Mike Brown Part 1: I Lost My Job Because Kathleen Blanco Is An Idiot

by John Hawkins | September 15, 2005 5:38 am

Michael Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has spilled his guts to the New York Times[1].

What did he say, you ask?

Well, the short version basically comes down to: my biggest mistake was not immediately realizing how incredibly incompetent the locals were in Louisiana, especially Blanco.

Here’s the longer version, which is filled with intriguing little tidbits that paint a particularly unflattering portrait of Kathleen Blanco (my emphasis):

“By Saturday afternoon, many residents were leaving. But as the hurricane approached early on Sunday, Mr. Brown said he grew so frustrated with the failure of local authorities to make the evacuation mandatory that he asked Mr. Bush for help.

“Would you please call the mayor and tell him to ask people to evacuate?” Mr. Brown said he asked Mr. Bush in a phone call.

“Mike, you want me to call the mayor?” the president responded in surprise, Mr. Brown said. Moments later, apparently on his own, the mayor, C. Ray Nagin, held a news conference to announce a mandatory evacuation, but it was too late, Mr. Brown said. Plans said it would take at least 72 hours to get everyone out.

When he arrived in Baton Rouge on Sunday evening, Mr. Brown said, he was concerned about the lack of coordinated response from Governor Blanco and Maj. Gen. Bennett C. Landreneau, the adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard.

“What do you need? Help me help you,” Mr. Brown said he asked them. “The response was like, ‘Let us find out,’ and then I never received specific requests for specific things that needed doing.”

The most responsive person he could find, Mr. Brown said, was Governor Blanco’s husband, Raymond. “He would try to go find stuff out for me,” Mr. Brown said.

Governor Blanco’s communications director, Mr. Mann, said that she was frustrated that Mr. Brown and others at FEMA wanted itemized requests before acting. “It was like walking into an emergency room bleeding profusely and being expected to instruct the doctors how to treat you,” he said.

On Monday night, Mr. Brown said, he reported his growing worries to Mr. Chertoff and the White House. He said he did not ask for federal active-duty troops to be deployed because he assumed his superiors in Washington were doing all they could. Instead, he said, he repeated a dozen times, “I cannot get a unified command established.”

The next morning, Mr. Brown said, he and Governor Blanco decided to take a helicopter into New Orleans to see the mayor and assess the situation. But before the helicopter took off, his field coordinating officer, or F.C.O., called from the city on a satellite phone. “It is getting out of control down here; the levee has broken,” the staff member told him, he said.

The crowd in the Superdome, the city’s shelter of last resort, was already larger than expected. But Mr. Brown said he was relieved to see that the mayor had a detailed list of priorities, starting with help to evacuate the Superdome.

Mr. Brown passed the list on to the state emergency operations center in Baton Rouge, but when he returned that evening he was surprised to find that nothing had been done.

“I am just screaming at my F.C.O., ‘Where are the helicopters?’ ” he recalled. ” ‘Where is the National Guard? Where is all the stuff that the mayor wanted?’ “

FEMA, he said, had no helicopters and only a few communications trucks. The agency typically depends on state resources, a system he said worked well in the other Gulf Coast states and in Florida last year.

Meanwhile, “unbeknownst to me,” Mr. Brown said, at some point on Monday or Tuesday the hotels started directing their remaining guests to the convention center – something neither FEMA nor local officials had planned.

At the same time, the Superdome was degenerating into “gunfire and anarchy,” and on Tuesday the FEMA staff and medical team in New Orleans called to say they were leaving for their own safety.

That night, Mr. Brown said, he called Mr. Chertoff and the White House again in desperation. “Guys, this is bigger than what we can handle,” he told them, he said. “This is bigger than what FEMA can do. I am asking for help.”

“Maybe I should have screamed 12 hours earlier,” Mr. Brown said in the interview. “But that is hindsight. We were still trying to make things work.”

By Wednesday morning, Mr. Brown said, he learned that General HonorĂ© was on his way. While the general did not have responsibility for the entire relief effort and the Guard, his commanding manner helped mobilize the state’s efforts.

“HonorĂ© shows up and he and I have a phone conversation,” Mr. Brown said. “He gets the message, and, boom, it starts happening.”

How pathetic is it that Brown is having to try to pump Blanco’s husband for information about what’s going on? Furthermore, it’s hard to believe Blanco’s communications director is complaining that FEMA wanted “itemized requests.” The locals are supposed to be on the point after a disaster and instead, you have the governor’s office complaining that they had to give answers more specific than “Fix it!” and “We need stuff!” when FEMA asked how they could help.

Also note that FEMA had medical staff at the Superdome, but they had to leave on Tuesday because the security situation got so out of hand. Who should have been in charge of the security? Two groups controlled by the locals: the police and the national guard.

Furthermore, is it not telling that Brown can spend days working with Blanco and Nagin, get nowhere, and then he can have a single phone conversation with HonorĂ©, “and, boom, it starts happening?”

It’s no coincidence, that’s just how things work when you have someone who knows what he’s doing running the show on the ground. In Alabama, Mississippi, & Florida, the local government was able to fill that role. Unfortunately, in Louisiana they had to bring in someone from outside to do it and that made all the difference in the time of response.

  1. New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/15/national/nationalspecial/15brown.html?pagewanted=print

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