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Transcript: Former FEMA Director Michael Brown on 'FNS'
Written by Chris Wallace / Published March 06, 2006 / Fox News Sunday
The following is a partial transcript of the March 6, 2006 edition of "FOX News Sunday With Chris Wallace":
CHRIS WALLACE, HOST: Joining us now for his first Sunday show interview since Hurricane Katrina, the former director of FEMA, Michael Brown.
Welcome to "FOX News Sunday". Thanks for coming in, sir.
MICHAEL BROWN, FORMER FEMA DIRECTOR: Thank you, Chris.
WALLACE: Let's start with the big picture. As you look back over last August, how do you assess responsibility for what went wrong? How big a percentage was the federal government's fault and how much of the blame do you apportion to the state and local level?
BROWN: Well, we have to remember in this country the primary responsibility is for state and local governments. FEMA and the federal government come in only in a catastrophe and only at the request of the governor to assist them.
WALLACE: So if you're going to say a percentage for federal, state and local for the responsibility for what went wrong, how would you assign it?
BROWN: Seventy percent state and local, 30 percent federal.
WALLACE: The most immediate problem, I think everybody would agree, was the failure to evacuate the city in the first place. We've all seen those pictures of the school...
WALLACE: ... buses out in the parking lot. Here they are partially submerged. Why didn't they get used to get people out of New Orleans?
BROWN: To this day, I don't know. I mean, I literally called the president on Saturday and Sunday and said Mr. President, you've got to call Nagin and Blanco and through persuasive powers get them to do that mandatory evacuation. And when they...
WALLACE: And did he do that?
BROWN: He did do that. And when you think about the mayor saying well, I can get 90 percent of the people out, that still means 57,000 people are still stranded, people that cannot get out and people that wouldn't get out.
WALLACE: Let's talk about the federal role and the tapes that everybody has seen this week that has put Katrina back in the news. Sunday, August 28th, the day before the hurricane hits, you're on a video conference with the president and other key officials, and here is what he says.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: I want to assure the folks at the state level that we are fully prepared to not only help you during the storm, but we will move in whatever resources and assets we have at our disposal after the storm.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WALLACE: In fact, was the federal government fully prepared, as the president said?
BROWN: I don't think we were, Chris. I think that we had dropped the ball long before Katrina hit in not doing the kind of catastrophic disaster planning that the federal government should have been doing. That's where we dropped the ball.
WALLACE: So why did the president say they were fully prepared?
BROWN: Well, because I think the president was right in the sense that we were going to move every asset we could into New Orleans and Mississippi, into that 90,000 square mile area to help everybody.
WALLACE: In that same conference, the secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, says -- and let's put it up -- "If there is anything you need from the Coast Guard or any other components that you're not getting, please let us know." And you respond, "I appreciate it. The Coast Guard and other DHS agencies have been incredibly good to us."
Sounds like you had what you needed.
BROWN: I did. And in fact, we always had cooperation from both the Coast Guard and all the other components of DHS, and I want to say on air, too, particularly from the Department of Defense. Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary England had always advised me that I could get anything I needed.
WALLACE: So I mean, I guess the big question everybody asks is if you had all these assets -- this is the day before the storm hits -- why didn't they get to the people who needed them until Thursday or Friday or even later that week?
BROWN: Because I don't think that we realized -- I don't think the entire government apparatus realized what I knew in my gut on Saturday and Sunday, that this would be a catastrophic disaster of biblical proportions, beyond anything this country had faced before.
WALLACE: Well, why didn't they? I mean, that's your job as the head of FEMA. You're on these conferences. And you know, the tapes show you were sounding the alarm on Sunday, the day before the storm hit.
WALLACE: Why didn't they know and why didn't they then act in those first days?
BROWN: I don't know. And that's one of the things that I think we need to go back and find out, because I was sounding those alarm bells, and to this day I'm incredibly frustrated that we didn't move and could not move things faster.
WALLACE: All right. Secretary Chertoff says you were a big part of the problem, that on Tuesday, the first day after the storm, that you were out of touch. Let's watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL CHERTOFF, DHS SECRETARY: I heard that he was flying around with governors and other people, that he was thinking about a TV appearance. And I gave him a very clear message: Job one is to get this thing done. Sit in the operation center. Get with the relevant managers. Make sure you are taking care of all of these issues.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WALLACE: I understand your wanting to get out and to get a firsthand view of what was going on, but doesn't it make sense that you should have been in the operations center coordinating things?
BROWN: Absolutely not. And in fact, that's not how FEMA's operated in its entire history. Every FEMA director is in the field with the troops making sure they have what they need and cutting through that red tape.
I think Secretary Chertoff's order for me to stay in Baton Rouge was one of the tipping points that caused this disaster to be even worse.
WALLACE: But let's take a look at what happened on that date. This is Tuesday. It's the crucial day. It's the first day after the storm. It's not till late Monday that you even know that the levees have been breached.
You spent that day on helicopter tours of Louisiana and of Mississippi, and here's what you had to say about problems you were having staying in touch. Let's watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BROWN: We were having horrible cell phone problems making connections, and I was on two helicopters. I was on a helicopter with Governor Blanco in which we couldn't make contact, and then there was a time when I had flown MilAir to Mississippi to visit with Governor Barbour and my team in Mississippi, and we had a hard time making contact there.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WALLACE: Is that really where you needed to be, on helicopters and, by your own admission, having trouble staying in touch?
BROWN: We had trouble staying in touch, but we stayed in touch. If you go back and look at my cell phone logs, I had constant communication with both the White House and with Chertoff and DHS throughout those two-day periods. It wasn't easy, but we had contact.
And I'd correct another misperception. We knew about the levees breaking at approximately 1:49, 2 o'clock that afternoon.
WALLACE: On Monday.
BROWN: On Monday. And so that's why we were out trying to find out everything going on, so we could move assets where they were needed.
WALLACE: But one of the big complaints, sir, is that you were holding things up. You had said that you knew about the hundreds of people stranded in the convention center on Wednesday of that week.
And yet according to the Senate investigation, it wasn't until Friday, two days later, that FEMA actually ordered food and water to get to those people. Why the two-day hold-up?
BROWN: And that's incorrect, and I think the Senate is absolutely wrong. The minute that we learned about those people in the convention center, we immediately started ordering supplies in there.
The problem was we made the orders to get things there. It was actually physically getting them there, because the FEMA logistics system by that point was not doing as well as it should have done.
WALLACE: Why not? I mean, again, you know, the media was there. They're reporting it. They're able to get back and forth, in and out of New Orleans. Why can't the U.S. government, the state government, the local government get food and water and medicine to those people?
BROWN: And I love that premise. You know, the media was able to get one person and a camera crew and a sound guy there, which is easy to do, as opposed to moving literally tons of food and supplies into an area that's flooded.
And you can't go in and just start air-lifting and dropping things in there, even though I tried to get that done. So it's a difference between getting one or two people in there and getting a convoy of supplies in there.
WALLACE: All right. The White House has just completed a review of Katrina, and here is what the president's top homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend, had to say. Let's watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TOWNSEND: Michael Brown chose not to follow his chain of command. That can't happen again. That has to be very clear.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WALLACE: Here's, I guess, the question. If, as you say, the secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, was marginalizing FEMA, why wasn't it even more important for you to keep Chertoff and DHS fully in the loop?
BROWN: Because DHS and Chertoff don't provide anything that I need in that disaster. Chertoff can't move one bottle of water. He can't move one MRE.
And for Fran Townsend to now come out and say I wasn't following the chain of command completely belies exactly how we operated from the day this administration came in, from September 11th all the way through the Florida hurricanes in 2004.
I always dealt directly with the White House directly with the president.
WALLACE: But was that okay with Chertoff? Because he says -- and also, frankly, his predecessor, Tom Ridge, says -- you were -- I mean, one of the words that's been used, not by them specifically, is insubordinate. You were doing and end-run around your direct superiors at homeland security and going to the White House the whole time.
BROWN: You know, Tom Ridge was very smart. Tom Ridge knew that in a disaster he needed to stay away. And in Florida in 2004, Tom Ridge stayed completely out of my way.
I never had any secretary of homeland security interfere with what my operations were up until Chertoff.
WALLACE: Well, wait. Interfere? I mean, they're your boss.
BROWN: Let me give you an example of what happened in Louisiana. I would give an order for something to happen. And somebody would go talk to Chertoff. And Chertoff would give a different order. And so there was this confusion about who was in charge.
I should have been in charge in there. I should have been making those decisions. And Chertoff should not have been second-guessing those decisions.
WALLACE: Did the White House know that you were doing an end-run around Chertoff during Hurricane Katrina, and did they, in effect, say that's fine with them, you can cut him out?
BROWN: Well, they continued to take my phone calls and they continued to talk to me about what I needed and what they could do to help me.
WALLACE: So how do you explain Fran Townsend saying that you didn't report up the chain of command?
BROWN: I think this is after the fact, trying to find an excuse.
WALLACE: You have said that calling Chertoff was a waste of time.
WALLACE: I want to put up some of the e-mails that you were sending at this same time. Let's take a look. August 29, the day the storm hit. Michael Brown to FEMA staff. "If you'll look at my lovely FEMA attire, you'll really vomit. I am a fashion god."
August 30th, the day after the storm. Michael Brown to your assistant. "Do you know of anyone who dog-sits? Bethany has backed out and Tamara is looking. If you know of any responsible kids, let me know."
And you can't take the time to call Secretary Chertoff?
BROWN: But I did call Secretary Chertoff. If you look -- again, if you look at my phone call logs, I kept that man in the loop. I have records showing that I called him and he called me.
But I think the other thing, Chris, is people like to take those e-mails and make fun of those. Those e-mails are no different than a heart surgeon who's in the middle of an open heart surgery moving a heart and saying hey, guys, do you want to play basketball? It's a little bit of levity. It's trying to bring some humor to keep the troops moving.
But for someone to come back now and say I didn't keep Chertoff in the loop -- I didn't...
WALLACE: Well, it's not somebody. Chertoff says you didn't keep him in the loop, and here's Fran Townsend saying you didn't keep Chertoff in the loop.
BROWN: And once again they are being disingenuous and they're still looking for a fall guy, because if you go back and look at the phone records, there is a constant chain of communication between me and Chertoff throughout the disaster.
WALLACE: Finally, and perhaps most important, from what you hear about all the changes the administration has made, all of this lesson learned report, the investigations by the Senate and the House, is the government any better prepared than it was last August 28th to deal with a disaster?
BROWN: Chris, I think we're worse off. If you look at what's happening in FEMA, they still have -- Chief Paulison is now talking about the hundreds of vacancies they can't fill. There's still this confusion about what FEMA is supposed to do and not do.
The partnerships between FEMA and state and local governments have been broken and will continue to be broken by the path that the secretary is headed down. So I think we're worse off today than we were even before Katrina.
WALLACE: And what about the White House? They just put out this more than 100-page report, lessons learned, big report that Fran Townsend presented to the president. Have they gotten their act together?
BROWN: Not yet. And I think what they need to do is recognize that FEMA -- despite the politics of it, FEMA needs to be pulled out of the Department of Homeland Security because it has a different mission, it has a different culture, and until it's independent, with its own budget and its own relationships with state and local government, it will continue to falter.
WALLACE: Hurricane season starts June 1st. What are you saying to the people of America?
BROWN: I'm telling you that they ought to demand right now that FEMA be pulled out. These people on the Hill ought to pull FEMA out right now, make it independent, and cut out the baloney.
WALLACE: Mr. Brown, we want to thank you so much for coming in.
BROWN: Thank you, Chris.
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