WASHINGTON – Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown (search) was recalled to Washington to oversee national Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Friday.
Brown was sent back from Baton Rouge, where he was the primary official overseeing the federal government's response to the disaster. He was replaced by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen (search), who was overseeing New Orleans relief and rescue efforts.
"The effort to respond and recover from Hurricane Katrina (search) is moving forward. We are preparing to move from the immediate emergency response phase to the next phase of operations," Chertoff said during a press conference. "Importantly, we must have seamless interaction with military forces as we move forward with our critical work in New Orleans and the surrounding parishes. At the same time, we are still in hurricane season and need to be prepared to deal effectively with the possibility of future hurricanes and other disasters."
Brown was to continue heading up operations but from Washington, whereas Allen will be in charge of field operations.
When one reporter asked Brown, standing in the background, whether the move was the "first step" in his resignation, Chertoff stressed that he already explained the motivation behind the move.
"Michael Brown has done everything he possibly could to coordinate the federal response to this unprecedented challenge," Chertoff said.
Brown did not make a statement or answer questions at the press conference.
Since last week, Brown had come to symbolize what seemed on TV and on the ground as an achingly slow government response. Calls for Brown's termination have been as frequent as those to reform FEMA. Adding to the agency's PR problems Friday evening was the announcement that an innovative debit card program announced just two days before would be scrapped.
Earlier on Friday, less than an hour before the shakeup came to light, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Brown had not resigned and President Bush had not asked for his resignation. McClellan did not directly answer a question about whether the president had full confidence in Brown.
"We appreciate all those who are working round the clock, and that's the way I would answer it," he said.
"This is a fluid situation … we have to have the best people in the right place at the right time," Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R- Fla., told FOX News.
In an earlier telephone interview with The Associated Press, Brown said the move was not a demotion and that Chertoff made the call.
"I'm going to go home and walk my dog and hug my wife and, maybe get a good Mexican meal and a stiff margarita and a full night's sleep. And then I'm going to go right back to FEMA and continue to do all I can to help these victims," Brown said. "This story's not about me. This story's about the worst disaster of the history of our country that stretched every government to its limit and now we have to help these victims.
Asked if the move was a demotion, Brown said: "No. No. I'm still the director of FEMA."
But a source close to Brown, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the FEMA director had been considering leaving after the hurricane season ended in November and that Friday's action virtually assures his departure.
"At last President Bush has recognized what I have been saying for more than a week -- the federal response to this disaster must be managed by a capable leader," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement Friday. "Admiral Allen is an emergency response professional, which has been lacking from federal management of this crisis. Admiral Allen has a difficult job ahead, but at least he brings to it years of experience."
Some Democrats were not satisfied with the apparent demotion, and wrote Bush a letter asking to have Brown fired outright.
"It is not enough to remove Mr. Brown from the disaster scene as Secretary Chertoff announced today. The individual in charge of FEMA must inspire confidence and be able to coordinate hundreds of federal, state and local resources. Mr. Brown simply doesn't have the ability or the experience to oversee a coordinated federal response of this magnitude," the letter read. Among those who signed the letter were Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., told FOX News that he feels "FEMA has been under-manned, overwhelmed and incapable of responding to needs."
Lott told everyone in the Mississippi congressional delegation that he has told local officials to "just go around" FEMA when needs arise. The former Senate majority leader said Brown's first instinct was to say "no" until he had cleared up all bureaucratic questions related to storm reaction.
"He acted like a private when he needed to act like a general," Lott said of Brown.
Lott never called publicly for Brown's ouster but pressured President Bush to help Mississippians receive standby trailers contracted by FEMA to provide temporary shelter. FEMA was slow in moving trailers, Lott said, because Brown wanted all paperwork and legal questions resolved.
These delays, Lott said, prompted unnecessary arguments among Mississippi officials and FEMA that led to delays and flawed responses to needs on the ground.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the Department of Homeland Security was created in an effort to consolidate and streamline many security-related functions performed by a myriad of U.S. agencies. FEMA was one agency that was rolled into DHS.
Lott also said Congress must accept some of the blame because it approved that consolidation, a move he now says diminished FEMA's standing and gave it less bureaucratic power than it had before as a stand-alone agency.
Brown's Background Questioned
As FEMA grapples with criticism from all sides regarding the speed and effectiveness of its response to Hurricane Katrina, questions are now being raised about Brown's background.
Time magazine first reported a discrepancy about Brown's experience in emergency management. Click here to read the Time story.
A 2001 press release on the White House Web site says that Brown worked for the city of Edmond, Okla., from 1975 to 1978 "overseeing emergency services divisions."
Brown's official biography on the FEMA (search) Web site says that his background in state and local government also includes serving as "an assistant city manager with emergency services oversight" and as a city councilman.
But a former mayor of Edmond, Randel Shadid, told The Associated Press on Friday that Brown had been an assistant to the city manager. Shadid said Brown was never assistant city manager.
"I think there's a difference between the two positions," Shadid said. "I would think that is a discrepancy."
Claudia Deakins, head of public relations for the city of Edmond, also said that Brown was "an assistant to the city manager" from 1977 to 1980, not a manager himself, and had no authority over other employees.
Nicol Andrews, deputy strategic director in FEMA's office of public affairs, told Time that while Brown began as an intern at the job in Edmond, he became an "assistant city manager" with a distinguished record of service.
"According to Mike Brown," Andrews told Time, a large portion of points raised by the magazine are "very inaccurate."
"I'm anxious to get back to D.C. to correct all the inaccuracies and lies that are being said," Brown told the Associated Press in the telephone interview.
The official White House announcement of Brown's nomination to head FEMA in January 2003 also says he served as "the Executive Director of the Independent Electrical Contractors," a trade group based in Alexandria, Va.
But two officials of the electrical contractors group told Newsday that Brown was never the national head of the organization but did serve as the executive director of a regional chapter, based in Colorado, where Brown has lived. Click here to read the Newsday story.
Terry Moreland, Brown's immediate successor as the Rocky Mountain executive director, told Newsday that Brown held the job for less than six weeks before becoming general counsel for FEMA in 2001.
The electrical contracting group's current top administrator, Larry Mullins asked, told Newsday that he planned to call the White House to have the 2003 press release that says Brown was the IEC executive director removed.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan referred all questions about Brown's resume to FEMA.
McClellan said the White House's earlier statements that Brown retained the president's confidence remain true — but he declined to state that confidence outright.
"I'd leave it where I left it," McClellan said. "We appreciate the work of all those who have been working around the clock to respond to what has been one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history."
On the more general issue of whether FEMA sufficiently responded to the devastating aftermath caused by Katrina along the Gulf Coast, FOX News obtained a letter written by the American Federation of Government Employees to senators in June 2004, warning that FEMA was being degraded and urging an investigation by the Government Accountability Office. AFGE represents FEMA workers.
"Over the past three years, FEMA has gone from being a model agency to being one where funds are being misspent, employee morale has fallen, and our nation's emergency management capability is being eroded," the letter states.
The AFGE letter goes on to say: "Over the past three-and-a-half years, professional emergency managers at FEMA have been supplanted on the job by politically connected contractors and by novice employees with little background or knowledge of emergency management."
It continues: "Numerous state and local emergency officials have complained that FEMA's emergency management role and functions are continually being downgraded under the new 'National Response Plan.'"
The National Response Plan mentioned was created by DHS as an effort to establish a "comprehensive all-hazards approach to enhance the ability of the United States to manage domestic incidents," according to the DHS Web site.
"The plan incorporates best practices and procedures from incident management disciplines --homeland security, emergency management, law enforcement, firefighting, public works, public health, responder and recovery worker health and safety, emergency medical services, and the private sector -- and integrates them into a unified structure. It forms the basis of how the federal government coordinates with state, local and tribal governments and the private sector during incidents."
Meanwhile, the director of the National Hurricane Center claims he made a personal plea to those involved in disaster relief to make sure they knew what was coming as Hurricane Katrina came ashore last week.
Max Mayfield now confirms that the day before the storm hit the Gulf Coast, he was so concerned that he personally called New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (search), Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (search) and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (search) to warn them.
"The thing I remember telling all three of them is that when I walked out of the hurricane center that night I wanted to be able to sleep at night knowing that I had done everything that I could do," Mayfield said.
Nagin is facing criticism, according to a published report, because the evacuation order for the city was issued 20 hours before Katrina made landfall, when researchers believe twice that amount of time was needed to clear New Orleans (search).
But Nagin recalled the emergency call from the National Hurricane Center on Sept. 6 differently.
"I ordered the mandatory evacuation the night that I got a call from the head of the hurricane center, Max somebody … and he said, 'Mr. Mayor, I've never seen a storm like this. I've never seen conditions like this.'"
Then there's political fallout for Blanco. The New York Times is reporting that politics snarled the plans to get military troops into her state, in part because some in the administration worried about the message it would send — a Republican president circumventing a southern Democratic governor.
To seize control on the ground, the president would have relied on what's called the Insurrection Act, which lets him take the reins in times of unrest and send in troops for law and order. But according to the report, the belief was that Blanco would resist surrendering control.
FOX News' Major Garrett, Catherine Herridge and The Associated Press contributed to this report.