You remember Michael Brown.
Former President George W. Bush’s Federal Emergency Management Agency director resigned after the administration’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The firing came after the president famously acknowledged his efforts with the immortal last words, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." More than a decade later, Brown now works as a drive-time radio host in his home state of Colorado.
From his mile-high perch inside Denver’s 630 KHOW radio station, the gravelly voiced Brown opines about politics between Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck’s programs.
Brown has had much to say about this stormy hurricane season and the administration’s response. In an interview, Brown discusses President Donald Trump’s response to the torrent of natural disasters, recalls what went wrong during Katrina and shares what it was like to be “Brownie” after the storm.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Why ‘Brownie’ gives Trump an A+ on disaster response
Former FEMA Director Michael Brown discusses President Trump’s response to natural disasters and recounts the days after Hurricane Katrina.
How you would rate President Trump and his response to the string of natural disasters this year?
I would give the response an A+.
In the middle of a crisis, whether it's a 9/11 or a Hurricane Katrina, if you can't answer the question of ‘who’s in charge’ you're going to have a disjointed response.
What has happened in these three disasters, Hurricane Irma, Harvey and Maria, is that the FEMA Director Brock Long has been able to establish a joint command structure so that governors and mayors are all plugged in, and the rest of the cabinet is plugged in. So that when the FEMA director-- who's like a giant orchestra conductor--says I need X, and he turns to the Secretary of Transportation, or the Secretary of Defense, he's able to get X and get it immediately. That's crucial to an effective response.
In some ways, I'm very jealous of it because that's what we were missing in Katrina. In three disasters it has worked incredibly well.
During Hurricane Katrina … all I wanted President Bush to do was to land in Baton Rouge, walk down the steps of Air Force One, walk to the podium. Tell not only the governor of Louisiana, but the governor of Mississippi and Alabama, and all of the mayors, and to tell his Cabinet, we have a horrendous crisis on our hands and I expect full hands on deck. That's the bully pulpit. And if President Bush had done that instead of doing frankly what I call a stupid flyover where they took the picture of him looking out the window, I think the cabinet would have gotten the message. And the governors and mayors would have gotten the message that this is never going to work unless everybody gets in the same room and we get on the same page about what's going on. That's the bully pulpit, and that's the power that any president has.
Trump found himself in a war of words with the mayor of San Juan. What kind of impact do you think that has on the communication and coordination process with local leaders? Is that helpful?
No, it's not helpful. The tone and the way of doing it is better done in private. Just pick up the phone. No mayor is going to refuse a phone call from the President of the United States of America. It makes it more difficult for that joint command structure that you need to operate because everybody's distracted by these silly tweets. Please, Mr. President, pick up the phone, don't tweet.
In your book you wrote, "Had I not been the scapegoat, someone else would have been. The reality of government, any government, is that when leadership morphs into deadly indifference there are those who will do anything to keep their jobs." Do you feel that you were wrongly smeared in the Katrina aftermath?
It's clear that I made mistakes. I think the biggest mistake that I made was not recognizing just how dysfunctional the state of Louisiana was. There was a political fight between the mayor and the governor and I didn't recognize that in time to try to correct that and fix that.
When things begin to fall apart, the President of the United States -- absent some horrific incident -- is not going to fire his Secretary of Homeland Security. The FEMA director is the low guy on the totem pole, and is the face of the federal government in the disaster. If you want to make a statement that we're doing something to correct things, you get rid of the guy that's the low guy on the totem pole.
It was a horrific time. There were probably three things that saved me. It was my wife, my lawyer, and my minister, in no particular order.
Have you heard from former President Bush?
On just a couple of occasions. I have stayed in contact with Jeb Bush. Jeb and I email back and forth occasionally. The President and I not so much.
Do you think man made climate change will make it more difficult for government agencies to confront natural disasters?
I think that we don't know the extent to which mankind effects that.
I think we have a role to mitigate against natural and manmade disasters. I think the money that we spend up front to mitigate against the effects of those disasters is money that we will certainly save in the long-term when those disasters strike. But trying to convince government to spend money now to mitigate against something in the future is like pushing that noodle up the hill. They just don't buy it because Congress and most congressional and executive leadership really can't see beyond the next fiscal year.
Is there anything else that you think should be said?
Just one thing.
When a disaster occurs, we somehow believe that the cavalry's going to be there tomorrow. They're going to be there within hours and they're going to save our rear ends. It just really bugs me. This is not true of all Americans, many Americans understand that they need to be able to survive on their own for 72 hours, that we only have a limited number of first responders and that they can't be everywhere all the time. And that when the power grid goes down and cell phone towers goes down, that all of that stuff takes time to rebuild.
People are in shock, they've lost everything that they have. They don't know where to turn, so they naturally turn to their government. By the same token, I wish that people would somehow figure out that the federal government, state government, local governments can't be anywhere all the time. …You can't save everybody at once. My plea for people to take serious the idea that at some point in your lifetime… you may find yourself on your own. I just wish people would think about that ahead of time and be a little more prepared to take care of themselves instead of instantly looking up in the sky for the cavalry that they think is going to show up and save them at that moment.
Illustration by Lucie Birant