Testifying before a Senate committee on Friday, former federal disaster czar Michael Brown implied that the Bush administration was dishonest about when it was told the situation in New Orleans was turning dire following Hurricane Katrina.
"I find it a little disingenuous," Brown said after telling the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that top officials were notified the levees had been breached the day Katrina hit, contradicting officials who claimed they were not told until the following day. "For them to claim that we didn't have awareness of it is just baloney."
The former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency testified that on the night the hurricane made landfall, he spoke on the phone with a senior White House aide to notify him of the flooding in New Orleans, which lies below sea level.
"I think I told him that we were realizing our worst nightmare, that everything we had planned about, worried about, that FEMA, frankly, had worried about for 10 years was coming true," Brown said. Brown said the aide was most likely Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin, and that he considered the call equal to being on the phone with President Bush.
Shortly after the storm, administration officials said they did not learn of the severity of the flooding until at least a day later. At the time Bush said, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."
Brown said he could not declare under oath that he told the White House the levees were broken, but added that by telling officials their worst-case scenario for New Orleans was unfolding they would have understood that to be the reality.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan on Friday sought to downplay Brown's testimony, saying there were conflicting reports about the levees in the immediate aftermath of the storm. "Some were saying it was over top, some were saying it was breached," he said.
"We knew of the flooding that was going on," McClellan said. "That's why our top priority was focused on saving lives."
Brown, who has come to symbolize what critics of the Bush administration call its ingrained cronyism and incompetence, resigned from FEMA days after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29. He was roundly criticized for lapses in the agency's response to Katrina, and on Friday continued to lay the blame on Homeland Security and elsewhere in the federal government.
Brown blasted the administration's decision to fold FEMA into Homeland Security three years ago, saying that the top-heavy federal bureaucracy forced him to resort to maverick means. He told senators FEMA ought to be restored to the Cabinet-level agency it was.
Some panel members took issue with Brown's defensiveness. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., lambasted Brown for what he characterized as his failure in responding to and communicating about the devastating hurricane, which wiped out much of New Orleans and several other cities and towns along the Gulf Coast and claimed at least 1,300 lives.
"That's very easy for you to say, Senator," Brown shot back. "I have admitted mistakes. What more do you want me to do?"
Coleman pounced on a series of e-mail exchanges that was made public in November and instantly became fodder for late-night comedians. Several of the e-mails, sent when New Orleanians were packed into the sweltering Superdome without adequate food or water, seemed to reveal a shakily unsure or alarmingly oblivious Brown.
The senator cited an e-mail in which Brown responded to a FEMA staffer in New Orleans who had informed the then-chief of a situation "past critical" with: ""Thanks for the update, anything I need to do to tweak?"
Brown took offense to Coleman's questioning, firing back, "I'm, frankly, getting sick and tired of these e-mails being taken out of context."
But other senators seemed sympathetic to Brown's assertion that failures in the response to Katrina occurred at all levels and that he was a scapegoat.
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., told Brown: "You have been selected as the designated scapegoat. ... You try to do your best. But we are, after all, human beings. And human beings make mistakes."
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., implied that the federal government was happily allowing Brown to take the blame, to which the Bush appointee said, "I certainly feel somewhat abandoned."
Lautenberg pointed to a New York Times story reporting that tens of thousands of evacuees were still homeless, and six months after the devastating storms only slightly more than half of people who requested trailers promised by FEMA had actually received them. The federal government's response to the disaster is largely viewed as badly botched and has called into question the nation's preparedness for another terrorist attack four years after Sept. 11, 2001.
"It shows us that the systems that we set up after 9-11 failed us on that day," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., of the panel's investigation of the response to Katrina.
The Department of Homeland Security was formed at President Bush's direction following the attacks and FEMA, which had been a Cabinet-level agency, was folded into the new department. Brown said the added bureaucratic layers hindered FEMA's efficiency and agility in response to Katrina, and he predicted the agency would be rendered toothless if allowed to remain in Homeland Security.
"The cultural differences are so wide and so great that it cannot function within DHS, and the things that have been done now [are] going to drive the final stake into the heart of FEMA," Brown told the committee. He said that the focus on terrorism had relegated natural disasters to the status of "stepchild of the Department of Homeland Security."
Brown, who said he did not blame Bush or the White House, added that he had been forced to circumvent normal bureaucratic channels after Michael Chertoff replaced former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
"You're going to hear from witnesses who will say Brown didn't think he worked for Chertoff. The reason they say that is because I had a mission to help disaster victims. I needed to prevent bureaucracy or new levels of bureaucracy," he added.
Brown also asserted that under Chertoff he was denied $80 million to do catastrophic planning for a natural disaster like Katrina before the storm hit.
Two Homeland Security officials testifying after Brown said they were not properly informed of the realities on the ground.
"I have a 24-year military background. In that training I'm accountable and responsible for certain things in my area. If I knew things as a squadron commander and I didn't notify my wing commander I should be fired," said Robert Stephan, assistant secretary for infrastructure protection.
Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., asked the officials why they didn't simply turn on the television.
Stephan also argued that FEMA belongs under the umbrella of DHS, saying there should be "one bellybutton so there is a coordination of efforts and not a lot of waste of time."
Both he and Matthew Broderick, director of operations coordination, acknowledged the department's sluggish response, but disputed Brown's claim that preoccupation with anti-terrorism efforts was responsible.
After the hearings, a House panel investigating the response to Katrina announced they had subpoenaed Brown and would privately interview him over the weekend. The panel is expected to release its report on the government's preparation for and response to Katrina on Wednesday.
Earlier Friday, the chairwoman of the panel, Sen. Susan Collins, said that FEMA missed early warning signs that emergency response teams were unprepared to handle a catastrophic disaster like Hurricane Katrina.
A management audit prepared by Brown months before the storm showed that the agency had a lack of adequate and consistent situational awareness to size up emergencies, and was unable to properly control inventory and track assets, she told fellow committee members. Collins said the audit also showed that FEMA misunderstood standard response procedures.
"Despite this study, key problems simply were not addressed and, as a result, opportunities to strengthen FEMA prior to Katrina were missed," she said.
Brown's appearance in front of the Senate panel came as new documents reveal that 28 federal, state and local agencies — including the White House — reported levee failures on Aug. 29, according to a timeline of e-mails, situation updates and weather reports. That is contrary to earlier claims by the administration.
The White House went on the defensive after the hearings, dismissing a report by the New York Times on the new documents as "rewriting history to fit an inaccurate storyline and conveniently ignoring key facts."
In a press release, the White House said the Times' claim that Bush was initially relieved that the region "dodged a bullet" was a mischaracterization, and pointed out that the severity of the damage also did not register with the media, including the Times, for at least a day. But McClellan did not directly address evidence that Homeland Security and the White House were informed of the "extensive flooding" the day the storm hit.
The White House also has yet to respond to the panel's finding that federal officials knew well before the storm there was no plan was in place for the 100,000 residents who had no means to evacuate on their own.
Katrina was one of the administration's biggest political sore spots in a year full of them. Many Americans blamed the president for the slow disaster response, and his approval ratings following Katrina were the lowest of his tenure.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.