The former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director (2003-2005), he was in charge when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. In this wide-ranging interview about his experience during that catastrophe and his own performance, he talks about his concerns when FEMA was merged into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, how it performed during Katrina, and the failures in preparedness, coordination and leadership that he observed at the state and local level during Katrina. He also explains why he misspoke three times during the crisis in New Orleans, and his one big regret: "I really believe the most serious mistake that I made was not just saying: Look, we just can't get this done by ourselves. … And let's don't get 500 troops to come in here and help with distribution; let's get 10,000 troops in here and do something." This is the edited transcript of an interview that was conducted on Oct. 14, 2005.
In 2004, James Lee Witt, a former director of FEMA under Clinton, goes before Congress and says he's worried that FEMA is being seriously eroded. What was your reaction?
I wasn't surprised. We went into DHS [Department of Homeland Security], and some of the increased budget money that had been given to FEMA had been used in other areas of DHS. [Editor's Note: FEMA was merged into the newly created Department of Homeland Security in 2003.]
And you have to remember James Lee's perspective. He came out of FEMA as a director who had Cabinet-level status and direct reporting to the president. Once FEMA moved into the Department of Homeland Security, I did not have the same job that either [former Bush campaign manager and FEMA Director] Joe Allbaugh had or James Lee Witt had. I had a new bureaucracy between me and the White House. I got around that bureaucracy, but nonetheless, it still did exist.
You think it was a mistake to fold FEMA into DHS and demote it from a Cabinet-level office?
I was part of the transition team that designed the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate [EPR] that FEMA was going to be a part of. And it's my honest belief that had we really implemented Emergency Preparedness and Response as the statute had intended, I truly believe that FEMA would have been even better, based on how we were designing that.
Because of the proximity of resources and ability to coordinate with those eight other agencies that you needed?
We had designed it such that all ... those things that link the federal government to their partners -- other federal agencies and state and local government -- were actually going to be enhanced. We were going to have all those linked together in one place. That was the concept of what we designed to move FEMA into DHS.
Would you agree with Joe Allbaugh's assessment that the agency had become bloated?
In certain areas I think that FEMA had become bloated. We needed to realign some of the resources to make certain that while all of those four facets of emergency management are incredibly important -- response, recovery, mitigation and preparation -- that you need to have those balanced, too, because when the disaster hits, you have to be able to respond as quickly as possible. And we certainly learned after 9/11 that we needed to put more assets into response.
But emergency managers across the country all seem to praise James Lee Witt's tenure there [during the Clinton administration]. There's a sense that the agency was a healthy agency then. There's a sense today that it's a broken agency. Where did things change?
I think things changed when FEMA began to lose some of its status by moving into the Department of Homeland Security. FEMA began to lose its resources, because they had given us the resources, but those resources had been siphoned off to be used in other areas of the department. That was my concern. I think it was the concern of most state emergency managers.
But when I asked you about what had gone wrong between the '90s and these last years, you said one of the things was demoting it essentially from Cabinet-level status and folding it inside DHS.
When you move FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, you do create this added layer of bureaucracy that FEMA has to deal with in terms of budgets, in terms of personnel, IT systems, everything. But those are manageable problems. What really is the crux of the problem of FEMA being within DHS is the siphoning off of resources to other parts of the department.
And you were essentially powerless then to counteract that mandate to take that money from you?
I was fighting it every step of the way. ... I was told that this was the priority, and these were the decisions that had been made, and I needed to follow those decisions.
What was the priority?
The priority of the department itself has always been the prevention of terrorism, and I think that's an absolutely worthwhile go. But at the same time, you should not ever ignore the fact that you will continually have to respond to disasters, either terrorist incidents, natural disasters. ...
Was there a specific set of capabilities that you lost when you lost that money?
I think in the preparedness division, we knew how to train state and local governments. We knew how to work with incident command systems at the local fire department level and the police department level, for example.
We did great training courses in that area. And what we would see is that some of that training and preparedness activity would be shifted to buying new equipment as opposed to learning how to effectively use the equipment you already have.
What's wrong with it? We need to know how to use the equipment we have, and we need new and better equipment.
You need both, but you also need to make sure that when you do take on the cost of new equipment that you don't further erode existing capabilities.
Let's talk about Katrina. Did you have any acquaintance with Gov. [Kathleen] Blanco or Mayor [Ray] Nagin prior to the storm?
No, neither one.
Isn't it policy to familiarize yourself with the personnel on the ground, the governors, the mayors, given that it's a hurricane zone?
I knew all the emergency managers. Col. Mike Brown, who was the state emergency manager in Louisiana, I knew him quite well. I had visited New Orleans on a couple of occasions and had actually visited with Gov. Blanco at least a year prior to Hurricane Katrina hitting, so I knew of her operation down there.
Did you discuss in those meetings what you expected from them? In turn, did you tell them what they could expect from you?
Sure. Every year FEMA goes through a process where we negotiate what's called the FEMA-State Agreements. And the FEMA-State Agreements are really about what we're going to do, how much we'll pay for things, what the whole process [is] that we're going to go through. We did that with Louisiana. ...
You also funded the Hurricane Pam exercise. What did that tell the local emergency managers to expect from FEMA?
Let me tell you briefly about Hurricane Pam. ... One of the things that had really bothered me since I came to FEMA was that we had not done a serious job of looking at catastrophic disaster planning, and catastrophic disaster is not your run-of-the-mill hurricane. A catastrophic disaster is where you literally have thousands of people who are homeless. You have power that's out for a huge geographical area, maybe for weeks at time.
We had never done catastrophic disaster planning in this country. So I went to President Bush and OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and to Congress and obtained money to start doing catastrophic disaster planning, and the first effort at that was to do the Hurricane Pam exercise. That resulted in a tabletop exercise that we did with Louisiana state officials. It resulted in a briefing book that showed us what needed to be done, what the plans should be, what the processes should be.
And then the money ran out. We needed to get to the next stage, to do the next stage of catastrophic disaster planning -- taking what we learned from that exercise and putting it into policies and procedures. We never got to that stage before Hurricane Katrina happened.
Dr. Walter Maestri, down in Jefferson Parish, said that he had a clear expectation from his participation in the Hurricane Pam exercise that FEMA would respond within 48 hours. And he says, "They weren't there when they should have been."
We did respond within 48 hours. In fact, we responded prior to Hurricane Katrina making landfall. And what you find in every disaster is FEMA cannot be everywhere all at once. Remember, we're an organization of only 2,500 people. We don't own fire trucks, ambulances. We don't own or have cops and firefighters, so what we have are 28 urban search and rescue teams. We have groups of teams of national disaster medical teams that come from around the country. So we responded prior to Katrina even making landfall. We were there with equipment and resources ready to go in.
We couldn't be everywhere, so I'm sure that anybody could go to any particular parish and they could say FEMA wasn't here within 48 hours. Well, that's because we were someplace else that was maybe a higher priority at the time.
I think what Dr. Maestri is saying is that everybody knows you responded with what you had, but it wasn't enough. ...
That's because Katrina was a truly catastrophic disaster: 90,000 square miles. Hurricane Katrina looked exactly like the kind of catastrophic disaster that I said we needed to do planning for, and that we started doing the planning for with the Hurricane Pam [exercise].
... If anyone had the expectation that we could do the Hurricane Pam exercise and the next day magically turn on all of these resources and have all of these procedures in place, I think [that] is just sorely mistaken.
You were very frustrated on that Saturday. You wanted a mandatory evacuation of all of southeastern Louisiana. Couldn't get it?
I at least wanted a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes. We've all feared a catastrophic hurricane striking New Orleans. That is why ... the first place we picked to do an exercise and do that planning was New Orleans. And based upon that [planning exercise], I knew they needed to evacuate New Orleans.
Sunday morning they announced a mandatory evacuation of Orleans Parish.
Somewhere between 9:00 and 11:00, Mayor Nagin came out and issued a mandatory evacuation.
And hadn't Gov. Blanco called for it at 11:00 the previous night?
Not in New Orleans that I'm aware of. I don't think she had, because I had talked to the governor and encouraged her to do the mandatory evacuations and encouraged her to get the mayor to do mandatory evacuations.
Was she resistant to that?
I wouldn't say resistant. It was more of, "I'll talk to the mayor, and I'll see what I can do." I had a real sense of urgency, and I didn't detect a real sense of urgency on the other end of the phone line.
A lot of people on the ground said that you didn't have enough sense of urgency when you talked to the White House or when you talked to Secretary [of DHS Michael] Chertoff.
I find that fascinating, because there is a clip of me speaking on some news station where I'm basically saying: "I don't care what the mayor and the governor say. If you live in New Orleans, I'm begging you to get out."
Right. I actually saw that. That was on a Sunday morning show. But as the storm hits, you go on CBS, The Early Show, and you say you're pleased with how the city and state officials have prepared for the storm, and you promise aid will soon flow into the area. But yet you're saying now that you were not pleased with their delay in calling for an evacuation?
Because I'm not going to go on television and publicly say that I think that the mayor and the governor are not doing their job, and they don't have the sense of urgency. I'm not going to say that publicly. I don't think that's the proper thing to do.
So yes, when I go on a news show, I'm going to talk about the state's doing the best job they can and I'm pleased with the way they're working. And then I'm going to get off that news show, and I'm going to pick up the telephone, and I'm going to keep urging them to get busy and do what needs to be done.
You called the White House and said you were having a horrible time, that you couldn't get a unified command established. What did you mean?
In the 164 disasters that I've handled while I was at FEMA and, in fact, all over the world, this is how it's done. You have a unified command structure in place where all people who are responding to the disaster come together and work together as one so that you can establish the priorities and allocate the resources so that they are best utilized to save lives and sustain lives.
In every disaster in this country, I've been able to establish that. I established it in Florida last year with four hurricanes. I established it in California a couple of years ago with the California wildfires. Everywhere we go we do that, and I could not get that established in Louisiana.
And that means that somebody would be in charge in Louisiana. But wasn't Louisiana Gov. Blanco in charge?
She's the governor, so she is naturally in charge. It's my personal belief that if you're in charge, you have to make decisions; you have to give orders; you have to establish priorities. You have to make certain that you tell those around you what you expect to get done and to get those things done.
And you're saying she wasn't doing that? She wasn't issuing orders?
I couldn't find that. I couldn't see that. You know, Adjutant General [Bennett C.] Landreneau [head of the Louisiana National Guard], I actually went to him and said: "Help me help you. What do you need?" I remember being surprised because he didn't have a list of priorities or things that he needed. With all due respect to them -- I mean this from the bottom of my heart -- I think they were just truly overwhelmed.
Well, as I understand it, when local officials are overwhelmed, that's why we have FEMA. So your job is to come down there and see what it is they need when they're out of commission.
But FEMA does that based upon the priorities of what the state establishes. The state is still in control. It is the state's responsibility. FEMA comes in to coordinate and help the state. I think there's this misconception that when FEMA comes in, we take over. We don't come in and take over. We don't have the resources to take over.
We kind of come in as almost like the conductor of an orchestra, and the state says to us, "We want to have a great trombone section doing something," so we direct the trombone section to play. But if we don't get that direction from the state about what they need or what their priorities are, then we have to start establishing our own priorities and do what we can to help where we can.
... And I think what has been missed in the whole story about Katrina is that is exactly what FEMA did. ... What the news cameras haven't shown or talked about is that we had the Coast Guard; we had the Louisiana Department of [Wildlife and Fisheries]; we had the U.S. military out rescuing people. Those rescuers went in there and started saving lives immediately. FEMA was doing that.
Tony Robinson, who was director of operations down there, said you didn't have enough pre-positioned; you didn't have enough in communication packages working. Given the size of the hurricane, you didn't have enough. Why not?
It's so easy to armchair quarterback this thing and say, "Well, you didn't have enough of this or that." And in some areas that may have been true. But I can guarantee the American public this: FEMA took every resource it had and activated it and deployed it to that region. What that probably tells us is if it's true that there wasn't enough, it means that FEMA didn't have enough.
Whose fault is that if FEMA doesn't have enough?
That's all their fault. That means that Congress and the administration and the FEMA director and everybody else needs to sit down and say, "If we're going to truly be ready for a catastrophic disaster, we need A, B and C."
But given that you had gone through the Hurricane Pam exercise and knew the size of this storm and knew the potential -- and, in fact, in Pam more people died than in Katrina -- it's not me armchair quarterbacking. It's Tony Robinson telling me that you didn't have enough.
As I have said, I think that one of the biggest mistakes that I made as the FEMA director during Katrina was not immediately turning to the military and saying: "We have been overwhelmed. We need you to take over logistics, distribution of commodities, etc."
We immediately did turn to the military and mission-assigned them to start doing airlifts, start bringing things in. The mistake that I made was not doing that sooner and not giving them the orders that we needed them to do all of that immediately, because we were all overwhelmed.
What can you say now to the people who lost husbands, wives, children in those floods? How do you explain to them what went wrong?
Well, this is very difficult to say. In disasters, people die, and it's not necessarily the fault of anyone. Levees break. The fact the levees broke and flooded people's homes, that is not Michael Brown's fault. And I am not going to accept responsibility for people who have died in the disaster. My heart goes out to them. My heart breaks for them.
But disasters are disasters, and people die in disasters. I mean, I've seen people take every precaution they could, and they still die because of a disaster. So I think it is blatantly unfair to try to say that because FEMA did or didn't do something, we caused the death of people.
Well, I can assure the American public that every person that works for FEMA was doing everything they could to save lives and sustain lives. They were taking every resource they had and doing the best that they could with it.
Can't we do better?
Oh, I think we can do better. ... That's why I pushed for doing catastrophic disaster planning, because you can't go to Congress and say, "I need a bazillion dollars for X, Y, Z," without showing why and what you're going to do with it. ...
When you were up over the city on that Tuesday with Gov. Blanco, the day after Katrina struck, you saw what the situation was. Why didn't you order more troops right then and there?
We did. At that stage, we had mission-assigned the Department of Defense to start giving us everything they could in terms of airlift capability.
Then why did it take so long for them to get on the ground there? It wasn't until Thursday or Friday that you really had sufficient rescue operations going on under [Lt. Gen. Russel] Honoré [head of military operations in the aftermath of Katrina]. You had some operations, but I'm saying --
There were effective rescue operations going on the moment Katrina passed.
What I meant to say was sufficient enough operations.
... That took planning. And Gen. Honoré will even tell you that once he started moving in to help us, even he was slowed down by the size of the disaster. Even Gen. Honoré had to move his troops, and then stop and clear roadways and keep moving.
Things don't happen in an instant in a disaster. Power lines are down; bridges are out; roads are destroyed. I've had people say to me, "Well, why didn't you just have helicopters landing at New Orleans International Airport?" You couldn't do that, because you had to clear the runway. If I had put helicopters down on New Orleans International Airport the day after Katrina had passed, we would have lost the lives of men and women flying those helicopters because of debris flying everywhere. You can't do these things in an instant.
What are you saying that the governor didn't do sufficiently in time? They left 70,000 people in the city, but they got out 1.3 million or something like that.
Exactly. But the ones that were left were probably the ones that couldn't get out. ...
I would have ordered my National Guard troops to go in and commandeer those buses and at least get some pickup points and start taking some additional people out. One busload would have saved some people; two busloads would have saved twice as many people -- things like that that I just wish all of us had been a little more "oomph" about.
What was the impact of the failing communication systems throughout the crisis?
Devastating. ... I think what it shows is that our focus on communications needs to get beyond the concept of interoperable communications, which is important. ... [But] how do we communicate when the infrastructure is gone?
Well, [former DHS] Secretary [Tom] Ridge told me that post-crisis communications, emergency systems was something that they had.
FEMA does have that. The problem is FEMA doesn't have enough of it. For example, we had our facility down there, called Red October, that we can move around, has satellite communications ability, enabled me to talk back to headquarters, for example, and get a hold of people that I needed to get a hold of. But FEMA has one Red October. We probably need a lot more of them.
You were asked for buses, and they didn't come very quickly. What was going wrong there?
I think a couple of things were going wrong. One is there was a hesitancy on the part of some of the companies -- and again, this is anecdotal, because I've not spoken to the companies -- but some hesitancy about moving into the area. There were reports of the violence and the shootings and things.
And then there was a very real problem of actually getting them to the scene. ... We cannot go through floodwaters. It's --
Why weren't these buses pre-positioned ... so that you could get people evacuated?
We did not have buses pre-positioned because that was a state and local responsibility. Evacuation laws are state and local laws. Mike Brown, current FEMA director, future FEMA directors, under existing law have no authority to evacuate anybody or to force anyone to leave their home.
No, I understand that, but perhaps there could be sort of standards applied. I mean, we could be quizzing people in the localities about what their evacuation plans are, what their pre-positioning of vehicles and buses are.
And that's the whole issue about preparedness that I'm afraid that we may lose in this country if we focus solely on preparedness for terrorism. We need to focus on preparedness to respond to all kinds of disasters. ...
Your performance that week -- on Tuesday evening you made the rounds of the news shows and said that contrary to what is being reported, people in New Orleans are being taken care of. Would you stand by that statement?
Yes. We had pre-positioned supplies, medical teams, MREs -- Meals Ready to Eat -- and food in the Superdome. We were taking care of them. I think the American Red Cross -- I don't have the numbers -- already had shelters and was already feeding people. FEMA was doing what it's supposed to be doing.
But weren't people dying while waiting to be rescued?
Yes, they absolutely were, because people who either did not or could not evacuate, as the waters began to rise, they found themselves in situations where they were going to die. And every rescuer on every helicopter and every boat was trying to get to every person that they could. ...
On Thursday, [NBC anchor] Brian Williams asks you why you're not air-dropping food and water into the Convention Center, and you say: "Brian, it's an absolutely fair question. The federal government just learned about those people today." Now, you essentially said that you had misspoken.
But you said it again to [ABC's] Ted Koppel the same day.
And I'll take you one further. I think I actually said it to [CNN's] Soledad O'Brien, too.
So you said it three times.
I said it three times.
How do you misspeak three times? I don't understand.
I'm not going to make excuses for it. The facts are that we learned on Wednesday around 12:00, 12:20 in an e-mail that I received from one of my people on the ground that the spontaneous evacuation had occurred. People were now flooding into the Convention Center.
And I'm not trying to make excuses here. But you get into this cycle -- you're being asked questions. And what people don't see behind the scenes is that I'm still running a disaster. And after an [interview] take finishes, I don't sit and say: "How did I do? Did I answer it right?" I'm either signing a document, giving someone an assignment, making something happen, working on about 12 hours of sleep. And I simply misspoke three times.
And when I go back and look at those, I understand why people can now look at that tape and say: "Brown's saying he just learned about that? He really must be an idiot." I simply misspoke. I knew about it 24 hours before, and I should have said, "We just learned about it 24 hours ago, Brian."
I just don't understand how you would misspeak three times about that situation.
Well, I'll tell what we'll do. Next time there's a really big disaster, we'll put you in charge of it. We'll not give you any sleep, and we'll put you on this side of the camera. And we'll pepper you with questions for a couple hours at a time and see how tired you are.
Do you think it was unfair that you became the fall guy for all of this?
One thing that I've learned in disasters is nerves are frayed. People are worn out. Their lives are totally uprooted. You don't know which end is up. You don't know where to turn next. A disaster victim literally is -- their lives are topsy-turvy. And sometimes disaster victims are the emergency managers themselves, the first responders themselves are disaster victims.
So I expect to see and hear this raw emotion. And what I tried to do is try to stay focused on the job. And I'm not going to tell you that it's not painful and it doesn't hurt personally, because it does, but stay focused on the job, and then if you need to step aside, step aside.
And why did you need to step aside?
Because clearly the media had made me the focus of everything that was going on, and we needed to get to the next stage.
Did you fail?
I did not fail. We made mistakes. I'll make a great confession here. FEMA makes mistakes in every disaster. They always occur. Everybody makes mistakes. That's just the nature of the business. That's the nature of disasters.
That's the world that we live in, and I'm not going to lose sleep over it, because I know what the truth is, and I didn't lie or embellish. And life goes on.
Ray Nagin goes on the radio on Thursday and makes this impassioned plea for help: "Somebody get their asses down here. I don't care who it is, but we need help." He's not perceiving that there's any troops coming. In fact, he says: "The president says there's 40,000 troops. There's not." Why, by Thursday, are we still in that situation?
Because those troops are still trying to get there, and not too many people saw Ray Nagin and the conditions that he was living and working in. I did. And while he may have been vitriolic and highly emotional, he was working under some extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
... But I've spoken to him since that we were moving troops and people as quickly as we could.
And he said?
"Move them faster. Move them faster."
What I'm saying is, after every disaster we can learn, and we can always make things a little bit better. But I think we need to manage expectations. I'm really concerned about this concept that if there's another catastrophic disaster that we can move 40,000 troops and have them in the middle of the disaster soon within 30 minutes. That's not realistic.
Well, what about two days?
It depends on the size of the storm. It depends on how quickly, again, that you can move them. ... Things don't happen instantaneously in a disaster, because the things that you're accustomed to -- a runway that's clear, a bridge that exists --
But we knew the storm was coming. We knew it was coming.
Even though you know the storm is coming, what you cannot do is put those first responders in harm's way so that they themselves become disaster victims, too.
But you can pre-position them in sufficient numbers with enough food and water outside the zone.
And FEMA did exactly that. We pre-positioned medical teams, rescue teams, everyone outside the zone. And I think the record will show, too, that either the First or Fifth Army -- I forget which -- started to move in. But even though they were pre-positioned and moving in, it was taking them longer than they wanted, because they were having a difficult time getting in, too.
I think it's very interesting what you say about managing expectations. That's a very important point -- that we can't count on people being in there in 30 minutes. But clearly we can do better than four to five days.
We can always do better. But we have to be realistic about what "better" means. I worry about people who have this belief or this notion that disaster strikes and the local firefighter is going to be right there to help them. I've seen places where there have been an outbreak of fires, and the local fire department's doing everything that they can, and they're stretched to their limit, and it takes them a while.
... That's why I will always preach about individual responsibility, and to the extent that you can prepare yourself, you've got to do it, because we cannot depend upon the government to be there the minute we open our door and go, "Gee whiz, what was that?," and expect the government to hand us a meal, a check and something else.
We could expect better communication systems. Here we are, four years after 9/11, and we still don't have them.
I think we have better communications systems. I think what we have to do is get smarter about how we deploy and how we protect and utilize those systems.
When did you realize how serious things were?
I realized how serious things were on Sunday. We do our video conference calls before and during disasters, and I forget whether it was on Saturday or Sunday. I told my staff that I was sick to my stomach because I could see that some things weren't looking quite right and that this could potentially be the big one that we had planned for in Hurricane Pam.
And I told my staff and the people who were on the video conference call at that point, which included all the potentially affected states and different departments and agencies, that my expectations were that they would lean forward in the foxhole and that they would do everything humanly possible to respond to this disaster, because this one was scaring me.
And then there's reports on television, on that Monday, that New Orleans has dodged a bullet.
I remember reading that, and I knew it wasn't true, because whether it was 8:00 that morning or 10:00 that morning, I received a report from one of my staffers in New Orleans, giving me a report that either a levee had been topped or a levee had actually broken. But he wasn't sure yet, and he was going to try to get out and find out. I knew then that it was going to continue to get worse, that we were going to actually have another disaster.
I went to the adjutant general, [Landreneau], and I went to Gov. Blanco and said: "We've got to move National Guard troops in there. We have got to start getting people out." And --
You're faulting Gen. Landreneau?
I'm not trying to fault anybody here. I'm just --
Well, did he not respond adequately?
I'm just trying to state the fact. I said, "We need to do this," and nothing happened.
I talked to Blanco; I talked to Landreneau. They said right away they were in there with all the resources that they had, trying to get people out.
Don't misunderstand me. I really think that they were. But again, had we done a mandatory evacuation before, we probably could have had at least half of those --
But wait a minute. You just said, "I asked them to get people out of there, and nothing happened." Then I said to you, "They told me that they were getting people out of there," and you said, "Yeah, I believe they were." Which is it? I'm not sure what you're saying.
... I believe that the state officials were overwhelmed and that they were having a difficult time, for whatever reason, getting the priorities established and getting things done. I don't want to say they didn't do anything, but ... if we had had a unified command structure in place, and we had had better communications between us about what they were doing and not doing, I think we could have done a better job of helping them.
What was unified in Mississippi and Alabama that wasn't unified in Louisiana?
I'll give you an example. In Mississippi I had my federal coordinating officer [FCO], Gov. Haley Barbour had his state emergency manager literally housed together, deciding the priorities, deciding which mission was the top priority, what they were going to do first, second and third.
And in Louisiana?
I could never get them to sit down. I couldn't get the adjutant general and the FCO together. I couldn't even get them to share an office. The federal coordinating officer was down the hallway in another room. The governor was over here in a small anteroom off a conference room. The adjutant general was moving in and out. I couldn't get a team effort together.
You couldn't call a meeting and say, "Let's talk about this"?
I tried several times to get people in. There was a point during the initial stage of the crisis where there were too many people -- senators and congressmen and people -- all crammed in a room, all throwing out ideas and stuff. And we needed to narrow that down to the experts. We needed the federal coordinating officer there. We needed the adjutant general there. We needed the state emergency manager there to determine the priorities, make the recommendations to the governor, and then, boom, make those things happen. And I never saw that happen.
Did you take the governor aside and say, "Hey, you know, you've got to get half the people out of these room, and we've got to get down to business"?
I suggested that to the governor on several occasions. Eventually the governor brought in an adviser.
Who did she hire as an adviser?
James Lee Witt.
But that was Saturday. We're talking Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. You're saying you couldn't get her -- what was her response to you at that point?
I was able to get Gov. Blanco to sit with me in the office that she had, to sit there several times and talk about what needed to be done. ... I just expressed to her my concern about the lack of unified command and the need to have more of a structure of what was going on.
Did she not ask you for troops?
She certainly did ask me for troops, and I certainly put that request in. And we mission-assigned DoD [Department of Defense] to get additional troops in there.
She early on asked you for troops -- Monday, Tuesday ...?
Yeah, I would say by Tuesday or Wednesday for sure.
Did she not ask early enough? She says, on CNN on Wednesday, that perhaps she should have asked sooner.
She probably should have asked sooner. I probably should have asked sooner. I think we both should have asked sooner.
Right, because I think, as the disaster continued to grow -- again, this wasn't the typical disaster where it blows in, and it happens, and it's over with, and now you start responding and recovering. This was an ongoing disaster for quite a while because of the floodwaters and the levees continuing to break. I do regret having not just stomped my feet earlier and saying, "OK, just give us the troops now. ... Let's just start doing some of the stuff ourselves," regardless of the issue of federalization.
I think I'm hearing something pretty interesting. You're saying, "Both Gov. Blanco and myself failed to get troops in there early enough."
I mean, sure. In hindsight it's absolutely easy to second-guess myself. And having now sat down and relived this over and over, and read all the accounts of it, ... I really believe the most serious mistake that I made was not just saying: "Look, we just can't get this done by ourselves. Let's go ahead and get all these troops in here now. And let's don't get 500 troops to come in here and help with distribution; let's get 10,000 troops in here and do something."
What do you say to somebody who says, "How can you be so incompetent?"
I don't think it's a question of incompetency. I think it's a question of trying to manage the resources, manage what you're doing, work with the state and local governments. And to those who would say that, I would remind them that we still have a constitutional form of government. I am there as a federal representative in a sovereign state run by a duly elected governor, and I can't come in there and just take over her state and do things the way that I want to do. I have to do it in partnership with her. Now, people may not like that, and they may not like that concept. But that's the law, and that's the way this Constitution works.
Although the president can, and has, in certain situations -- in the earthquake in California, during the civil rights movement -- come in with troops and take charge. Could have done that.
... How did the press do in this event?
... I've never seen such shrill reporting in my life as what I saw coming out of New Orleans. I don't want to make this blanket statement that the press was irresponsible, but I think in some cases they may have been. I had a team in the Superdome -- a medical team, a couple of emergency management experts -- who actually evacuated the Superdome because they feared for their own safety, and not because of what they were actually seeing or hearing in the Superdome, but because of what they were seeing and hearing reported about what was in the Superdome.
And I think the press can be an incredibly important partner in disasters. I think of that in terms of the dirty bomb example... I worry about if a dirty bomb goes off, we need to have cool, collected information about where the danger zone is, that you may not need to evacuate all of Washington, D.C., but just certain areas. They play a very critical role, so it's incumbent upon the press to report factually and accurately.
I was just disappointed by some of the frantic kind of reporting that I saw, because it did no one good. I mean, rescuers are still in there trying to help people. ...
It's one of these situations where the two weak links in the chain appear to be the governor's office and the FEMA director's office, that that's where things broke down in the chain. Nagin couldn't be expected to do too much; he's overwhelmed. Police department's overwhelmed. But when we get up to that level in Baton Rouge, one of you, or both, seemed to be dropping the ball. Was Michael Brown the weak link in that chain?
I don't think that I was. ... I really felt sorry for Gov. Blanco. ... I've traveled outside the Beltway since this has occurred, and it amazes me how people don't comprehend what this disaster was like, how broad it was, how big it was, how utterly devastating. ...
And it frustrates me that I was able to make things work in Alabama and Mississippi, Florida last year, and all the other disasters that I worked. And it frustrates me that I couldn't get it to work in Louisiana. I like Gov. Blanco. ... I don't know why I wasn't able to get her to stand beside me, and let's just make things happen; let's just make these things occur. You know, if the adjutant general tells you that he needs X, I can reach out, she could reach out to other governors and get whatever it is they need.
There is this thorny question of the political appointees that have come into the department in the Bush administration. You're not experienced as a disaster manager other than having had this job. Do you reject the idea that you were not an experienced --
I absolutely do, for two reasons. One, I started out my career in municipal government working on these very kinds of issues, ... overseeing police and fire departments to make sure that the city manager and the council strategic plans and budgets for those police and fire departments were being fulfilled. I was negotiating union contracts -- with police and fire departments, ... and then going to state government, where we dealt with municipal governments. So I've taught state and local government law and how things work. ...
I came to FEMA in 2001 as general counsel, learned about the entire agency, about all the different programs; worked my way up to the deputy director; ran headquarters during Sept. 11. I did the transition to create FEMA to go into the Department of Homeland Security. And then I've overseen 164 presidentially-declared disasters successfully. I understand emergency management. I understand incident command systems. I understand unified command and how those things work. That's my background. Did I do it my entire life? No, but enough to understand it.
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY
NEXT ON FRONTLINESolitary NationApril 22nd