Michael D. Brown says he got a bad rap. With the statement, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” on September 2, 2005, George W. Bush made Brown, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the name and face of governmental incompetence after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast. Ten days later, Brown resigned.
The media were brutal. Newspaper editorials after Katrina excoriated a “self-serving” Brown for his “failures.” The New York Times’s Maureen Dowd called him a “blithering idiot.” A team of eight reporters from Time magazine asked the question, “How reliable is Brown’s résumé?” (Time’s answer: Not that reliable.)
Now, nearly six years after Katrina, Brown is attempting to save his name. In a new memoir, Deadly Indifference, Brown struggles to tell his side of the story. Clearly, he sees himself playing a major role in the Katrina drama. Here’s how his second chapter opens:
In August 2005 I became the third most powerful person in the country confronting the impending disaster of Hurricane Katrina, a storm that would take hundreds of lives and destroy most of one of the great cities in the nation.
It’s an odd assertion, considering Brown spends a lot of time talking about how powerless he was to put things right. For Brown, the source of many of his problems was Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, the former federal judge who replaced Tom Ridge in the job.
Ridge, a former governor of Pennsylvania, understood emergency management, Brown said in a phone interview. But under Chertoff, he continued, the whole response to Katrina was micromanaged. “I would tell a parish president, for example, ‘We can do this or we can’t do this,’ and that would get overruled back in D.C. by Chertoff,” he said. “And so, everybody in the field’s going, ‘Well, who’s calling the shots?’ ”
It’s a valid point about the unwieldiness of the modern federal bureaucracy, and it’s perhaps Brown’s strongest argument in his effort at self-rehabilitation. The federal government’s emergency management apparatus was a mess. FEMA, for decades an independent agency, had been moved into the Department of Homeland Security, shackled to that sprawling department’s chain of command. The complicated web of agencies with conflicting priorities was a recipe for paralysis in an emergency.
Brown recalls an effort to evacuate large groups of people as quickly as possible on commercial flights out of New Orleans International Airport. But the Transportation Security Administration was holding things up, trying to figure out how to screen each evacuee, as if these were routine flights and not an emergency rescue. Brown’s account of such bureaucratic struggles makes him out to be almost an object of sympathy.
Almost. I asked Brown what he thought he did wrong during Katrina. “I think one of the big mistakes was adhering to the talking points,” Brown told me. “I should have said, ‘You know, we’re doing everything we can, but here’s why it’s not working as well as we want it to.’ ”
Brown also argues that internal politics worked against him. He was an ally of Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s chief of staff in Texas and a member of the so-called Iron Triangle with Karen Hughes and Karl Rove. According to Brown, once Rove had muscled out Allbaugh, he was next on the chopping block.
“Karl had gone to the Oval and basically said, look, boss, we shouldn’t put Brown in there [as FEMA director],” Brown said. “And it became, because Joe was now gone, let’s get rid of Mike, too.”
Rove admits in his own book that he resisted Brown’s nomination to the job in 2003, but he says it was because he “didn’t think [Brown] had the background for the job.” And Bush, in his memoir, writes that Brown’s resignation came after Chertoff told the president that he had “lost confidence” in Brown. “[Chertoff] felt the FEMA director had frozen under the pressure and become insubordinate,” Bush writes.
“You’re damn right I’d become insubordinate,” Brown told me. “Decisions were being questioned, overturned, and the whole issue of who was in charge was now filtering throughout the region.”
Brown’s account corroborates the standard Bush administration defense on Katrina: Many state and local officials were negligent before the hurricane hit and unhelpful once the flooding and rioting began in New Orleans. This incompetence at the local level, which severely compromised the federal response, was long an under-reported part of the Katrina story.
Two days before Katrina made landfall, for instance, on August 27, the National Hurricane Center asked Mayor Ray Nagin to evacuate New Orleans as the hurricane picked up speed in the Gulf. Instead, Nagin suggested a voluntary evacuation.
And on September 3, days after the levees in New Orleans had been breached, President Bush advised Governor Kathleen Blanco to request federalization of the disaster. Brown writes that he “was certain this would be a turning point in our efforts to respond and start the recovery process.” But Blanco requested 24 hours to “think about it,” and Bush acquiesced. Brown writes, “I knew it would be the death knell for that option.”
Be that as it may, the narrative was quickly established: The federal government failed New Orleans, and Brown was a big part of why. Dangerous Indifference offers, as if it were a unique insight, that politicians sometimes go into “cover your ass” (CYA) mode during and after a crisis. Brown says the Bush administration played CYA by making him a scapegoat. But Brown apparently never stops to wonder whether he’s just covering his own.
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.