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Congress Questions Brown

September 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: Michael Brown resigned as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency two weeks ago following blistering criticisms of FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Seated before a House investigative committee today, Brown defended himself and began by reminding the panel what FEMA is not empowered to do.

MICHAEL BROWN: FEMA doesn’t evacuate communities. FEMA does not do law enforcement. FEMA does not do communications.

KWAME HOLMAN: But then Brown described what FEMA did do before Katrina hit.

MICHAEL BROWN: FEMA activated and deployed the national disaster medical teams. We activated and deployed the urban search and rescue teams. We activated and deployed the rapid needs assessment teams. We activated and deployed the emergency response teams to all of the potentiality affected states.

I want this committee to know that FEMA pushed forward with everything that it had, every team, every asset that we had, in order to help what we saw as being a potentially catastrophic disaster.

KWAME HOLMAN: The committee’s chairman, Republican Tom Davis of Virginia, asked Brown if, in reflection, he would have done anything differently.

MICHAEL BROWN: My mistake was in recognizing that, for whatever reason that we might want to discuss later, for whatever reason, Mayor Nagin and Gov. Blanco were reticent to order a mandatory evacuation. And if I, Mike Brown, individual, could have done something to convince them that this was the big one and they needed to order a mandatory evacuation, I would have done it. My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional.

KWAME HOLMAN: Most House Democrats refused to participate in this investigation, pressing for an independent probe. But Democrat William Jefferson represents the city of New Orleans and accepted an invitation to today’s session.

REP. WILLIAM JEFFERSON: I find it absolutely stunning that this hearing would start out with you, Mr. Brown, laying the blame for FEMA’s failings at the feet of the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans.

MICHAEL BROWN: Mr. Jefferson, I know that you saw what I saw when I was there on Sunday and Sunday evening and Monday, which was no one in charge. I couldn’t find out who was driving the resource requirements, who was making the decisions about what needed to be done. You saw that middle room, the room where we sat with the president and had the briefing, on Sunday and Monday. That room was chaos.

KWAME HOLMAN: Connecticut’s Christopher Shays pressed Brown on when and how he notified the White House that Katrina was a potentially devastating hurricane.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Did you ask for a higher authority to help you out? You’re the head of FEMA, but the governor and mayor aren’t paying attention to you. I want to know who you asked for help.

MICHAEL BROWN: On Saturday and Sunday, I started talking to the White House.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: To whom?

MICHAEL BROWN: On Saturday and Sunday, I started talking to the White House.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Okay. Now, the White House is a big place –

MICHAEL BROWN: Mm-hmm.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: So give us specifics. I’m not asking about conversations yet. I want to know who you contacted.

MICHAEL BROWN: I — I exchanged e-mails and phone calls with Joe Hagen, Andy Card and the president.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: And what was their reaction, and what was their suggestions on how you should deal with this issue?

MICHAEL BROWN: They — they offered to do whatever they could do, and were going to start making phone calls and set it up.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: And what did you ask them to do?

(Brown consulting counsel)

MICHAEL BROWN: Well, I’m being advised by counsel that I can’t discuss with you my conversations with the president’s chief of staff and the president.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: But you –

SPOKESMAN: Mr. Brown. Excuse me, Mr. Brown. You discussed it with the New York Times.

MICHAEL BROWN: Yes.

SPOKESMAN: So I think you – at least what you shared with the New York Times I think you could share with this committee.

MICHAEL BROWN: I told them we needed help.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: And what specific kind of help were you asking? You don’t have to tell me the reaction right now. I want to know: what specifically did you ask?

MICHAEL BROWN: To get them to get the mayor and the governor to order the mandatory evacuation.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: And that’s coordinating?

MICHAEL BROWN: What would you like for me to do, congressman?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Well, that’s why I’m happy you left because that kind of, you know, look in the lights like a deer tells me that you weren’t capable to do the job. I would have liked you to do a lot of things.

MICHAEL BROWN: I take great umbrage to that comment, congressman.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Why?

MICHAEL BROWN: Because FEMA did — what people are missing in this entire conversation is the fact that FEMA did more in Hurricane Katrina than it did in Charlie in Florida and the others.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Why is that relevant?

KWAME HOLMAN: Mac Thornberry of Texas asked whether FEMA was coordinating with anyone at the Superdome, where thousands of people were stranded in the days after the hurricane hit. Brown said he was in touch with Marty Bahamonde, a member of FEMA’s team at the Superdome.

MICHAEL BROWN: And then Marty later was able to communicate to me the information that, you know, they had plenty of food. But by it was either Tuesday or Wednesday, they did need additional supplies, and, you know, he was trying to get additional supplies there. The other thing that Marty communicated to me was– and I have to go back and find — I just don’t remember the day, Congressman Thornberry– but he did e-mail me at one point and say that they– they, the FEMA team, Phil Parr and Marty and the NDMS, the medical teams- – were going to self-evacuate because they felt threatened. They felt unsafe and they were going to come back to Baton Rouge.

REP. MAC THORNBERRY: Now, in these earlier conversations with your FEMA team, did they tell you who else– responsible official types, police, fire and medical- – who else was there at the Superdome?

MICHAEL BROWN: I — I don’t recall that they told me who was there, but I had a –

REP. MAC THORNBERRY: Did you know if somebody was in charge, kind of directing operations, how you do the feeding, how you do the medical, how you keep security?

MICHAEL BROWN: I had a general impression that the Louisiana National Guard was there and that the mayor was there.

KWAME HOLMAN: Besides Louisiana’s William Jefferson, the only other Democrat to ask questions today was Gene Taylor, who told Brown that FEMA had failed his home state of Mississippi.

REP. GENE TAYLOR: What part of the FEMA plan envisioned that the first responders in Hancock County and in much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast would have to loot the local grocery store and loot the local Wal-mart in order to feed themselves, would have to loot the local Wal-mart in order to have a change of clothes? What part of your plan was that?

MICHAEL BROWN: Congressman, I respectfully disagree with the premise of your question –

REP. GENE TAYLOR: No, sir. This is –

MICHAEL BROWN: — because there are times in a disaster, the last thing I’m going to do is to put equipment or manpower in place where they themselves become victims and then cannot assist the people they’re there to assist.

KWAME HOLMAN: Toward the end of the hearing, Taylor and Brown had this exchange.

REP. GENE TAYLOR: I hope you’ll admit your mistakes. That’s the best way to learn from them — that you as a consultant are going to work to see to it that this doesn’t happen again. Or are we going to see this happen the next time there’s a major hurricane or a natural disaster or act of terror?

MICHAEL BROWN: Mr. Taylor, let me assure you that I have been to plenty of disasters. I have had friends die by terrorist incidents. I lost my Sunday schoolteacher in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrow Building. I know what death and destruction is. So, I don’t expect you to lecture me about not knowing how people suffer.

KWAME HOLMAN: After more than six hours before the committee, Michael Brown was allowed to leave. Even though he has resigned his position as FEMA director, he’ll remain as a consultant on the payroll for two weeks.