WASHINGTON – Former FEMA director Michael Brown disputed that floodwaters had breached New Orleans' levees in the early hours after Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, new e-mails released Tuesday show.
The 928 pages of e-mails, obtained and released by the Center for Public Integrity, also portray Brown and the Federal Emergency Management Agency as obsessed with media coverage in the days leading up to and immediately following the Aug. 29, 2005, disaster. At one point early that morning, Brown reported to an aide that he was "sitting in the chair, putting mousse in my hair," as he waited for media interviews to begin.
Later that morning, at 9:50 a.m., a FEMA staffer at the National Hurricane Center sent department brass an alert from a local TV station report that "a levee breach occurred along the industrial canal" near the city's low-income Ninth Ward.
More than two hours later, at 12:09 p.m., Brown sent a message back to one of his aides, saying: "I'm being told here water over not a breach."
The aide, Michael Lowder, replied: "Ok. You probably have better info there. Just wanted to pass you what we hear."
The e-mail exchange provides the latest evidence of rampant government confusion over whether the levees had been breached — that is, broken by the storm surge — or merely overtopped by floodwaters. Critics have questioned whether discovering breaches earlier could have speeded repair efforts and lessened flooding.
The timing of the levees breach has been a key issue in exhaustive reviews of failures to respond to Katrina. The White House was alerted about breach reports by 6 p.m., but the administration confirmed the damage the next morning. In its February "lessons learned" report, the White House maintained that some uncertainty remains about the specific times of the breaches.
Brown did not immediately respond to messages left on his cell phone and e-mail Tuesday afternoon.
Since quitting FEMA on Sept. 12, Brown has sharply criticized the Bush administration for failing to respond quickly to reports about levee breaches. He has said previously he was convinced of a levee breach by 1 p.m. the day Katrina roared ashore.
The documents, which were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Washington-based government watchdog group, encompass Brown's e-mail messages over a 14-day period before and after Katrina hit.
While the e-mails cover much of the same ground previously highlighted by congressional investigations earlier this year, they illustrate anew how concerned the beleaguered agency was with having a favorable public image during the storm. Many of the documents released Tuesday consist of talking points, press releases, interview schedules and media reports of the storm's onslaught.
Brown's own schedule was booked with media interviews in the days immediately before and after the storm. At 6:21 a.m. the day Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, Brown was prepping for an interview and e-mailing with his then-deputy, Patrick Rhode.
"Yea, sitting in the chair, putting mousse in my hair," Brown e-mailed Rhode.
"Me too!" Rhode replied.
Earlier e-mails released by Congress similarly showed Brown boasting about his fashion image.
Brown was also juggling a meeting request from a lawmaker-turned-lobbyist, former Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., the day Katrina hit.
"I am certain your (sic) are overwhelmed by the situation regarding Hurricane Katrina," Hutchinson wrote Brown on an e-mail received at 1:48 p.m. on Aug. 29. "I apologize for bothering you at this critical time and for going directly to you about this... I would yery (sic) much appreciate being able to bring the President of Blu-Med Response Systems, Gerritt Boyle, in to meet with you as soon as your schedule permits."
The documents do not indicate that Brown responded to Hutchinson's request. But at another point, Brown showed special attention to the Mississippi area when a powerful political figure called.
"Bill, sorry to ping you, but can you give me some ground info on trailers, etc. in MS? Have what you need? Are they getting them to you? Just a status report. Need to call (Mississippi Sen.) Trent Lott back and want some good Intel before doing so," Brown wrote in a Sept. 7 e-mail to one of his staff.
Nine minutes later, Brown received the update.
Some e-mail also offered a window into the power struggle between FEMA and the Homeland Security Department, its parent agency, as to who was in charge.
On Sept. 4, press aide Sharon Worthy wrote to Brown, referring to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, "CBS radio on Sec. Chertoff ... saying federal government in charge of New Orleans. Does mean he is or is it you?" Brown did not reply.
Other e-mails show Brown expressing frustration as he and FEMA came under public attack purportedly for not doing enough to help black Gulf Coast residents and neglecting abandoned pets.
"I am tired, no, angered by charges of racism. You know that neither me nor anyone associated with me is a racist. Grrrr," Brown wrote in a Sept. 7 e-mail to Worthy, before adding lightheartedly, "How was that Sonic burger?"