Brown says he gave Bush aide early warning on La. flooding
Michael Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with documents used in his testimony yesterday before a Senate committee. (Getty Images)
WASHINGTON -- Michael Brown, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said yesterday that he told a top aide to President Bush that New Orleans was being flooded on the same day that Hurricane Katrina hit land last year, raising new questions about the government's delayed response to the catastrophe.
Testifying before a Senate committee, Brown also characterized as ''just baloney" contentions by top Homeland Security officials that they did not know the levees protecting New Orleans had collapsed until the day after the storm roared ashore. And, Brown said, he was being made a scapegoat for the Bush administration's flawed handling of FEMA.
''I feel somewhat abandoned," said Brown, the public face of the government's slow response in the early stage of the catastrophe.
Brown's testimony marked his first comments on the Katrina disaster since leaving the federal payroll in November, freeing him to speak more directly about communications between FEMA and the White House than when he testified last Sept. 27 before Congress. Although Brown had resigned under pressure two weeks before his testimony, he remained on the payroll as a consultant until November.
His testimony also came a day after Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee released a series of internal e-mails written during the crisis. The documents showed that FEMA e-mails warned Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's chief of staff about extensive flooding as early as 9:27 p.m. on Aug. 29, the day of the storm.
In the days after the levee breach, the federal government came under harsh criticism for delays in sending troops and supplies into the city amid concurrent leadership breakdowns at the state and local levels of government. Meanwhile, the situation for people trapped in the flooded city grew perilous.
Bush later said that he and others relaxed immediately after the storm, mistakenly believing that the city had weathered the hurricane without major problems. He and Chertoff continued their regularly scheduled events on Aug. 30, rather than immediately moving into crisis mode.
But in his testimony yesterday, Brown said he sounded the alarm with aides to top administration officials on the evening of Aug. 29, as soon as he learned the levees protecting New Orleans from catastrophic flooding were failing. He said he called Joe Hagin, the deputy White House chief of staff, who was with Bush at his ranch at Crawford, Texas, at the time.
''I think I told him that we were realizing our worst nightmare, that everything we had planned about, worried about, that FEMA, frankly, had worried about for 10 years, was coming true," Brown said. ''. . . New Orleans is flooding. It's the worst-case scenario."
But White House spokesman Scott McClellan rejected the contention that Bush understood the levee had breached earlier than the administration has acknowledged.
''There were conflicting reports coming in, in the initial aftermath of the storm, in regards to the levee system," he said.
''Some were saying it was overtopped, some were saying it was breached. And, again, we knew of the flooding that was going on; that's why our top priority was focused on saving lives. The cause of the flooding was secondary to that top priority, and that's the way it should be."
In later testimony yesterday, Robert Stephan, the Homeland Security assistant secretary for infrastructure protection, objected to criticism by senators that Brown's testimony and the FEMA e-mails showed that communications had broken down at the upper levels of the department. He said Brown erred by not conveying his message more urgently.
''If he's got a critical information piece, that's the whole nugget we're all waiting for confirming catastrophic flooding of the entire New Orleans downtown area, that to me is something that you don't just casually post to an e-mail and send to administrative headquarters somewhere light-years away," Stephan said. ''You pick up the phone and say 'Boss, Secretary Chertoff, this is going down right here, this is serious, this is the one we were all waiting for.' Why did he not do that?"
Brown also said that structural changes to FEMA since it was folded into the new Department of Homeland Security after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, crippled the agency's ability to respond to a natural disaster. The department, he said, was narrowly focused on responding to a terrorist attack but insufficiently attuned to a natural disaster.
Brown said that in the months leading up to the hurricane, he had begged Chertoff and, before him, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, for more funds for disaster planning and training exercises for FEMA, even proposing a New Orleans flood scenario. But he was turned down, he said, because natural disasters were ''the stepchild" at Homeland Security.
''It's my belief that had there been a report . . . that a terrorist has blown up the 17th Street canal levee, then everybody would have jumped all over that and been trying to do everything they could," he said.