Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Michael D. Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told Congress yesterday that Bush administration officials hurt hurricane relief efforts by rejecting his requests for more money, but his worst problem was a “dysfunctional” response from Louisiana officials.

He said he warned Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco days before Hurricane Katrina struck that she should order a mandatory evacuation, and he said it is not the job of the federal government or the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be a police or fire department or to provide food and gasoline to people in the hours and days after a disaster.

“FEMA doesn’t evacuate communities. FEMA does not do law enforcement. FEMA does not do communications,” Mr. Brown told the House select bipartisan committee investigating the response to Katrina.

Also yesterday, New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass resigned after weeks of criticism about officer desertions and department disorganization in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. Neither he nor city Mayor C. Ray Nagin would say whether he was pressured to leave.

Mr. Brown resigned from FEMA after he was stripped of his duties overseeing Katrina relief efforts. He is still on the agency’s payroll as a consultant, a fact that some committee members said struck them as a sign that the administration was trying to keep him from being too harsh in his criticism.

Mr. Brown yesterday testified that he had the support of President Bush, but didn’t always get the resources he wanted from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

He said a test exercise in Louisiana for a hypothetical “Hurricane Pam” conducted last year showed the need for better communication and coordination. But Mr. Brown said his requests for money to take care of those needs were rejected by DHS, which FEMA was absorbed by after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

He also said FEMA’s capabilities were hurt by a cut of almost 14.5 percent of FEMA’s operating budget, with the money being shifted to other department programs.

“It’s those kinds of cuts or resource realignments … that are leading to the kinds of problems that we’re dealing with today of us not having the personnel or the programs in place,” he said.

Russ Knocke, spokesman for DHS, said the administration has shown solid support for FEMA over four years, increasing its budget by 13 percent and providing the agency the backing it needed.

“I’m not aware of a specific request based upon Hurricane Pam exercises,” he said, though he said the department did allocate $140 million to a business plan that FEMA developed based on lessons learned from the four hurricanes that hit Florida in 2004.

As for cuts to the FEMA operating budget, Mr. Knocke said each of the 22 agencies combined into DHS in March 2003 had to contribute money to get the department, which did not have an initial appropriation, up and running. He said that the transfers were made after consulting with the White House and that Congress was made aware of each transfer.

Mr. Bush, touring the Gulf region again yesterday, did not respond when a reporter shouted a question to him about Mr. Brown’s testimony.

At the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan said, “Washington tends to focus on finger-pointing. The president is focused on problem-solving.”

Mr. Brown reserved his harshest criticism for Mrs. Blanco and Mr. Nagin, saying the Louisiana governor and New Orleans mayor refused to cooperate with each other, preventing a timely evacuation.

He compared both the evacuation and post-hurricane relief efforts in Louisiana to those in Mississippi and Alabama and said the system worked in the latter two places.

Rep. William J. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat, called that a “weak explanation.”

“I’m really troubled by the response when one asks what would you have done differently, and did you make mistakes, and you crystallize it to these two matters of not having the appropriate media briefings and not being able to get Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down and coordinate a response,” he said.

Democrats are officially boycotting the committee, arguing that the Republican-controlled Congress will not be able to find fault with the White House and should instead create an independent commission to investigate. But Mr. Jefferson and Rep. Gene Taylor, Mississippi Democrat, sat in on the hearing and asked dozens of questions of Mr. Brown.

Members of both parties told Mr. Brown that his performance both after the hurricane and before the committee yesterday made them happy he was removed from ground operations.

“That kind of look in the lights like a deer tells me you weren’t capable to do the job,” said Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican.

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