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E-mails of former FEMA leader discounted levee breach

WASHINGTON -- Hours after Hurricane Katrina hit last year, former FEMA director Michael Brown dismissed reports that floodwaters had breached New Orleans' levees, and he obsessed over media coverage of his agency, according to newly released e-mails.

The 928 pages of documents, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity and released Tuesday, paint a picture of a Federal Emergency Management Agency keenly sensitive to public image following the Aug. 29 storm.

They also highlighted anew the confusion about the levees' status in the critical hours after the storm. Critics have questioned whether discovering breaches earlier could have speeded repair efforts, lessened flooding, and saved lives.

At one point that morning, Brown reported to an aide that he was ''sitting in the chair, putting mousse in my hair" while waiting for media interviews to begin.

In an e-mail yesterday to The Associated Press, Brown said he does not use mousse and described the exchange as an inside joke among FEMA staff members. ''I don't use mousse," he wrote. ''Never have, never will. Anyone who knows me can attest to that. So, it was clearly a joke."

A few hours later, at 9:50 a.m., a FEMA staff member at the National Hurricane Center sent department brass an alert from a local TV station report that ''a levee breach occurred along the industrial canal" near the city's low-income Ninth Ward.

But at 12:09 p.m., Brown dismissed the report and suggested that the situation wasn't so bad. ''I'm being told here water over not a breach," he said, referring to floodwaters that had overrun, but not broken, the levees.

The aide, Michael Lowder, replied: ''Ok. You probably have better info there. Just wanted to pass you what we hear."

Since quitting FEMA on Sept. 12, Brown has criticized the Bush administration for failing to respond quickly to reports about levee breaches. He has said he was convinced of a levee breach by 1 p.m. the day Katrina hit.

The timing of the levees' breach has been a key issue in exhaustive reviews of the government's failure to respond quickly to Katrina.

Many of the e-mails obtained by the Center for Public Integrity were previously released by congressional panels investigating the government's response to Katrina. But several documents offered fresh details of missteps by the beleaguered agency.

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