Saturday, February 11, 2006

Brown warned White House before Katrina struck

Brown warned White House before Katrina struck

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former federal disaster chief Michael Brown told a U.S. Senate panel on Friday he warned President George W. Bush of impending catastrophe in New Orleans last summer and informed White House aides of dangerous flooding shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck.

Brown said on August 29, the day the hurricane hit, he relayed urgent reports that the city's levee pumps were failing, contradicting White House officials who have said they were unaware on August 29 the levees were no longer functioning.

With the pumps overwhelmed and the levees seriously breached, floodwaters overtook much of New Orleans in a natural disaster that killed about 1,200 people along the Gulf Coast.

On September 1, Bush said in a television interview, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

Yet Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the committee's ranking Democrat, cited a report from the National Weather Service at 9:14 a.m. on August 29 that at least one of the levees protecting the city was breached.

Brown, who headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in his first detailed testimony about his contacts with Bush and top White House officials that he informed the White House that "we were realizing our worst nightmare."

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is investigating failures by federal, state and local officials to deal with the hurricane and particularly why the Bush administration was so slow to react to the emergency.

Brown blamed the poor federal response to Katrina in part on the absorption of FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, which he said was focused on preventing terrorist attacks and neglected the threat of natural disasters. He urged it be set up as a separate agency once again.

In addition to one or two direct talks with Bush before the storm, Brown said he talked with White House officials about 30 times once Katrina hit land. Those conversations included White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Brown said, adding: "Sometimes the president would get on the phone."

Before agreeing to answer questions about his contacts with the White House, Brown sought assurances he would not be caught in a legal cross-fire over whether those conversations should be divulged.

Committee head Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, gave Brown a green light to testify, saying the White House was given the chance, but had not invoked executive privilege.


In his testimony, Brown said Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff's sprawling agency was making Katrina response decisions contrary to his own. "It became an absolutely unmanageable situation," Brown said.

Brown emerged as the main scapegoat for the government's response. He was forced to resign shortly after the disaster.

Collins, who is leading the Senate probe of the government response, put some of the blame on Brown's shoulders. Following his testimony, Collins said Brown "let his poor relations" with Chertoff interfere with communications.

Some Democrats on the committee tried to lay blame squarely with the White House. "Keep your chin up. Fight back," Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey told Brown, adding that the Bush administration was handling hurricane reconstruction poorly.

Besides those killed, hundreds of thousands were made homeless in the storm, which devastated much of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Nearly six months later, many of those displaced do not know whether their homes will be rebuilt.

Bush was nearing the end of his monthlong summer vacation when the hurricane struck. He was on a working trip to Arizona and California on the day it hit and the day after, August 29 and August 30, and returned to Washington from his Texas ranch on August 31.

Brown's appearance before the Senate panel was followed by a subpoena to appear before the House Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina. The panel is meeting this weekend.

"This will be a closed meeting. We want to get the information we need from Brown without causing a further media circus," said Tom Davis, a Republican from Virginia who chairs that committee.

(Additional reporting by Alan Elsner and Donna Smith)