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Wednesday, September 7, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Day 1 FEMA concern: Convey positive image

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The government's disaster chief waited until hours after Hurricane Katrina had struck the Gulf Coast before asking his boss to send 1,000 Homeland Security employees to the region — and gave them two days to arrive, according to internal documents.

Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), sought the approval from Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff roughly five hours after Katrina made landfall Aug. 29. Brown said that among duties of these employees was to "convey a positive image" about the government's response for victims.

Before then, FEMA had positioned smaller rescue and communications teams across the Gulf Coast. But officials acknowledged yesterday that the first departmentwide appeal for help came only as the storm raged.

Brown's memo to Chertoff described Katrina as "this near catastrophic event" but otherwise lacked urgent language. The memo politely ended, "Thank you for your consideration in helping us to meet our responsibilities."

The initial responses of the government and Brown came under increasing criticism as the breadth of destruction and death grew. President Bush and Congress yesterday pledged separate investigations into the federal response to Katrina. "Governments at all levels failed," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said Brown had positioned front-line rescue teams and Coast Guard helicopters before the storm. Brown's memo Aug. 29 aimed to assemble the necessary federal work force to support the rescues, establish communications and coordinate with victims and community groups, Knocke said.

Instead of rescuing people or recovering bodies, these employees would focus on helping victims find the help they needed, he said.

"There will be plenty of time to assess what worked and what didn't work," Knocke said. "Clearly there will be time for blame to be assigned and to learn from some of the successful efforts."

Brown's memo told employees that among their duties, they would be expected to "convey a positive image of disaster operations to government officials, community organizations and the general public."

"FEMA response and recovery operations are a top priority of the department and as we know, one of yours," Brown wrote Chertoff. He proposed sending 1,000 Homeland Security Department employees within 48 hours and 2,000 within seven days.

Knocke said the 48-hour period suggested for the Homeland employees was to ensure that they had adequate training. "They were training to help the life-savers," Knocke said.

Employees required a supervisor's approval and at least 24 hours of disaster training in Maryland, Florida or Georgia. "You must be physically able to work in a disaster area without refrigeration for medications and have the ability to work in the outdoors all day," Brown wrote.

The same day Brown wrote Chertoff, Brown also urged local fire and rescue departments outside Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi not to send trucks or emergency workers into disaster areas without an explicit request for help from state or local governments. Brown said it was vital to coordinate fire and rescue efforts.

Meanwhile, the airline industry said the government's request for help evacuating storm victims didn't come until late Thursday afternoon. James May, president of the Air Transport Association, said the Homeland Security Department called then to ask if the group could participate in an airlift for evacuees.

Some have called on Bush to fire Brown, 50, an attorney and political appointee who came to FEMA after a controversial 10-year stint at the International Arabian Horse Association.

Critics say the Oklahoma lawyer lacked the professional experience and seasoning needed to head the federal agency responsible for delivering emergency relief to victims of everything from floods, wildfires and earthquakes to terrorist attacks.

At the horse association, he was in charge of investigating complaints about horse-show judges, stewards and trainers, some of whom were accused of giving the show horses unauthorized drugs that would enhance their performance. He also handed down discipline. He raised the ire of many of the horse breeders and owners and was named in numerous lawsuits by those unhappy with his actions.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she told the president he should fire Brown. "The president thanked me for my suggestion," she said.

Meanwhile, after a senators-only briefing by Chertoff and other Cabinet members yesterday, Sen. Charles Schumer said lawmakers weren't getting their questions answered.

"What people up there want to know, Democrats and Republicans, is what is the challenge ahead, how are you handling that and what did you do wrong in the past," said Schumer, D-N.Y.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said the administration is "getting a bad rap" for the emergency response. "People have to understand this is a big, big problem."

Material from Newhouse Newspapers is included in this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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