Brown Shifts Blame for Slow Katrina Response

WASHINGTON -- A combative Michael Brown blamed the Louisiana governor, the New Orleans mayor and even the White House of U.S. President George W. Bush that appointed him for his agency's dismal response to Hurricane Katrina in a fiery appearance before Congress on Tuesday.

In response, lawmakers alternately lambasted and mocked the former Federal Emergency Management Agency director.

House members' searing treatment of Brown, in a hearing that stretched nearly 6 1/2 hours, underscored how he has become a symbol of the deaths, lingering floods and stranded survivors after the Aug. 29 storm. Brown resigned Sept. 12, three days after being relieved of his onsite command response effort.

"I'm happy you left," said Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, "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 Representative Gene Taylor of Mississippi, the hardest-hit state in the disaster after Louisiana.

At several points, Brown's face turned red and he 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.

Well aware of Bush's sunken poll ratings, legislators of both parties tried to distance themselves from the federal preparations for Katrina and the storm's aftermath that together claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Brown acknowledged mistakes during the storm and subsequent flooding that devastated the Gulf Coast, but he accused New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, both Democrats, of fostering chaos and failing to order a mandatory evacuation 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 of Representatives Republican leaders to investigate the catastrophe. Most Democrats, seeking an independent investigation, stayed away to protest what they called an unfair probe of the Republican administration by lawmakers from the same party.

"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," Brown said. "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 before the storm. Under pointed questioning, he said some needs outlined to the White House, Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security 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 -- and resulted in 1.3 million people evacuating the city.

"Such falsehoods and misleading statements, made under oath before Congress, are shocking," Blanco said in a statement.

In New Orleans, Nagin said that "it's too early to get into name-blame and all that stuff," but that "a FEMA director in Washington trying to deflect attention is unbelievable to me."

Brown said FEMA coordinated and managed disaster relief, but that the emergency first response was the job of state and local authorities. Brown also said the agency was stretched too thin to respond to a catastrophe like Katrina.

"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 during the past three years.

Representative Harold Rogers of Kentucky, who oversees House spending on homeland security operations, said Congress had approved spending levels for FEMA and other preparedness programs far beyond requests.

No longer needing to maintain a cordial relationship with Congress, Brown did not hesitate to punch back at lawmakers who questioned whether the government would learn from mistakes before the next disaster struck.

"I know what death and destruction is, and I know how much people suffer," Brown told Taylor. "And it breaks my heart. I pray for these people every night. So don't lecture me about knowing what disaster is like."