After months of being pummeled as the poster boy for the government's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, former federal disaster chief Michael Brown finally hit back.
Claims by the Homeland Security Department that it didn't quickly realize the scope of the Aug. 29 storm's devastation are "just baloney," Brown testified at a Senate hearing on Friday. Told by one senator that he lacked the leadership to manage the response, Brown angrily replied: "I absolutely resent you sitting here and saying that."
And in a punch to the president whom he says he still respects, Brown testified that he told top White House officials the day Katrina hit about massive flooding in New Orleans and warned that "we were realizing our worst nightmare."
More defiant than defensive, the former Federal Emergency Management Agency director took aim at the Bush administration — a far cry from his last congressional appearance, nearly six months ago, when he heaped the bulk of blame on state and local officials.
Brown told senators that he dealt directly with White House officials the day Katrina hit, including chief of staff Andrew Card and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin. He also said that officials from the Homeland Security Department were getting regular briefings that day.
Administration officials have said they did not realize the severe damage Katrina had caused until after the storm had passed. And under oath, Brown told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that he could not explain why his appeals failed to produce a faster response.
"I expected them to cut every piece of red tape, do everything they could ... that I didn't want to hear anybody say that we couldn't do everything they humanly could to respond to this," Brown said about a video conference with administration officials — in which President Bush briefly participated — the day before Katrina hit. "Because I knew in my gut this was the bad one."
What would have sped up the response? If it had been terrorists that destroyed New Orleans' levees instead of nature, Brown told Congress, the federal response would have been more aggressive, CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports.
"But because this was a natural disaster, that has become the stepchild within the Department of Homeland Security …" Brown told Congress.
Brown says natural disasters have been playing second fiddle to terror concerns ever since FEMA was put under the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. The merger was supposed to make the response to any kind of disaster quick, effective and coordinated. But Brown told Senators it's done just the opposite, Attkisson reports.
In the end, the storm claimed more than 1,300 lives, uprooted hundreds of thousands more and caused tens of billions in damage. The devastation in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities left Americans with enduring images of their countrymen dying in flooded nursing homes and pleading for rescue from rooftops.
Brown, in his second Capitol Hill appearance since Katrina, told his side to the senators five months after he quit under fire as chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
He agreed with some senators who characterized him as a scapegoat for government failures.
"I feel somewhat abandoned," Brown said.
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