eye opener for her. ...

At the very same presentation, someone in the back of the room started screaming 'Murderer! Murderer!' I said, 'I get it, shut up, I’m giving the presentation.'

Let me ask this again -- what would you have done differently if you could do it all over again?

I really needed the president to get the attention of the entire administration. I needed every Cabinet secretary to be full hands on deck. If I called and said I needed X, they should have given me X. I regret not pushing harder for that.

I’m not sure anyone outside the Beltway gets this, but the power of the president using that bully pulpit, yes, it’s good for the public and the victims, but it’s just as important for those political appointees who need to understand the boss is on top of it. He says it’s the number one priority, so do everything it takes. Not having him do that was a tipping point.

The other tipping point was when I couldn’t convince [New Orleans Mayor] Ray Nagin to do a mandatory evacuation. I called the president to call Nagin for me, because I wasn’t getting anywhere with him. The president seemed kind of surprised that I was asking him to do it. After Bush made that call and Nagin kept trying to decide, I went on a few television stations and said 'I’d be getting my bum out now.'

But I should have been getting on every network saying that. … We don’t have the power or authority, but I failed to not use the bully pulpit and tell people to get out.

Do you have any advice for people like yourself who come to Washington to take these types of political positions – and may end up as the fall guy?

You’ve heard the line, 'I serve at the pleasure of the president.' That’s not a trite statement, it’s the absolute truth. You are putting yourself out there, hoping to do the best you can do, recognizing that you’re working in a purely political vacuum and that anything can happen. You have to be ready for it.

When it happens, unless you committed a crime, if you get caught in a political s--- storm, then what you need to do is hold your head up, walk away and move on. It’s not the end of the world.

The lesson to be learned about this is – first of all, every agency is going to make missteps. There are always going to be errors made. It’s the nature of the beast.

... Whatever your persuasion is, we have to recognize is that this federal government of the United States is so large and cumbersome that we really can’t and should not expect it to be this kind of well-oiled, well-running machine. It’s not.

RELATED: Join current FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate for a live chat at 2:30 p.m. ET

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

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By Ed O'Keefe  | August 26, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Administration  
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I guess its easy now to say "I told you so". The fact remains, this guy lacked leadership. He had no background in emergency management and local community officials and state officials obviously did not trust him. If he and FEMA were working with local communities at risk, the mayor of NO might have been more willing to work with him. I think people get sick of the blame game. THis guy needs to take responsibility for his actions or in this case, lack of action that made a very bad situation worse.

Posted by: commentator3 | August 26, 2010 6:30 AM | Report abuse

That's right "Brownie" - - it is EVERYBODY ELSE'S fault, not yours.



Posted by: swanieaz | August 26, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Following in the foot steps Party squawk show host Jeff Christie, Brownie is spinning the oldies to his listening audience.

Posted by: whocares666 | August 26, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

swanieaz, I agree with you, but you needn't put it so bluntly. This is the same "Brownie" (we're not related) who stood there with GB before the cameras and didn't say peep as the he was being complimented.

Trying to put the blame on everyone else and the Homeland Securtiy (funny how he never mentined the problems before Katrina or even during) is a sign of a man who is irresponsible. CB

Posted by: chrisbrown12 | August 26, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

We had the worst U.S. President ever: George W. Bush and the worst FEMA's administrator ever: "Mr. Brownie". Remembering Hurricane Katrine government's response is for the Americans tell to themselves: No more Republicans!

Posted by: lucavalcanti | August 26, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

There is no doubt about Michael D. Brown's failure at FEMA. The larger failure was Michael Chertoff and of course the "Buck Stops" at the white house for appointing Michael D. Brown.

The fact that Brown had no emergency management experience speaks to the white house's lack of management experience and the failure taking place in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Posted by: knjincvc | August 26, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Ah, more revisionist history from republicans who unequivocally failed their country in a time of crisis!

But then, the republicans wanted to, as Lee Atwater so eloquently said; "...starve government so they could drown it in the bathtub...".

And that's what Brownie and Chimpie did: They intentionally let government do a poor job of administrating a disaster so they could stand back and say; "look, government bureacracies all suck so let's do away with them all."

The fact is; the government is only as competent as its leaders. When you put incompetents, like brownie, in charge of administration functions then the entire bureacracy becomes incompetent.

The facts of the Katrina disaster demonstrate this unequivocally.

Posted by: BattleOffSamar | August 26, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

This simply proves that in order to get your high paying position with the government, you pretended to be in charge of an agency who lacked the funds to act upon emergencies around our country, proudly accepted trumped up kudos for work unaccomplished and then took all the blame when it became obvious to us all that you failed miserably in the position you were entrusted with by the American people.

"Brownie," you did "a heck of a job."

Posted by: helloisanyoneoutthere | August 26, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Brown did his damage to FEMA long before Katrina. He took it back to the days of political hackery from which FEMA had finally escaped under James Lee Witt. The Bush Administration, of course, shares in much of the blame, but all the best FEMA employees I knew had left before Katrina because of the damage Brown had already done.

And so, after five years, the lesson that Brown has learned is that all the problems of the Katrina response were directly attributable to other people who did not listen enough to his sage advice and counsel.

Go away, Brownie.

Posted by: dubpea | August 26, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

As residents of Ocean Springs, MS, my husband and I lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. All that remained of our house was a slab. The most helpful people I dealt with were the FEMA flood insrance adjuster and FEMA grant facilitators. They stayed in touch, and made sure we got everything we needed to begin anew. The scope of Katrina's damage and the number of people affected was a stress that I know now would be difficult for even the most prepared government agency. After watching the current administration's efforts to handle an oil spill, I really hope that there aren't any more major disasters before they are voted out of office. I have nothing but thanks for Mr. Brown and FEMA for their response to us.

Posted by: blownaway | August 26, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Of course, a FEMA director basically controls nothing; can't order people to do something, has no legion of aircraft, boats, engineers, food, water, national guard, police, fire EMTs, etc. Nobody seems to be able to point out what specifically he could have done better. So he failed. He's not the first political appointee to be replaced. The only people who don't fail are those who don't try. Or get appointed as Obamas czar of something or other.

Posted by: ronjaboy | August 26, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Ahh..."Heckofajob Brownie", I remember laughing my azz off at the Bush Administration after he was canned a couple days after Bush stood there and lied to everyone by slapping Brownie on the back and claiming to America he was doin a "heck of a job".

One of the dozens of major Bush Admin faux pas

Posted by: Nosh1 | August 26, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

WOW - I love how he's taking responsibility.

He was in charge he should have done something instead he e-mailed about his attire. He seems to forget that we read his e-mails and all this stuff he's saying now was not discussed it was " do I look...; what should I wear..."

Posted by: rlj1 | August 26, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

He was in charge of FEMA during Katrina. It's on his head. Forever.

Posted by: Lefty_ | August 26, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Dubpea is partially correct, but only partially. FEMA under James Lee Witt was much closer to being the well-oiled machine it needs to be but Brown wasn't the monkey wrench he's been made out to be; it was the creation of Homeland Security in general and the removal of direct contact with the President in specific that isolated FEMA and helped make it as ineffective as it has become.

As Brown alluded to, FEMA NEVER gets carte blanche to run things, yet they're always the punching bag. The way things are structured, the Federal government's disaster relief agencies go to a disaster area at the invitation of the state; the state has to request federal assistance. The feds go in "to supplement state and local efforts". And the feds are there as the state's guest. That's significant because, despite what people think, the state still calls the shots. CASE IN POINT: when Ray Nagin dragged his feet about ordering an evacuation, one has to realize that FEMA did NOT have the authority to override him.

Having spent the better part of 10 years in the field doing disaster relief with a related federal agency, I saw plenty of times when local politics got in the way of federal efforts. The feds often had to wait until the locals reached agreement before they could act.

Were there mistakes made during Katrina? Absolutely. By Brown? He admits as much. But was it all Brown's fault? Hardly. The decision to "demote" FEMA from an agency that reported directly to the President and make it one that had to "go through (bureaucratic) channels" bears the overwhelming portion of the blame.

Posted by: carldombek | August 26, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

We can point fingers all we want, but the system of rewarding political "friends" with critical job posts exists even in this administration, as evidenced at Interior/MMS.

Meanwhile, let's understand what a "Reagan Republican" truly believes, that government in any form is evil. Bush was true to that, serially demonstrating that government, under his leadership, was incapable of accomplishing anything positive for the people.

Poor "W" couldn't even get his various wars right. 7 years in Iraq, destroyed half the country, and all we built was the world's most expensive Embassy building. 8 years in Afghanistan, to "get Bin Laden", and Bush is gone, and Bin Laden is still out there.

The real sickness in Washington, I'm sorry to say, is the American People. So long as we are more interested in "American Idol" than we are in "American Government", we will continue to get what we pay for.

Posted by: OldUncleTom | August 26, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

"And she wanted to know that she held nothing against me and she realized she’d made a mistake by not understanding or knowing what she should do to protect her kids. It was a real eye opener for her. ..."

SHE made a mistake??? He should have apologized profusely to her for his mistakes on the spot.

Posted by: seaduck2001 | August 26, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Chris Brown - You haven't a clue. I was there for four FEMA Directors and I put Mike Brown at the top. He was screaming from the rooftops how FEMA was being bled dry by DHS and we wouldn't be ready for "the big one". Just a year earlier, Mike was the hero as FEMA navigated through four Florida hurricanes. There is blame to be apportioned and it should go to Ridge, Chertoff, Bush and a certain undersecretary for management who treated FEMA as a cash cow for the rest of DHS so she could meet the White House's demand that the establishment of DHS be budget neutral. Mike Brown forecast this vulnerability long before Katrina.

History cannot come close to absolving Gov. Blanco, who would not sign the request for federal assistance, and Mayor Negin who failed to respond with urgency to the breech of the levees that followed the hurricane.

Posted by: ajlerner1 | August 26, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Wow.......check out all the old anti-GOP stories the POST has out here

Poor POST and corrupt liberal/progressive MSM wolfpack press.....just can't do any stories on their hero, our Great Divider-in-Chief......

Looks like the old liberal POST has to reach back like a lot of our MSM wolfpack press to highlight an old story, Katrina, where thousands died because the Democrat Mayor of New Orleans and the Democrat Governor at the time didn't evacate New Orleans like President Bush ordered........days.........DAYS before Katrina hit.....

Well folks just more anti-GOP propaganda from the folks who helped install/elect Obama........

Posted by: allenridge | August 26, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Clearly, Brownie isn't the ONLY one that messed up. I don't think he's saying he's innocent - I just think he's trying to communicate that the problem we faced during Katrina were massive and not entirely under his control. I buy that.

Posted by: elnicho | August 26, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

"Whatever your persuasion is, we have to recognize is that this federal government of the United States is so large and cumbersome that we really can’t and should not expect it to be this kind of well-oiled, well-running machine. It’s not."

this logic applies to all federal agencies, programs, and projects... it's the only reason you need to never support any tax increase for anything - the inefficiency and waste are tremendous, until that get's even slightly resolved - don't raise my taxes!

Posted by: mockymock | August 26, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

It is kind of interesting that he struggled so much with that last question. Correct answer: "Um, maybe I wouldn't have accepted such a critical position that I was so obviously unqualified for."

Posted by: goterps00 | August 26, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

What should have been done differently.... how about sending in some choppers with food & water for starters. Once day 1 was over and the levees broke, there was no organized response to the conditions until day 5. Days 2, 3,& 4 should never have happened in the United States of America. "Brownie" obviously didn't get it then, and he obviously doesn't get it now. I wonder what "Bushie" would say if the same question was posed to him?

Posted by: sonofbill | August 26, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

He actually sounds like a thoughtful guy. I would have appreciated if O'Keefe had asked the rude question: If you were hiring a FEMA director, would you hire a Michael Brown, who's loyal and got all the right connections, or would you hire someone with some emergency management experience. You speak of the difficulty you had making yourself heard at the White House and in New Orleans -- could that have been because you didn't speak with any authority about emergency management because YOU HAD NEVER DONE IT.

Posted by: tboyer33 | August 26, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Five years later Hurricane Katrina is a federal response disaster to damages caused by natural forces. Damages by winds and floods were immediate and visible. The crisis provided a political opportunity for Democrats to critics a Republican President George W. Bush.

Four months after the Gulf oil spill is a federal response of blaming the damages caused by human error on the BP oil company. Obama did not accept responsibility for federal regulators failure to enforce safety measures that could have prevented the oil spill disaster. FEMA did very little to respond to damages. Incident Commander Thad Allen did a very poor job of accurately assessing damages that continue and long range environmental impact on ocean composition and organism soiled by toxic oil.

Posted by: klausdmk | August 26, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

ommentator3 ... you're wrong and arrogant to boot.

Brown's authority was apparently stripped when FEMA was made a part of Homeland Security ... Cabinet Secretaries tend to respect other Administrators on their level... Brown was basically demoted when he HS became the overriding agency.

Bush should NEVER have adopted the Homeland Security set up (it was a Democrat idea to begin with). After the debacle of 9-11 the basic problem that needed to be redressed was coordination of the intel agencies with the FBI. Bringing FEMA and other federal agencies into the mix just made a bigger more confusing and less responsive bureaucracy.

Posted by: Hazmat77 | August 26, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

seems like Obama Idolatry is being turned on full blast .... WAPO and its libdem "Pravda" cohorts have apparently started to do the Election2010 hatchet job on the Republicans, which used to be the responsibility of the Democrat Party.

Posted by: Hazmat77 | August 26, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse


Hey Democrats,

CBS/ AP) Officials at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., say that seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens will be arraigned on Monday afternoon on criminal charges.

"I have been in touch directly with Bud Selig's office," said Enrique Morones of Border Angels, which advocates for immigrants' rights, "We said, If you don't move the game, we're going to move the fans."




Posted by: kstobbe1 | August 26, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

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