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Brown Out As Katrina Relief Leader

FEMA Director Michael Brown speaks on Hurricane Katrina relief effort, New Orleans, Louisiana 2005/9/4
AP
The Bush administration dumped FEMA Director Michael Brown as commander of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts Friday, then abruptly scrapped plans to give $2,000 debit cards to displaced storm victims as it struggled to get a grip on the recovery operation.

Brown, who had come to personify a relief operation widely panned as bumbling, will be replaced by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen. Allen had been in charge of relief, recovery and rescue efforts for New Orleans.

The decision to order Brown back to Washington from Louisiana — he remains as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — marked the administration's latest attempt to assert leadership in the wake of the devastating storm and its aftermath, including the weakest public opinion polls of Bush's time in office.

Still, there was fresh evidence of raggedness in the effort when FEMA announced late in the day that it would discontinue a two-day-old program to issue debit cards worth up to $2,000 to displaced families. Evacuees relocated to Texas, many of whom began receiving cards on Friday, will continue getting them, officials said.

A FEMA spokeswoman says agency officials decided to switch to direct deposits because it requires less staff.

The embattled director of FEMA has been under new fire after his agency has already been criticized heavily for their response. On Thursday, questions were raised about whether he padded his resume to highlight his previous emergency management background.

A government souce said Chertoff made the decision to pluck Brown out of overseeing hurricane efforts, though Chertoff discussed the action with President Bush, who approved, CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller reports.

Brown will be replaced by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, who was overseeing New Orleans relief and rescue efforts.

CBS News correspondent John Roberts reports that , akin to removing a military commander from duty in the middle of a mission. It does not speak well for Brown, Roberts said.

Asked if he was being made a scapegoat for a federal relief effort that has drawn widespread and sharp criticism, Brown told The Associated Press after a long pause: "By the press, yes. By the president, no."

Amid escalating calls for Brown's ouster, the White House had insisted publicly for days that Bush retained confidence in his FEMA chief. But there was no question that Brown's star was fading in the administration. In the storm's early days, Brown was the president's primary briefer on its path and the response effort, but by the weekend those duties had been taken over by Brown's boss — Chertoff.

"Michael Brown has done everything he possibly could to coordinate the federal response to this unprecedented challenge," Chertoff told reporters in Baton Rouge, La. Chertoff sidestepped a question on whether the move was the first step toward Brown's leaving FEMA.

But a source close to Brown, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the FEMA director had been considering leaving after the hurricane season ended in November and that Friday's action virtually assures his departure.

Senate Democrats said taking away FEMA Director Michael Brown's hurricane responsibilities isn't enough. They want him fired.

The Democrats said Brown doesn't inspire confidence and doesn't have what it takes to coordinate federal, state and local resources. In a letter to President Bush, Democratic leaders said keeping Brown as head of FEMA "endangers the success of the ongoing recovery efforts."