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Brown puts blame on Louisiana officials

Former director defends FEMA's Katrina response

Former FEMA chief Michael Brown told a House panel Tuesday that "first response is at the local level."


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Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
New Orleans (Louisiana)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In sometimes heated testimony before a congressional committee Tuesday, former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown blamed Louisiana's leaders for dragging their heels last month as Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast.

Brown faced sharp questions during a House select committee probing the federal, state and local response to Katrina. The storm devastated Mississippi coastal towns August 29 and left most of New Orleans flooded when the city's protective levees failed at several points.

In more than six hours of testimony, Brown said Mississippi and Alabama had evacuated properly but that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco were reluctant to order an evacuation. (Watch congressmen grill Brown -- 4:40)

"My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday [August 27] that Louisiana was dysfunctional," he said in his opening testimony.

Later in the testimony he said, "My mistake was in [not] recognizing that, for whatever reasons, ... Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco were reticent to order a mandatory evacuation."

Speaking to reporters Tuesday about Brown's comments, Nagin said the former FEMA chief was trying to deflect attention.

"The federal government, state government and local government did not have the processes, in my opinion, to deal with a storm of this magnitude," Nagin said.

"Mr. Brown is maybe under a lot of pressure," he said. "I feel sorry for him."

Blanco disputed Brown's testimony on when an evacuation was ordered and which parishes were included in her disaster declaration.

In a statement, she accused Brown of making "falsehoods and misleading statements" under oath.

"It clearly demonstrates the appalling degree to which Mr. Brown is either out of touch with the truth or reality," she said, calling for a "thorough, nonpartisan investigation" of the response to Katrina.

Still on payroll

Brown resigned on September 12 as Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Emergency Preparedness and Response after two weeks of intense criticism of FEMA's response to Katrina and questions about his qualifications to lead the agency.

Brown's resignation came three days after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff recalled him to Washington and replaced him as the point main for relief efforts.

But Brown told lawmakers Tuesday he is still being paid as a consultant to help FEMA assess what went wrong. (Watch: Brown still on the FEMA payroll -- 3:20)

Chertoff, responding to Tuesday's hearing, told reporters in Miami, Florida, that Brown "speaks for himself, and he's entitled to his point of view."

"I don't have any doubt that everybody did everything they possibly could to protect the people of New Orleans," he said. "There was an 80 percent evacuation in New Orleans. That's a quite remarkable accomplishment."

But lawmakers were not as positive in their questioning of Brown.

In a heated exchange, Rep. Christopher Shays asked whether Brown did enough to coordinate the response.

"What would you like for me to do, congressman?" Brown asked the Connecticut Republican.

"That's why I'm happy you left," Shays said, "because that kind of, you know, look in the lights like a deer, tells me that you weren't capable to do the job."

Brown said FEMA is limited in the role it can play, adding that he wasn't a "dictator" and couldn't make state or local officials do anything.

"I guess you want me to be the superhero that is going to step in there and suddenly take everybody out of New Orleans," he said.

"No. What I wanted you to do was do your job of coordinating," Shays responded.

Pelosi blasts 'whitewash'

Democrats have refused to appoint members to the committee in protest and continue to call for an independent investigation.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California on Tuesday referred to the proceedings as "a whitewash committee hearing."

The committee invited four Democrats to sit in on the hearings, and two attended: Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana and Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi.

While the Democratic congressmen will not have any voting privileges and are not present in an official capacity, they made their opinions of Brown's performance clear.

"You get an F-minus in my book," Taylor said.

Jefferson took issue with Brown's testimony.

"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. (Watch Brown criticize Louisiana officials -- 3:51)

In his opening remarks Tuesday, Brown said he did all he could in response to the storm, which devastated the Gulf Coast and caused more than 1,000 deaths.

He conceded that he made "a couple of specific mistakes," pointing to a failure to initially hold regular media briefings and an inability to persuade Nagin and Blanco to "get over their differences and work together."

He later also said he "should have called for the military at least 24 hours earlier."

Brown 'happy to be a scapegoat'

Brown told the panel that FEMA was a coordinating agency, not a first responder, and stressed that it was vital that "emergency management begins at the local level." (Watch Brown's defense of FEMA -- 3:02)

Four days after the storm hit, President Bush on his first trip to the region had praised him, saying, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

Bush's comments came September 2, the same day that a military supply convoy arrived at the city's convention center, bringing food and water to thousands of residents huddled in oppressive heat.

Brown testified he had been "tired and misspoke" when he told television interviewers September 1 that he learned of the convention center situation only that day, saying that he actually had learned of it one day earlier.

Brown also has come under fire because of alleged inconsistencies in his resume and his relatively limited emergency management experience. (Full story)

He complained of "false statements" made by the media about his background, also blaming a "hysteric media" for spreading unfounded reports of violent crime in the days after the storm.

Complaining of insufficient resources and structural inadequacies at FEMA, Brown said he has accepted the role as the fall guy for his agency's mistakes.

"I am happy to be a scapegoat," Brown said. "I am happy to take whatever barbs that Mr. Taylor or anybody else wishes to throw at me if it means that the FEMA that I knew when I came here is going to be able to be reborn."

CNN's Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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