Brown quits as embattled chief of FEMA

Fire official is named as agency's acting director

Bush tours ravaged New Orleans

Bodies of 45 storm victims are found inside hospital

Katrina's Wake

September 13, 2005|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown resigned yesterday, three days after being removed from his responsibilities overseeing Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.

"It is important that I leave now to avoid further distraction from the ongoing mission of FEMA," Brown said in a statement.

He told the Associated Press that he quit because he thought it would be "in the best interest of the agency and the best interest of the president. The focus has got to be on FEMA."

President Bush named R. David Paulison, the chief U.S. fire administrator and former head of FEMA's preparedness division, as acting director.

In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who was Brown's immediate supervisor, commended his service in 160 previous disasters and the "unprecedented challenge" that Katrina posed.

The announcement came as Bush got his first close-up look at New Orleans' ravaged, trash-strewn, flooded neighborhoods.

During a 45-minute tour of the city, the president seized on news of falling water levels throughout New Orleans and pronounced the city on the mend. Business owners were issued passes to retrieve records and equipment, and more than half of southeastern Louisiana's water treatment plants were back in operation.

In another part of the city, the bodies of 45 storm victims were found over the weekend inside a hospital that was abandoned more than a week earlier after it was surrounded by floodwaters, officials said yesterday.

The patients, most of them elderly, died in the four days after the storm while waiting to be evacuated as temperatures inside Memorial Medical Center rose to 106 degrees, said Dave Goodson, the hospital's assistant administrator.

"These patients were not abandoned," he said.

La. death toll at 279

Louisiana's official death toll rose to 279 yesterday, up from 197 on Sunday.

Responding yesterday to criticism that federal relief was delayed because many victims were poor blacks, Bush vehemently denied that race was a factor.

Two-thirds of blacks nationwide say the federal government would have responded faster if most of the hurricane victims had been white, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.

"The storm didn't discriminate and neither will the recovery effort," Bush said. "When those Coast Guard choppers ... were pulling people off roofs, they didn't check the color of a person's skin. They wanted to save lives."

Asked about Brown's resignation in a tour of hard-hit Gulfport, Miss., the president said he was unaware of it.

"When I get on Air Force One, I will call back to Washington. But I've been on the move," he said during a visit to an elementary school.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said later that Bush had been informed of Brown's decision earlier in the day but, when asked about it in Gulfport, "did not know it had been made public."

McClellan declined to say whether Bush asked for the resignation. "This was Mike Brown's decision and [Bush] respects that decision," McClellan said. He told reporters aboard Air Force One, "the president appreciates Mike Brown's service."

Paulison, Brown's replacement, has had a 30-year career in fire rescue that includes chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department. While at the Department of Homeland Security, which he joined in 2001, Paulison wrote an advisory recommending that Americans stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting in preparation for a terrorist attack.

Other departures likely

More FEMA resignations are likely to follow Brown's, said current and former administration officials.

"There will have to be a house cleaning," said Richard A. Falkenrath, former deputy homeland security adviser. Pressure from Congress and the public will also probably mean the next FEMA director is someone with solid credentials in disaster management, he said.

FEMA's acting deputy director, Patrick Rhode, is likely to be among the first departures. Chertoff said he anticipated appointing a permanent deputy director soon.

Paulison could be nominated to head FEMA permanently, though some former officials considered it unlikely. Others under consideration would be Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who replaced Brown on Friday as head of the hurricane relief effort and is currently chief of staff of the Coast Guard.

Falkenrath said the president might also look to state emergency managers. One possibility, he said, is Richard Andrews, a former top California emergency management official who is on the department's Homeland Security Advisory Council.

While Falkenrath sees "a difficult transitional period ahead" over the next year, he said, "I think this over time will lead to a reinvigoration of FEMA."

Brown's resignation - coming two weeks after Katrina thrashed against the Gulf Coast - met with something of a collective sigh of relief in Washington.

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