WASHINGTON – Drawing fire from members of Congress over his efforts to coordinate the response and prepare adequately for Hurricane Katrina, former FEMA chief Michael Brown (search) told a House committee Tuesday that his biggest mistake was not realizing early enough that local and state governments in Louisiana were "dysfunctional."
A defiant Brown said he should have known two days before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast that preparations were not going well inside state and local agencies.
"My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday [Aug. 27] that Louisiana was dysfunctional," Brown told Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the panel convened to look at failures to prepare for and respond to Hurricane Katrina.
Brown praised the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to the disaster, saying that it did what it could and functioned properly internally by beginning to meet mid-week before the hurricane and placing vital personnel and equipment out of harm's way before the storm.
"FEMA pushed forward with everything that it had," but the widespread criticism following its response is coming from people who continue to misunderstand the agency's role, Brown said.
"Guess what, FEMA doesn't own fire trucks; we don't own ambulances; we don't own search-and-rescue equipment. In fact, the only search-and-rescue or emergency equipment that we own is a very small cadre to protect some property that we own around the country. FEMA is a coordinating agency. We are not a law enforcement agency," he said.
Brown told the committee members that two of his biggest faults in the response were not being able to convince Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (search) and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (search ) to act faster and not dealing with the media better.
Brown said he felt "personal regret that I was unable to persuade Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down, get over their differences and work together. I just couldn't pull that off."
Asked about Brown's comments, Nagin said it's premature to be laying blame on anyone.
"Obviously there were issues across the board. Federal government, state goverment and local government did not have the processes in my opinion to deal with a storm of this magnitude," he said.
After touring storm-damaged Louisiana with President Bush earlier in the day, Blanco later issued a statement defending her actions and refuting Brown's claims.
Blanco said that she ordered the evacuation of New Orleans on Saturday, Aug. 27, not the 28th, as Brown said, and included three parishes — Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines — in her Aug. 28 disaster declaration for 14 parishes. Brown said she had not included those.
"Such falsehoods and misleading statements — made under oath before Congress — are shocking. It clearly demonstrates the appalling degree to which Mr. Brown is either out of touch with the truth or reality," Blanco said.
Blame Laid Elsewhere
Brown began his comments Tuesday, saying that while some criticism of all levels of government response to Katrina was valid, "I'll tell you that some of it is just not valid.
"You can't believe everything that you read in the newspapers, or everything that you see on television," Brown said, challenging online reports, magazine stories and other news outlets that he said reported incorrect facts about his resume and professional career.
"One national magazine not only defamed me, but my alma mater, the Oklahoma City University School of Law, in one sentence alone leveling six false charges," Brown said. "I guess it's the media's job, but I don't like it."
Brown added that he let the media manipulate his time, which could have been better spent.
"I failed initially to set up a series of regular briefings to the media about what FEMA was doing throughout the Gulf Coast region. And instead, I became tied to the news shows, going on the news shows early in the morning and late at night, and that was just a mistake," he said.
Without naming any specific officials at the Department of Homeland Security (search), the former emergency management chief also claimed that money he requested from the federal government, which could have improved the response and possibly saved lives, disappeared from his budget before it was submitted to Congress.
Asked about the charge during a separate event, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that FEMA's budget has increased 13 percent since it was moved to DHS. Chertoff added that FEMA's role has never been one to "have boots on the ground," but instead to help organize search-and-rescue, medical response and other volunteer teams in a partnership.
"I think FEMA did perform admirably in bringing some of these resources to bear," Chertoff said. "As I have said, we raised the budget over the past few years, but again we're going to look again into FEMA's capabilities, other capabilities the federal government has ... And we will, when we have a good sense of the lessons learned, put those lessons into effect as we go forward."
A Shocked and Awed Reaction to Brown's Testimony
Brown's appearance marked the second hearing convened by the House Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina (search).
Though the inquiry was meant to be bipartisan, Democrats say Republican lawmakers cannot fairly investigate the GOP White House, and are calling for an independent commission. Democrats have largely boycotted the congressional investigation, but William Jefferson, who represents part of New Orleans, did participate in the questioning.
Brown told Jefferson that the emergency response system worked in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, but not in Louisiana, raising the ire of the congressman, who suggested the former director's accusations are out of line.
"I find it absolutely stunning that this hearing would start out with you, Mr. Brown, laying the blame for FEMA's failings at the feet of the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans," Jefferson said.
"I don't think the response of the federal government can be explained on the basis of, as you have said here, you could not persuade the governor and the mayor to sit down and coordinate a response," he said.
"I can't help but wonder how different the answers would be ... if someone like Rudy Giuliani had been in your position instead of you. I think he would have done things differently and I think his answers to us would have been very different."
Shays went on to say that while Brown had said the communications failures weren't known before the storm struck, the government had been alerted to potential problems during a hurricane response drill known as Hurricane Pam in 2004.
"I'm happy you left," Shays said. "That kind of look in the lights like a deer tells me you weren't capable of doing that job."
Brown took exception to Shays' comments, saying: "I never thought I'd sit here and be berated because I'm not Rudy Giuliani, and I never thought someone would sit here and take out of context the fact that I said I've thought of several things I would do differently. I mentioned two of them.
"There are lots of things that I would do different," Brown added.
Later, Shays told FOX News that while he too thought Nagin and Blanco failed in their duties, Brown did not to step up to his responsibilities.
"What Mr. Brown didn't realize was that this was such a unique circumstance, he needed to step in, be extraordinarily aggressive, fill in the void left by the incompetence of the state and local government," Shays said. "He should have taken charge if no one else was."
Shays added that he believed FEMA suffers from bureaucratic fatigue with a command structure that is not decentralized to allow people on the ground to make decisions.
Brown Defends the Record
Brown announced his resignation from FEMA three days after Chertoff removed him from overseeing the onsite disaster response. During that time, Brown was highly criticized for being a Bush administration political appointee without deep emergency management experience.
President Bush replaced Brown with acting director R. David Paulison. Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen took control of ground operations.
Brown has denied accusations that he padded his resume and pointed out that he has managed the federal government's response to a wide array of emergencies.
"I have overseen over 150 presidentially declared disasters. I know what I am doing. And I think I do a pretty darn good job of it," Brown said.
Brown, who still acts as an adviser for DHS, wasn't appearing with the backing of the Department of Homeland Security, a department spokesman said.
The spokesman said the department had little part in preparing his testimony except for "providing some nuts and bolts facts," and DHS would learn of his remarks on TV.
Before the hearing began Tuesday, new information arose about Brown's actions during the response. According to a congressional memo, Brown has said he was initially unaware of desperate conditions at the New Orleans Convention Center because it was not a planned Hurricane Katrina evacuation site.
In Katrina's aftermath, thousands of people swarmed the convention center, which did not have enough food, water or other supplies and was filled amidst a backdrop of violence and fear.
Brown said he misspoke when he appeared to be unaware during a news interview that residents of New Orleans had assembled at the convention center, and he knew the day before they were going there. Thousands more stayed at the Superdome, where many reports of rapes and murders have since been proved to be unfounded.
Brown said the "hysteric media" is to blame for such misreporting.
Brown resigned on Sept. 12 after running FEMA for more than two years. He has a two-week "transition" period remaining at the agency, during which he will advise the department on "some of his views on his experience with Katrina," Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said. He is receiving full pay for the time that he is in an advisory role, which expires Oct. 12, one month after his resignation.
During a press conference Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, lumped Brown into a tirade against the Bush administration, which Reid accused of being plagued by cronyism.
"I mean, it should make us all pause to think that the man who is the poster child of what went wrong with Katrina and FEMA is still on the payroll. Now, it's hard for me to understand that," Reid said.
FOX News' Catherine Herridge and Gregory Simmons contributed to this report.