America’s former disaster chief Michael Brown, who became the personification of the government’s listless response to Hurricane Katrina, said he told top officials of massive flooding in New Orleans on the day the storm howled ashore.
He told senators yesterday that he spread a warning in the top echelons at the White House that “we were realising our worst nightmare.”
Brown said he dealt directly with White House officials on the day of the August 29 storm that ripped through Louisiana, but the Homeland Security Department was also getting regular briefings.
Those he was dealing with, Brown said, included President George Bush’s chief of staff Andrew Card and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin.
Administration officials have said they did not realise the severity of Katrina’s damage until after the storm had passed.
Brown’s testimony bolsters Democratic claims that the Bush administration ignored signs that a catastrophe had been imminent. The administration’s lacklustre response to Katrina undermined Americans’ confidence in Bush’s leadership abilities and contributed directly to a decline in his opinion poll ratings.
Under oath, Brown told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that he could not explain why his appeals failed to produce a faster response.
“I expected them to cut every piece of red tape, do everything they could ... that I didn’t want to hear anybody say that we couldn’t do everything they humanly could to respond to this,” Brown said about a video conference with administration officials, in which Bush briefly participated, the day before Katrina hit. “Because I knew in my gut this was the bad one.”
In the end, the storm claimed more than 1,300 lives, uprooted hundreds of thousands more and caused tens of billions worth of damage.
The devastation in New Orleans, a city famous for its French Creole history and jazz, and other communities of Gulf of Mexico coastal areas in the southern US left Americans with enduring images of their countrymen dying in flooded nursing homes and pleading for rescue from rooftops.
Brown, in his second appearance in Congress since Katrina, told his side to the senators five months after he resigned under fire as chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
He agreed with some senators who characterised him as a scapegoat for government failures.
“I feel somewhat abandoned,” Brown said.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has said he did not know that New Orleans’ levees were breached until August 30. Bush at the time said, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.”
At an occasionally contentious White House briefing yesterday, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said there were conflicting reports about the levees in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
“We knew of the flooding that was going on,” McClellan said. “That’s why our top priority was focused on saving lives. ... The cause of the flooding was secondary to that top priority and that’s the way it should be.”
After three hours of testimony, Brown was handed a subpoena ordering him to reappear in front of a House of Representatives panel investigating the storm response. Brown is expected to be questioned by House investigators this weekend, days before the panel is to release its findings on the storm.
Some senators suggested Brown look inward before pointing the finger elsewhere.
“You’re not prepared to put a mirror in front of your face and recognise your own inadequacies,” said Republican senator Norm Coleman. “Perhaps you may get a more sympathetic hearing if you had a willingness to confess your own sins in this.”
Brown responded: “That’s very easy for you to say sitting behind that dais and not being there in the middle of that disaster watching that human suffering and watching those people dying and trying to deal with those structural dysfunctionalities, even within the federal government.”
The disjointed government response, Brown said, was in part the result of FEMA being swallowed in 2003 by the newly created Homeland Security Department, which he said was focused on fighting terrorism.
Natural disasters “had become the stepchild of the Department of Homeland Security,” he said.
Had there been a report that “a terrorist had blown up the 17th Street Canal levee, then everybody would have jumped all over that”, he added.