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Published: Saturday, 10/1/2005

Brownie's bluster

THE bureaucrat whom President Bush was quick to laud as doing "a heck of a job" in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is swift to second his boss' appraisal. He still believes when it comes to emergency management "I know what I'm doing, and I think I do a pretty darn good job of it."

Michael Brown, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is nothing if not obdurate.

Amazingly, the onetime FEMA chief maintains that - evidence notwithstanding - his agency was largely blameless for the calamitous chaos that may have contributed to the deaths of more than a thousand Gulf Coast residents after Katrina roared ashore. That's his story and he's sticking to it no matter how infuriating it is to Capitol Hill lawmakers.

Mr. Brown's testimony to a mostly Republican panel of congressional investigators became a showdown between politicians emboldened by the polls to criticize what went wrong with federal disaster preparedness and the ex-FEMA chief emboldened by his resignation to not give an inch regarding job performance.

While most Democrats stayed away from what has essentially turned into a GOP probe of the Republican administration, two Democrats from Louisiana and Mississippi participated, pursuing the lethal disconnect that occurred on so many levels of government relief and rescue operations.

But the former FEMA director was at turns defensive, arrogant, hostile, and consistently reluctant to acknowledge any fault of his own performance, let alone that of anyone in the agency he headed. He was adept, however, at deflecting blame to state and local officials in Louisiana, smugly asserting that his "biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday (two days before Katrina hit land) that Louisiana was dysfunctional."

The unapologetic Mr. Brown implied much of the fault for delayed or disastrous evacuation plans laid with Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Then he attacked the media for attacking him.

Then he complained that his bosses at Homeland Security diverted money appropriated to FEMA and left it stretched too thin to respond to a catastrophe the size of Katrina. Then he blamed the public for having an unrealistic view of what the federal government can and should do in large crises.

He even faulted Americans themselves for not being better prepared for a worst-case scenario.

Occasionally, the man who presided over the debacle wrought with ineptness, widespread confusion, and clueless bureaucratic directives pounded the table in front of him, angry to be made a scapegoat for what he said were the failures of others.

It was another sorry chapter in this mess. And Michael Brown is still on the FEMA payroll at his annual $148,000 salary, for at least the next two weeks, serving as - believe it or not - a consultant on emergency management.



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