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E-mails show FEMA infighting, frustration

From Jeanne Meserve
CNN America Bureau

Former FEMA Director Michael Brown defends his job performance during a House hearing in September.


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Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Department of Homeland Security
Michael Chertoff
Mike Brown

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Internal Department of Homeland Security e-mails -- requested by a House select committee investigating the government's response to Hurricane Katrina -- show infighting, gaps in communication and general frustration.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is scheduled to testify before the committee Wednesday. He is expected to face questions on the e-mails, which CNN obtained.

There were immediate signs of chafing at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of the storm's landfall on August 29. FEMA is a division of the Department of Homeland Security.

Chertoff designated FEMA Director Mike Brown, the undersecretary for emergency preparedness and response, as the principal federal officer, or PFO, putting him in charge of the relief effort.

Brown apparently perceived the move as a step down.

"Demote the Under Sec. to PFO?" FEMA press secretary Sharon Worthy wrote Brown on August 30. "What about the precedent being set?"

"What does this say about executive management and leadership in the agency?"

Brown's one-word response: "Exactly."

Brown resigned September 12 after coming under fire over his qualifications and for what critics called a bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina's destruction.

Ahead of Katrina coming ashore, Brown's deputy chief of staff, Brooks Altshuler, dismissed the idea of the White House creating an interagency crisis group to manage the government's response.

"Let them play their little raindeer [sic] games as long as they are not turning around and tasking us with their stupid questions," Altshuler said in an August 28 e-mail.

Later, Brown's whereabouts were seemingly unknown by William Carwile, FEMA's lead official in Mississippi. He is told that Gen. Russel Honore -- the official in charge of the military response to Katrina -- needs to speak with Brown "very badly."

Carwile responds that Brown is "not here in MS. [Mississippi]. Is in LA [Louisiana], as far as I know."

Other e-mails highlight FEMA's scramble for supplies and personnel.

"Food is also critical. Need MRE [meals ready to eat] and/or heater meals if you have any," Carwile wrote on September 1 to Craig Fugate, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

"Know Florida is providing law enforcement. Need all you can send. Have used Dixie Co. body bags (250) got more?"

Other e-mails indicate the media's presence was a factor in agency decision-making.

On August 31, Brown wrote, regarding Bay St. Louis, Mississippi: "CNN asking where's FEMA. Would like to air-drop or do something there."

Carwile responded, "I am afraid we have built expectations over the years that might not be achievable for this catastrophic event. Nevertheless, we are trying to do all we can."

Responding to the information in the e-mails, the Department of Homeland Security said some of them are not consistent with the facts and give only a small glimpse of a much larger picture.

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