Ex-FEMA head says White House warned about flooding

Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown testified Friday that he went around top brass at the Homeland Security Department and notified White House officials as soon he was informed that New Orleans was flooding from Hurricane Katrina.

Brown told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that he had been frustrated with the Homeland Security Department's bureaucracy that he said took terrorist threats more seriously than natural disaster planning. He disputed claims by top Homeland Security officials that they were not informed of flooding until almost 24 hours after Brown was told of levee breaches in New Orleans.

"I find it a little disingenuous that DHS [says it] is not getting information," Brown said. Top Homeland Security officials, he said, were informed continually through Katrina and its aftermath by phone calls, e-mails and video conferencing.

Brown told lawmakers that his obligation was to make sure the White House -- specifically Joe Hagen, a deputy White House chief of staff -- was aware of the threat of Gulf Coast flooding. Brown said he also might have spoken to White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card.

Some panel members said they were shocked by the dysfunction within the Homeland Security Department during the disaster, specifically on why Brown did not directly contact Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff when he learned of the flooding reports. Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, said he was amazed that Brown said he wanted to cut through Homeland Security bureaucracy and contact White House officials, rather than call Chertoff.

"That is a staggering statement," Bennett said.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said he had concerns that FEMA's emergency preparedness role would be placed on the backburner when the agency was incorporated into the Homeland Security Department in 2003. Akaka asked Brown if he supported White House budget proposals to cut FEMA's pre-disaster mitigation program.

Brown replied that mitigation funding "was given a back seat" by OMB and that he argued in support of such programs but was overruled.

The biggest confrontation during the hearing was between Brown and Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn. "We had an almost perfect storm of poor leadership," Coleman said, singling out Brown, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

Coleman noted significant delays in obtaining portable lighting systems and bathrooms while people were in grim circumstances at the Superdome and the city's convention center.

Brown disputed Coleman's assertion and said the National Guard had difficulties getting supplies into the Superdome in part because of reports of violence. Coleman claimed Brown was trying to blame the Homeland Security Department's structural deficiencies for the breakdown in emergency response rather than his own actions.

"You are not prepared to put a mirror in front of your face and recognize your own inadequacies and say, 'You know something, I made some big mistakes,'" Coleman said. Brown replied, "That's very easy to say with you being behind the dais."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook