Most Americans first learned of Michael D. Brown about five years ago when George W. Bush declared, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.” But the former FEMA administrator was out of a job within days as the storm devastated parts of four Gulf states and left more than 1,800 people dead.
Brown now hosts “The Michael Brown Show” on Denver’s KOA-AM radio, which will broadcast tonight from New Orleans. He spoke with The Federal Eye about the anniversary, his frequent run-ins with people at airports and restaurants and his suggestions for folks interested in government service. An edited transcript follows:
Five years later, what do you take away from Katrina – especially the charges that the feds didn’t do enough?
I think the most important point is that everything that I was saying to [former Homeland Security secretaries] Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff prior to Katrina making landfall all came true. The people at FEMA who will now tell you that Washington had become too Washington-centric are absolutely true. And that was a function of a giant sucking hole of DHS that was taking resources and taking manpower out of the field and using it up to make everything emanate from Washington, D.C. Which was the antithesis of what FEMA had always been about. …
Subsequent to DHS, they start stripping out different functions from FEMA, taking out resources. I told Ridge and Chertoff both that we would face another Hurricane Andrew. By taking the money away, for example, the preparedness grants, which went out for awhile, came back in, that broke the relationship FEMA had with state and locals. The policy guidance, everything. I warned them this is what would happen. That you would show up somewhere, you’d be beyond the capabilities and FEMA wouldn’t have the resources and – I think only people in D.C. get this – when you lose that direct chain of command between FEMA and the White House, you’re screwed. Because at the end of the day you only have one person in charge. It has to be the one person on the ground who can tell them what’s going on.
Do people still call or stop you on the street to yell at you, say hello or call you ‘Brownie’?
Oh yeah, it’s amazing. … One was at Denver International Airport. This couple stopped me. He was a doctor and was very sympathetic toward me. He was apologetic for how I was treated and very kind. His wife stood aloof, she was still mad. It struck me that you can have that polar opposite reaction.
And the second incident was at the Dole Institute of Politics. A woman came up, and she’d been evacuated from New Orleans, she’d lost everything she had and was there with her kids. And she was expressing sympathy for what I went through. And she wanted to know that she held nothing against me and she realized she’d made a mistake by not understanding or knowing what she should do to protect her kids. It was a real eye opener for her. …
At the very same presentation, someone in the back of the room started screaming ‘Murderer! Murderer!’ I said, ‘I get it, shut up, I’m giving the presentation.’
Let me ask this again — what would you have done differently if you could do it all over again?
I really needed the president to get the attention of the entire administration. I needed every Cabinet secretary to be full hands on deck. If I called and said I needed X, they should have given me X. I regret not pushing harder for that.
I’m not sure anyone outside the Beltway gets this, but the power of the president using that bully pulpit, yes, it’s good for the public and the victims, but it’s just as important for those political appointees who need to understand the boss is on top of it. He says it’s the number one priority, so do everything it takes. Not having him do that was a tipping point.
The other tipping point was when I couldn’t convince [New Orleans Mayor] Ray Nagin to do a mandatory evacuation. I called the president to call Nagin for me, because I wasn’t getting anywhere with him. The president seemed kind of surprised that I was asking him to do it. After Bush made that call and Nagin kept trying to decide, I went on a few television stations and said ‘I’d be getting my bum out now.’
But I should have been getting on every network saying that. … We don’t have the power or authority, but I failed to not use the bully pulpit and tell people to get out.
Do you have any advice for people like yourself who come to Washington to take these types of political positions – and may end up as the fall guy?
You’ve heard the line, ‘I serve at the pleasure of the president.’ That’s not a trite statement, it’s the absolute truth. You are putting yourself out there, hoping to do the best you can do, recognizing that you’re working in a purely political vacuum and that anything can happen. You have to be ready for it.
When it happens, unless you committed a crime, if you get caught in a political s— storm, then what you need to do is hold your head up, walk away and move on. It’s not the end of the world.
The lesson to be learned about this is – first of all, every agency is going to make missteps. There are always going to be errors made. It’s the nature of the beast.
… Whatever your persuasion is, we have to recognize is that this federal government of the United States is so large and cumbersome that we really can’t and should not expect it to be this kind of well-oiled, well-running machine. It’s not.