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Archive for Saturday, February 11, 2006

Washington feuded as New Orleans drowned, Brown says

February 11, 2006

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— As Hurricane Katrina's deadly floodwaters kept rising in New Orleans streets last August, the two top federal disaster chiefs feuded while other officials wouldn't talk to each other, according to testimony Friday at a Senate hearing.

In his first testimony since leaving the government payroll, former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown, who's been roundly criticized for his handling of Katrina, said he felt like a scapegoat for a governmentwide failure and squarely blamed his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

"I was literally constrained by Secretary Chertoff," Brown said. "My hands were tied."

Brown said he tried to bypass his boss and work directly with the White House, a tactic he said had worked in the past. But White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card told him he had to work with Chertoff, Brown said.

Chertoff, he said, wouldn't let him fly to the disaster scene from his Baton Rouge, La., base.

On Monday, Aug. 29, when the storm hit the Gulf Coast, Brown said Homeland Security officials continually downplayed alarming reports from a FEMA agent who said he saw massive levee breaches and flooding in New Orleans.

Brown blamed the Bush administration's absorption with terrorism for its slow response to Katrina. He said that if his FEMA agent on the scene had confirmed "that a terrorist has blown up the 17th Street Canal levee, then everybody would have jumped all over that ... but because this was a natural disaster, that has become the stepchild within the Department of Homeland Security." FEMA is a subdivision of the Department of Homeland Security, but prior to 2003 was an independent agency.

Message lost

Homeland Security officials weren't listening to how bad it was, Brown said. They were tuned into FEMA's video teleconferences (VTCs) along with White House officials, but didn't seem to get the message, he said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday that the White House "knew of the flooding that was going on."

But Homeland Security officials told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that they didn't know about major flooding in New Orleans until Tuesday, Aug. 30.

Retired Gen. Matthew E. Broderick, who was in charge of the department's operations center, said he went home Monday thinking that there was little flooding and that "they seemed to be having a party in the French Quarter that evening."


Dr. Louis Cataldie, medical examiner for the state of Louisiana, worries he never will have answers for some people looking for family members missing since Hurricane Katrina struck in August. Officially, 1,079 people died in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina, but family members of about 300 missing people have called the state looking for loved ones.

Dr. Louis Cataldie, medical examiner for the state of Louisiana, worries he never will have answers for some people looking for family members missing since Hurricane Katrina struck in August. Officially, 1,079 people died in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina, but family members of about 300 missing people have called the state looking for loved ones.

"When we came in Tuesday, we realized this was serious,"' Broderick said.

Brown called Homeland Security officials' claims "a little disingenuous."

"All they had to do was listen to those VTCs and pay attention to these VTCs and they would have known what was going on," Brown said. "And in fact I e-mailed a White House official that evening about how bad it was."

Brown said the department claimed to be unaware of what was happening because "you know, they're off doing other things."

Passing blame

Two top Homeland Security officials denied that they weren't listening. They said that Brown wasn't talking to them and that he kept other FEMA officials from telling them what was going on.

But the Senate committee released a timeline of 26 notices that warned of horrible flooding in New Orleans before Tuesday morning.

Broderick said he knew there was flooding, but said "we didn't know the degree." He blamed Brown and FEMA for using e-mail instead of making phone calls.

On Sept. 9, Chertoff replaced Brown as on-scene commander with Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen.

"The situation was dramatically turned around following the arrival of Vice Admiral Allen," said Robert Stephan, assistant secretary for infrastructure protection and the author of the nation's disaster plan.

Comments

monkeyspunk 8 years, 10 months ago

One thing that the ever increasing coverage of this story seems to leave out, is that the media people that were on the scene the afternoon/evening after Katrina hit were able to walk the same streets that were subsequently submerged beneath 5-10 feet of water the following day. Remember the 'Missed a bullet' comments that atleast one news personality made Tuesday afternoon?

Also, if memory serves, there were reports of the levees breaking early Tuesday morning (2-3am) and flood waters rising throughout the city. Now even if this is true, Coast Guard helicopters would not have been able to perform rescue operations in the dark in an urban area and rescue a population that should have been evacuated by local officials BEFORE Katrina hit. Now, ofcourse helicopters wouldn't have been the only option for rescue operations, but remember that if the levees had indeed broken, then the same highways that the helicopters showed flooded would have been impassable to even the largest trucks to get people in and out during the night.

Another case of CYOA, Washington style.

Godot 8 years, 10 months ago

I was one of Brown's defenders right after Katrina. I bought into his claim that he was helpless and that everyone else dropped the ball. After watching his testimony yesterday, I am disturbed by his own description of his leadership, or lack thereof, and his failure to go all out to mobilize help for New Orleans. I don't buy his argument that his hands were tied by red tape; he apparently did not even attempt to follow the established chain of command to communicate the severity of the emergency.

When Brown knew that the levee had broken, he should have called Chertoff and the president immediately. He knew that Chertoff was on his way to a meeting in Atlanta, one that Chertoff could have cancelled if he had only been told that the levee had broken. Rather than call Chertoff, Brown held a video teleconference with several people from both FEMA and HSD. Brown said he "assumed" that other people in HSD would alert Chertoff to the emergency, even though he did not direct anyone to do so.

In a cable interview in September, Brown stated that he had personally told the president the levees were breached. But when questioned about it in the hearing, Brown admitted that he had called his friend who was with the president in Texas, but did not tell the friend specifically that the levee had broken, he just said "our worst nightmare has come true." He didn't ask to speak with the president, and didn't direct his friend to ask the president for any specific help. This is really odd, considering that,in the hearing, Brown bragged that he spoke with the president often. Why did't he at least ask to speak with him about the breach of the levees?

It is as though Brown thought just saying things were bad was all he had to do, as though he was warning people of a fire by saying, in a calm voice, "it is getting warm in here," waiting for someone else to call 911, when he WAS 911.

It is really clear that Brown did not like Chertoff, and that he had a huge resentment for having to answer to him. He said it would have worked better the way it was in the 2004 hurricane, which he handled without supervision and did a good job. I got the impression that Brown purposefully played "helpless," in order to make Chertoff look bad and make a point that FEMA should not be a part of HSD.

Brown was petulant, pouty, arrogant, combative, and, clearly defensive. IMO, he is not the kind of person who should have been in charge of anything, let alone FEMA.

There is a whole lot of blame to go around, but a big share of it falls in his helpless, hapless lap.

Godot 8 years, 10 months ago

NPR went so far as to answer/fact check every single point of the State of the Union. I am curious to see how they will deal with Brown's testimony. My guess is that they will take every word as fact, no questions asked. That position will contast with their coverage of him right after Katrina, when they attacked him as being incompetent and not credible.

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