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Tuesday, October 18, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Memos reflect FEMA disarray

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — As Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans on Aug. 29, Michael Brown, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, appeared confused over whether Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had put him in charge, senior military officials could not reach Brown, and his team became swamped by the speed of the unfolding disaster, according to e-mails to and from Brown.

When Chertoff belatedly named Brown the on-site disaster coordinator on the night of Aug. 30 and declared Katrina an "incident of national significance" — the highest-order catastrophe under a new national-response plan — Brown and his assistants privately complained.

"Demote the Under Sec to PFO (Principal Federal Officer)?" an outraged FEMA press secretary Sharon Worthy wrote Brown at 10:54 p.m., soon after Chertoff's decision. "What about the precedent being set? What does this say about executive management and leadership in the Agency?"

"Exactly," replied Brown, then-undersecretary for preparedness and response, according to e-mails obtained by The Washington Post.

The e-mails also show that the government's response plan, two years in the making, began breaking down even before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Before the storm hit, Brown's deputy chief of staff, Brooks Altshuler, said White House pressure to form an interagency crisis-management group was irrelevant, even though a task force and principal federal officer are key parts of the plan.

"Let them play their raindeer [sic] games as long as they are not turning around and tasking us with their stupid questions. None of them have a clue about emergency management," Altshuler told Brown and Brown's chief of staff, Patrick Rhode.

The documents offer a glimpse of the disarray in preparations for and response to Katrina, for which FEMA has been widely criticized. A misunderstanding of national disaster-plan roles, communications failures, delayed decision-making and absent voices of leadership mark the documents, which came as a partial response by FEMA's parent agency, the Homeland Security Department, to a request by a House select investigative committee.

The Washington Post obtained copies of 20 of about 80 e-mails to and from Brown between Aug. 23 and Sept. 12.

There are many gaps in the record. For instance, there are few references to Chertoff or the White House. Brown has testified that he was in at least daily telephone or e-mail contact with Chertoff and Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card or his deputy, Joe Hagin.

The Homeland Security Department has not completed its response to the House panel's request for Brown's e-mails and for his correspondence with Chertoff or his predecessor as secretary, Tom Ridge, regarding the development of FEMA's budget since 2003. Brown has said the department caused "the emaciation of FEMA" by cutting funding and staff and denying spending on a New Orleans hurricane-preparedness plan.

Chertoff's voice is markedly absent from the correspondence so far, said I. Michael Greenberger, a former Clinton administration official who heads the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland. "Chertoff appears to be sort of an interested overseer, rather than the chief of staff to the president managing this in Washington," he said.

Chertoff is scheduled to testify tomorrow before the House Katrina committee.

The documents show a quick breakdown in communications after the hurricane hit Aug. 29. With telephone and wireless reception spotty, FEMA's operations center resorted to e-mailing Brown. As late as Sept. 1, the head of the military's Hurricane Katrina Task Force, Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, was unable to reach Brown and asked FEMA officials to track down his satellite phone.

"[Honore] wants to speak with Mike very badly," FEMA aides wrote at 1 p.m. Three hours later the reply came from a Brown aide: "Not here in [Mississippi.] Is in [Louisiana], as far as I know."

The first FEMA request to the Defense Department was not reported in Brown's e-mails until 10 a.m. on Sept. 2, seeking "full logistical support to the Katrina disaster in all [emergency] declared states."

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco requested 40,000 U.S. troops on Aug. 31.

In an interview with The Associated Press yesterday, Brown said the memos "in general, will show that this was a disaster of catastrophic proportions where communications were difficult at best, and communications were nonexistent at other times."

"It shows at a minimum, for a disaster like that, you don't always have the best information," said Brown, who announced his resignation under fire Sept. 12 and left the agency last week.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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