Director of FEMA is sent home

Coast Guard vice admiral takes charge of hurricane relief for all of Gulf Coast

September 10, 2005|By Siobhan Gorman and Gwyneth K. Shaw | Siobhan Gorman and Gwyneth K. Shaw,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, was removed yesterday as head of the federal hurricane relief effort on the Gulf Coast.

Brown was replaced by Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, the Coast Guard's chief of staff, who had already been overseeing the recovery operations in Louisiana and will now expand his responsibilities into the rest of the region.

The move was seen as a clear vote of no confidence in Brown and a possible prelude to his departure from the agency that he has headed since 2003.

The FEMA director has caught the bulk of criticism over the federal government's slow and sometimes chaotic response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

Brown's immediate boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who announced the move at a Baton Rouge, La., news briefing, sought to counter the impression that Brown was on the way out of FEMA.

"Mike Brown has done everything he possibly could to coordinate the federal response to this unprecedented challenge," Chertoff said.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the president has not asked for Brown's resignation.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Brown was asked whether he was being made the scapegoat for the much-maligned relief effort.

"By the press, yes. By the president, no," he said, after a long pause.

Just a week earlier, during a tour of the storm damage in Alabama, Bush had publicly praised the FEMA director, whom he called "Brownie," for doing "a heck of a job."

At that point, though, Brown and his agency were already under fire, and his responsibilities were already being trimmed. Chertoff, who took over Brown's duty of briefing Bush on the status of the recovery efforts, refused to answer yesterday when a reporter asked whether the shift was a prelude to Brown's leaving the agency.

The Associated Press, quoting sources close to Brown, said the 50-year-old director had been planning to leave FEMA after the hurricane season ended in November and his transfer back to Washington yesterday made his departure a virtual certainty.

Calls for resignation

Congressional critics said that sending Brown back to Washington wasn't enough and repeated their demands that he be dismissed.

"The failure of FEMA was a failure of leadership. I regret that FEMA Director Michael Brown did not resign. He should have resigned or been fired," said Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland.

Republican Sen. Trent Lott, who lost his coastal Mississippi home in the storm, said it was clear that FEMA was "overwhelmed, undermanned and not capable of doing its job" under Brown.

"Michael Brown has been acting like a private instead of a general," said Lott in a statement.

In a letter to Bush, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Charles E. Schumer of New York and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan urged that Brown be fired because of repeated misjudgments and failures over the previous 10 days.

"His continued presence in this critical position endangers the success of the ongoing recovery efforts," they wrote. "It is not enough to remove Mr. Brown from the disaster scene."

Chertoff cast the transfer as a change in leadership for "the next phase of operations" and said the recovery effort was "moving forward expeditiously."

He said Brown was needed in Washington to tend to the range of his responsibilities as FEMA director.

"We need to be prepared to deal effectively with the possibility of other hurricanes as well as other disasters," Chertoff said, "whether they be natural or man-made."

Refocusing attention

The transfer serves to refocus attention away from the initial response and to how the government is responding in the days and weeks to come, said Frank Cilluffo, a former White House homeland security aide.

Now, Cilluffo said, FEMA could focus "on the mission" and not on "the Washington story."

Criticism of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina has been unending, and Brown has borne the brunt of it. Over the past week, he has faded from the scene as Chertoff took over with public briefings.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, as New Orleans descended into near-anarchy, Brown became the face of a federal response that not only failed to anticipate the full scope of the disaster but remained out of touch for days afterward.

"I actually think the security is pretty darn good," he told reporters Sept. 1, as gunfire and violence were being reported at New Orleans' convention center.

Brown acknowledged later, in an interview with CNN, that he had been unaware until that day of the problems at the convention center, which were being broadcast live on cable TV.

It was the next day, Sept. 2, that Bush commended Brown as he visited the storm-ravaged area for the first time.

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