WASHINGTON – President Bush remained engaged during Hurricane Katrina but was overconfident that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could handle the destructive aftermath based on its record in previous disasters, former federal disaster chief Michael Brown said Wednesday.
Brown, one of the public faces of the administration's failure, was interviewed about his recollection of the daily briefings that occurred during last summer's devastating storm, as The Associated Press made public footage and transcripts of those sessions during the critical seven days of the government response.
"President told everyone to shut up, that he wanted to hear from me and he said, 'Brown, quick. Give us an update.' And my first words to him were, 'Mr. President, it is my estimation ... at least 90 percent of the population of New Orleans has been displaced. He was truly taken aback by that."
Brown described the president throughout the crisis this way: "I think he was engaged, but I think there was an overconfidence that FEMA had handled Sept. 11, we had handled the California wildfires, we had handled the 2004 hurricanes right in the middle of the presidential elections. Hey, we could do this, too."
Homeland Security officials have said the "fog of war" blinded them early on to the magnitude of the disaster. But Brown said the transcripts and footage of the daily briefings conflict with that. "I don't buy the fog-of-war defense," Brown said. "It was a fog of bureaucracy."
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke took exception to Brown's comments, noting the former FEMA director has received much criticism for his handling of the storm and has acknowledged many of his own mistakes.
"I would tell you it is hard to see how Mike can make that argument with a straight face after he testified he willfully kept the secretary and the department out of the loop," Knocke said.
Brown also said Bush and other top officials knew from those briefings there was a serious chance that New Orleans' levees would be breached.
"Everybody else knew and clearly on our conference calls it was being discussed," Brown said.
Brown said he feared that "lack of catastrophic-disaster planning, the cuts in FEMA's budgets and the cuts in FEMA's personnel" would lead to problems during a disaster and that Katrina was the "tipping point."
Brown said, "I take personal responsibility" for the failures of FEMA but said putting FEMA inside the office of Homeland Security has created a "vast bureaucracy."