Partisan Politics Influenced Katrina Response, Says Former FEMA Chief

By Nahal Toosi | January 23, 2007

Political storm clouds gathered again over the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina as former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown said party politics played a role in decisions on whether to take federal control of Louisiana and other areas affected by the hurricane.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said the partisanship Brown described was “disgusting,” while a White House spokeswoman said Brown was making “false statements.”

Brown told a group of graduate students Friday that some in the White House had suggested the federal government should take charge in Louisiana because Blanco was a Democrat, while leaving Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, in control in his state.

Brown said he had recommended to President Bush that all 90,000 square miles along the Gulf Coast affected by the devastating hurricane be federalized — a term Brown explained as placing the federal government in charge of all agencies responding to the disaster.

“Unbeknownst to me, certain people in the White House were thinking, ‘We had to federalize Louisiana because she’s a white, female Democratic governor, and we have a chance to rub her nose in it,”‘ he said, without naming names. “‘We can’t do it to Haley (Barbour) because Haley’s a white male Republican governor. And we can’t do a thing to him. So we’re just gonna federalize Louisiana.”‘

Brown declined to say who in the White House had argued for federalizing the response only in Louisiana. He said that he’d later learned of the machinations through Blanco’s office and from federal officials.

Blanco reacted sharply to Brown’s remarks.

“This is exactly what we were living but could not bring ourselves to believe. Karl Rove was playing politics while our people were dying,” Blanco said through a spokeswoman, referring to Bush’s top political strategist. “The federal effort was delayed, and now the public knows why. It’s disgusting.”

Eryn Witcher, a White House spokeswoman, denied Brown’s claims.

“It is unfortunate that Mike Brown is still hurling false statements about the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina,” she said. “The only consideration made by the administration at the time of this tragedy and since are those in the best interests of the citizens of the Gulf region.”

Brown defended his statements.

“All I have done since I have left the government is tell the truth about what was going on,” he said.

A spokesman for Barbour, Pete Smith, had no immediate comment.

The question of federal control became a source of contention after Katrina. Bush asked to put military relief efforts in Louisiana under federal oversight, but Louisiana officials rejected that idea, keeping state control over National Guard troops. They worked together with federal forces.

Brown said the political considerations were among the many frustrations he endured while trying to coordinate disaster relief in the region.

But now, more than a year after the pain and chaos of Hurricane Katrina, he said he feels redeemed. He said he believes his recommendations about flaws in the emergency management system are finally being heeded.

Brown, 52, was ousted from FEMA after the agency’s much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina. He also became a punch line after Bush publicly praised him, saying he did a “a heck of a job,” while thousands desperately waited for help in water-soaked New Orleans.

Speaking in Manhattan to graduate students at the Metropolitan College of New York’s public administration program in emergency management and homeland security, Brown defended his performance during the Katrina disaster and urged them to do what is right even in the face of political gridlock.

“As long as you know in your heart you were doing what was right, what was the right thing to do, it doesn’t matter what they say about you,” he said.

Since Katrina, Brown has claimed he was made a scapegoat for the government’s slow response and has taken swipes at his former bosses. He has said that Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff should have shared in the blame.

Brown, who also came under scrutiny for his job qualifications, now directs emergency management programs for the Resilient Corp., a consulting firm. He defended his experience and said he had earned his way.

About 70 students in the Metropolitan College of New York program spend 16 months studying a variety of issues involved in responding to disasters and hazards.

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Associated Press writer Chevel Johnson contributed to this report from New Orleans.

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