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Friday, September 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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FEMA Director Brown relieved of hurricane responsibilities

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration dumped FEMA Director Michael Brown as commander of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts Friday, then abruptly scrapped plans to give $2,000 debit cards to displaced storm victims as it struggled to get a grip on the recovery operation.

Buffeted by criticism, President Bush stirred memories of the 2001 terror attacks as he hailed the "acts of great compassion and extraordinary bravery from America's first responders," then as now.

Brown, who had come to personify a relief operation widely panned as bumbling, will be replaced by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen. Allen had been in charge of relief, recovery and rescue efforts for New Orleans.

The decision to order Brown back to Washington from Louisiana — he remains as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — marked the administration's latest attempt to assert leadership in the wake of the devastating storm and its aftermath, including the weakest public opinion polls of Bush's time in office.

Still, there was fresh evidence of raggedness in the effort when FEMA announced late in the day that it would discontinue a two-day-old program to issue debit cards worth $2,000 to displaced families. Evacuees relocated to Texas, many of whom began receiving cards on Friday, will continue getting them, officials said.

Hurricane victims at other locations will have to apply for expedited aid through the agency's traditional route — filling out information on FEMA's Web site to receive direct bank deposits, FEMA spokeswoman Natalie Rule said.

Brown introduced the program on Wednesday, calling it "a great way to ... empower these hurricane survivors to really start rebuilding their lives."

At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan said the decision to reassign Brown had been made by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and that Bush supported it.

One Republican welcomed Brown's ouster with unusually sharp language. "Something needed to happen. Michael Brown has been acting like a private instead of a general," said Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, whose state was hard-hit by the storm.

Senate Democrats, who have been sharply critical of Bush's response to the storm, said the president should not have left Brown as head of FEMA. In a letter to the president, the Democratic leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, and three other members of the leadership called for the dismissal of the FEMA director.

He "simply doesn't have the ability or the experience to oversee a coordinated federal response of this magnitude," wrote Reid and Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Chuck Schumer of New York and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

Separately, Reid and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist opened private discussions over a GOP plan for a congressional committee to investigate the administration's readiness for the storm and reaction to it.

Republicans hold a majority in both the House and Senate, and Frist and Speaker Dennis Hastert announced plans this week for a joint panel with more GOP members than Democrats. Reid and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi have said they would boycott the proceedings, calling for an independent commission instead.

Bush's public support rose dramatically in the days following the attacks of 2001. He linked that time with the present at a ceremony Friday awarding medals to family members of fire, police and other first responders killed by terrorists four years ago.

"When America has been challenged, there have always been citizens willing to step forward and risk their lives for the rest of us," the president said. "Over the last 11 days in Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama, we have again seen acts of great compassion and extraordinary bravery from America's first responders."

Bush said the nation was "still at the beginning of a huge effort. The tasks before us are enormous. Yet so is the heart of the United States."

Thus far, the tab for federal relief has reached $62.3 billion, with billions more expected to be needed in the months and years to come.

The rising price tag spread nervousness among some lawmakers. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., touring a shelter for evacuees in Chattanooga, said the combined cost of recovery and the Iraq War were a good reason to postpone a costly Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said mere reconstruction of a Gulf Coast area that is home to large numbers of poor black Americans wasn't enough. "When we rebuild the land ravaged by the winds and the floods, we must rebuild it to be a more just and fair land," he said.

The government continued to produce reports and declarations testifying to the destructive power of the storm that roared out of the Gulf of Mexico and spread destruction along the coast from Texas to Florida.

The Commerce Department declared a fishery failure in the region, an action that makes federal relief funds available to assess and repair damage to fisheries. Fishermen will be eligible for direct assistance, as well.

Brown had faced fierce, bipartisan criticism for days, and on Friday, was confronted with questions of whether he had padded his professional resume.

Chertoff announced his fate to reporters in Louisiana, saying, the director had "done everything he possibly could to coordinate the federal response to this unprecedented challenge."

Asked if he was being made a scapegoat, Brown told The Associated Press after a long pause: "By the press, yes. By the president, no."

As for his plans, he said, "I'm going to go home and walk my dog and hug my wife, and maybe get a good Mexican meal and a stiff margarita and a full night's sleep.

"And then I'm going to go right back to FEMA and continue to do all I can to help these victims."

Allen, tapped to replace Brown, has direct experience in hurricane relief operations.

Early in his Coast Guard career, Allen was involved in search-and-rescue missions and later directed them in the Caribbean. He headed Coast Guard operations in the Southeast United States and the Caribbean.

In the days after the 2001 terrorist attacks, he was assigned to make sure the ports and waterways were secure and that local responders in the New York area had the vessels, aircraft and personnel they needed.

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Associated Press Writers Ron Fournier, Ted Bridis and Nedra Pickler contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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