The ousted director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, appeared before a special congressional panel set up by House Republican leaders to investigate the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina. [includes rush transcript]
Brown defended FEMA’s actions and proceeded to blame local and state officials for the subsequent catasatrophe in New Orleans which killed at least 1000 people and caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage. Brown blamed Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on what he called a “dysfunctional” local response. Both officials are Democrats. In contrast, Brown praised state officials in Alabama and Mississippi, saying their response to the disaster was effective. Governors of those states are Republican.
Brown also defended himself against what he called “false, defamatory statements” reported by the news media about his qualifications. Apparently, Brown was referring to news reports that came out in the days after Katrina hit, showing that his previous job was as a commissioner for an Arabian horse association and that he had minimal experience in disaster management before he was appointed head of FEMA.
Democrats have protested the GOP congressional leadership’s decision to lead House and Senate inquiries into the government’s failed Katrina response. They charge that the president’s party cannot be impartial in investigating the administration. Democrats initially boycotted the hearing, calling it a whitewash. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi slammed the hearing as a sham “photo opportunity” orchestrated by republican leadership in lieu of stringent congressional oversight of the administration. However, Democratic congressmember William Jefferson from Louisiana and Gene Taylor from Mississippi did participate in the hearings.
AMY GOODMAN: Here is what some of Congress member Gene Taylor had to say to Brown.
REP. GENE TAYLOR: You can try to throw as much as you can on this on the backs of Louisianans, but I’m a witness as to what happened in Mississippi. You folks fell on your face. You get an F-minus in my book. Now we are into the bureaucratic stage, but even now I’m not pleased with what I’m seeing, because, you know, again you’re trying to throw the monkey on the backs of the disconnect. The disconnect was people thought there was some federal expertise out there. It wasn’t, not from you. When it finally arrived, it arrived in the form of the National Guard.
So my next question is: Does FEMA even take into account the fact that half of the Mississippi National Guard was in Iraq and that, to the best of my knowledge, a substantial number of the Louisiana National Guard were in Iraq on the day of the storm? Because your local rep insisted on only one point of delivery, because he would not have the food in other places. He said he wasn’t going to do it because there were no National Guardsmen to protect the food. So did you take into account the fact that half the Mississippi National Guard was in Iraq the day of the storm?
MICHAEL BROWN: I’m not going to get into a debate with you about National Guard in Iraq, but I will tell you that under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, EMAC, we have and states have, the governors have, governor Barbour does, have available to them National Guard troops from all over this country to come in and assist them, and I’ve never had a problem or heard of a problem from any governor saying they couldn’t get sufficient National Guard troops to help them.
REP. GENE TAYLOR: I wish you had been at the Hancock County Emergency Operations Center, as we had approximately one hundred volunteers from Florida, either state troopers or local policemen who were there.
MICHAEL BROWN: That means the EMAC system was working. Then that means the EMAC system was working, and those people showed up to do what they’re supposed to do under the assistance compact.
REP. GENE TAYLOR: And your local rep insisted on one point of delivery because he didn’t have National Guardsmen to go out to different points to deliver the food. It wasn’t working. The fact is those policemen sat at the E.O.C. doing nothing, when they could have been delivering food. Are you aware of that?
MICHAEL BROWN: No, I’m not aware of every single county in —
REP. GENE TAYLOR: Maybe the President made a very good move when he asked you to leave your job.
AMY GOODMAN: Mississippi Democratic Congress member Gene Taylor, questioning Michael Brown at Tuesday’s congressional hearing. Some of the strongest criticism of Brown came from Republican Congress member Christopher Shays of Connecticut.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Now, with the non-evacuation, when you knew that neither the governor or mayor were going to do their job, did you call — and I would like to bring the President in. When did you contact the President to say we have a catastrophe happening with an incompetent mayor and incompetent governor not responding to this? When did you contact the President to let him know of this extraordinary crisis that would impact our country?
MICHAEL BROWN: I talked to the White House on both Saturday and Sunday. And then throughout the disaster.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: So the first conversation was Saturday?
MICHAEL BROWN: I think the first conversation was Saturday, yes. It may have been Friday, but I have to go back and check my records.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Why not sooner? I mean, you had indications that this was — I mean, we knew on Friday that it was going to hit New Orleans, and we knew by Friday that it was going to be basically a category four or five. You had a pretty good sense that the mayor and governor were not interacting with each other. And you basically had — even then, you wanted them to evacuate, right, on Friday?
MICHAEL BROWN: Yes, that’s the plan, correct.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Yeah, okay. And they didn’t implement it. So did you ask for, quote unquote, a “higher authority” to help you out so you could help save lives?
MICHAEL BROWN: I’m sorry, can you repeat the question, sir?
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Did you ask for a higher authority to help you out? You’re the head of FEMA, but the governor and mayor aren’t paying attention to you. I want to know who you asked for help.
MICHAEL BROWN: On Saturday and Sunday, I started talking to the White House.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: To who?
MICHAEL BROWN: On Saturday and Sunday, I started talking to the White House.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: The White House is a big place. So give us specifics. I’m not asking about conversations yet, I want to know who you contacted.
MICHAEL BROWN: I exchanged emails and phone calls with Joe Hagin, Andy Card and the President.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: And what was their reaction and what was their suggestions on how you should deal with this issue?
MICHAEL BROWN: They offered to do whatever they could do and were going to start making phone calls and try to help.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: And what did you ask them to do?
AMY GOODMAN: Now Brown is consulting with his attorney. They’re whispering to each other.
MICHAEL BROWN: I’m being advised by counsel that I can’t discuss with you my conversations with the President’s chief of staff and the President.
REP. TOM DAVIS: Excuse me, Mr. Brown, you discussed it with The New York Times.
MICHAEL BROWN: Yes.
REP. TOM DAVIS: So I think you — at least what you shared with The New York Times I think you could share with this committee.
MICHAEL BROWN: I told them we needed help.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: And what specific kind of help were you asking? You don’t have to tell me the reaction right now. I want to know what specifically did you ask.
MICHAEL BROWN: To get them to get the mayor and the governor to order a mandatory evacuation.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: By the time the evacuation occurred on the 27th — excuse me, that’s Saturday, it was voluntary on the 27th, which blows me away, and on the 28th it was mandatory. That’s less than 24 hours before the storm. How were people to evacuate that late in?
MICHAEL BROWN: Well, that’s the whole issue of doing an earlier evacuation.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Okay. But they didn’t, and so what did you achieve by getting them to have a mandatory evacuation on the 28th?
MICHAEL BROWN: To save lives and get additional people out of there. They still could have done that.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: No, but on the 28th — in other words, FEMA is supposed to be aware of the plan on how you evacuate. I want to know how did the plan to evacuate, how you were helping to organize the plan to evacuate, because you are a coordinator. I did listen to that, and you were very clear that your job is to coordinate. I want to know how you coordinated the evacuation.
MICHAEL BROWN: By urging the governor and the mayor to order the mandatory evacuation.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: And that’s coordinating?
MICHAEL BROWN: What would you like for me to do, Congressman?
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Well, that’s why I’m happy you left, because that kind of, you know, look in the lights like a deer tells me that you weren’t capable to do the job.
MICHAEL BROWN: I take great umbrage to that comment, Congressman.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Why?
MICHAEL BROWN: Because FEMA did — what people are missing in this entire conversation is the fact that FEMA did more in Hurricane Katrina than it did in Charlie, in Florida and the others.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Why is that relative?
MICHAEL BROWN: We moved all of those in there. We did all of those things, and things were working in Mississippi and things were working in Alabama.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: No, but see, why I don’t —
MICHAEL BROWN: So I guess you want me to be this superhero that is going to step in there and suddenly take everybody out of New Orleans.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: No. What I wanted you to do was do your job of coordinating. And I want to know what you did to coordinate. Those are your words, sir. I didn’t invent them.
MICHAEL BROWN: Coordinating is talking to the governor and the mayor and encouraging them to do their obligation to their citizens. I am not a dictator, and I’m not going and cannot go in there and force them to do that.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: No, see what I think that is is just talk, it’s not coordinating. Were you in contact with the military?
MICHAEL BROWN: Yes, we were making contacts with the military—
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Well, then tell me how you coordinated.
MICHAEL BROWN: — on Saturday and Sunday.
REP. TOM DAVIS: Will the gentlemen yield for just a second? Let me ask you, to try to get to this, did you get all the assets that you requested from the Department of Homeland Security and from the White House? Were they timely in giving you everything you needed?
MICHAEL BROWN: Yes.
REP. TOM DAVIS: So you got everything you asked for?
MICHAEL BROWN: Yes. We were getting what we needed, we were getting what we needed to coordinate.
AMY GOODMAN: Some of the congressional questioning of FEMA director — former FEMA director Michael Brown at Tuesday’s hearing. This is Democracy Now!, DemocracyNow.org. When we come back, will he be the fall guy for the Bush administration? How high up does responsibility go? All that and more, coming up.