FEMA removes prime target
WASHINGTON — Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown, who yesterday was removed from his role leading Hurricane Katrina relief efforts and sent back to Washington, has become for many a symbol of what's gone wrong with an agency once lauded for its quick response to disasters.
The agency has been politicized and dismantled over the past four years and Brown is a symptom of that transformation, said disaster- and government-efficiency experts.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen was named yesterday to assume Brown's regional oversight of the recovery effort.
Under attack for possible résumé padding and the federal response to the disaster on the Gulf Coast, Brown remains FEMA chief.
Last week, President Bush told the FEMA director, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," but critics blasted the federal response as slow and disorganized and called for Brown's firing.
Late yesterday, FEMA made another embarrassing change.
The agency said it would stop handing out its $2,000 debit cards to families displaced by Katrina, opting instead to give out money by depositing it directly into bank accounts or mailing checks.
Brown announced the program Wednesday, calling it "a great way to ... empower these hurricane survivors to really start rebuilding their lives."
Jane Bullock, who was FEMA chief of staff during the Clinton administration, said yesterday she couldn't believe the agency was killing one of the few "great ideas" that came out of the Katrina response.
"They don't recognize that right now most people would be happy to be handed $100 in cash to buy food and water and medicines," Bullock said. "It's just getting worse and worse. It's like imploding."
Most criticism has focused squarely on Brown and the changes at the agency he runs.
The Bush administration has filled FEMA's top jobs with political patronage appointees with no emergency-management experience, cut disaster-preparedness budgets and marginalized the agency by merging it with the new anti-terrorism bureaucracy, according to four former senior FEMA officials. The number of career disaster-management professionals in senior FEMA jobs has been cut by more than 50 percent since 2000, federal personnel records show.
Touring the wrecked Gulf Coast with Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff Thursday, Vice President Dick Cheney defended FEMA leaders, saying, "We're always trying to strike the right balance" between political appointees and "career professionals that fill the jobs underneath them."
New York University Public Service professor Paul Light described how Brown "has become a symbol of what's wrong with FEMA, and ultimately he has to go. ... The real problem here is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with the appointments process. It's the people who decided to put him in place and put all those politicals in place."
George Haddow, a former FEMA deputy chief of staff under President Clinton and the co-author of an emergency-management textbook, called what happened in the past four years the "deconstruction of the most robust emergency management and effective response system in the world."
After announcing the appointment of Allen yesterday, Chertoff, who wouldn't let Brown answer charges of résumé padding at the news conference, said: "Michael Brown has done everything he possibly could to coordinate federal response to this challenge."
Brown, who before coming to FEMA had been a lawyer and Arabian horse association official, was accused of inflating his claims as assistant manager of Edmond, Okla., first by Time magazine. Brown even highlighted his experience as "assistant city manager" in a 2004 speech in Florida.
Randel Shadid, a former mayor of Edmond who was on the City Council when Brown worked there, said he believes Brown was an assistant to the city manager.
Shadid said the city did not have an emergency management operation in the 1970s. "In discussing this with some other folks that were around about that time, he [Brown] may have been asked by the then-city manager as one of his tasks to prepare an emergency readiness plan" for tornadoes or train derailment, Shadid said.
Brown's unceremonious recall to Washington yesterday suggested to some that his fatal error might not have been FEMA's inadequate response to the hurricane, but dishonesty.
"The Bush people do not look kindly on someone leading them mildly astray, which is what his résumé did," said David Gergen, who served in the first Bush administration and has advised both Republican and Democratic administrations on crisis management.
Pressure from Democrats was not the critical factor, Republicans said. It was that fellow Republicans privately pleaded with the White House to remove Brown. They told him Brown had been ineffective in past rescue efforts, and no one in the region had confidence in his ability.
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. The move came as the White House announced that Bush will return to the devastated Gulf Coast for a third time tomorrow — a clear effort to demonstrate his personal involvement and command of the situation.
Brown came under fire for not moving more aggressively as the storm bore down on the coast or in the days afterward. At one point in a televised appearance, he seemed to blame those stranded in flooded New Orleans for their predicament because they did not flee, although many impoverished residents did not have the means. And he seemed uninformed when he told a television interviewer that he did not know that thousands of people were in the convention center without food or water.
In 2000, 40 percent of the top FEMA jobs were held by career workers who rose through the ranks of the agency, including chief of staff. By 2004, that figure was down to less than 19 percent, and the deputy director/chief of staff job is held by a former TV anchor turned political operative.
Compiled from Knight Ridder Newspapers, The Associated Press, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company