Washington 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.
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."
"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."
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.