WASHINGTON While touring hurricane-ravaged Mississippi and flooded New Orleans for a third time, President Bush yesterday accepted Michael Brown s resignation as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and immediately tapped a national expert on fires to run the embattled agency.
R. David Paulison, who is U.S. fire administrator and director of emergency preparedness for FEMA and a former fire chief of Miami, will be acting director and acting undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA. He has more than 30 years as an emergency responder.
Mr. Brown s resignation two weeks after the hurricane hit was not unexpected.
Michael Chertoff, secretary of Homeland Security, Friday signaled the administration s unhappiness with Mr. Brown when he removed him from overseeing relief efforts in the wake of widespread criticism that the agency acted too slowly to rescue thousands of people from New Orleans.
There was palpable relief among Republicans on Capitol Hill and inside the administration that Mr. Brown was out. It was expressed with the hope that the White House will be able to undo the public-relations damage.
In a statement, Mr. Brown himself alluded to that scenario, saying that he had become a distraction and that his leaving was in the best interest of the President and of his agency. He said, There is no other government agency that reaches people in a more direct way. It has been the best job in the world to help Americans in their darkest hours.
Mr. Brown, who got the FEMA job in 2001 as a result of political ties to the administration, came under fire for his lack of hands-on experience in disaster relief and overstating his credentials on his resume. That led a chorus of Democrats to call for his ouster last week.
Mr. Bush, with Mr. Brown at his side, had indicated that he was satisfied with Mr. Brown s performance, saying: Brownie, you re doing a heckuva job.
But inside the administration, few believed that.
TV footage showed thousands of poor and black Americans stranded for days in New Orleans without food, water, or medical attention while queues of buses remained stationary outside the city. Mr. Brown said he did not know about the 20,000 evacuees at the convention center in New Orleans until 24 hours later.
Mr. Chertoff grew alarmed and told Mr. Bush that he was not satisfied with the way FEMA was performing. Mr. Bush sent Vice President Dick Cheney to the region, who confirmed that the criticism of FEMA and Mr. Brown was mounting.
Mr. Bush then told Mr. Chertoff to do what he had to do, and Mr. Chertoff named Thad Allen, vice admiral of the Coast Guard, to head up the federal response to Katrina.
Mr. Chertoff said in a statement last night that Mr. Brown had managed 160 disasters during his tenure at FEMA and that he is a good man who did everything he could to coordinate the disaster response to Katrina.
Sen. Trent Lott (R., Miss.), whose home was demolished in the hurricane, said everyone was overwhelmed by the scope of the disaster, which he estimates will cost at least $150 billion, and that criticism of Mr. Brown may have been unfair.
Nonetheless, he said that Mr. Brown was acting more like a private than a general, and that leadership had improved since Admiral Allen took over. Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R., Tenn.) also said he was impressed with the way Admiral Allen stepped into the job and immediately took charge without ruffling feathers at the local and state levels.
Democrats grumbled that Mr. Bush should have fired him rather than let him resign but said they were glad of the change.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Mr. Brown s departure was long overdue.
The bipartisan leaders of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, which oversees FEMA, agreed Mr. Brown had become a distraction.
The committee chairman, Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) said she hoped Mr. Brown s stepping down will end the continuing barrage of questions about his credentials, his leadership ability, and decisions he made in preparation for and in response to Katrina and focus attention on the relief and recovery efforts.
The labor union that represents FEMA workers, the American Federation of Government Employees, said Mr. Brown s resignation was appropriate but inadequate.
The union s president, John Gage, said Mr. Brown s departure does nothing to restore the slashed funding for disaster mitigation that FEMA has suffered. It does not undo the damage done by the connected contractors who were used to push aside career FEMA employees, only to provide unusable studies and materials.
As one result, Mr. Bush s job approval rating sank to below 40 percent in various polls, the worst showing so far in his presidency. Critics say the slow federal response shows major problems not just in FEMA but also in the Department of Homeland Security and in White House budget requests.
On his third visit to the region, touring New Orleans and Gulfport, Miss., before returning to the White House yesterday afternoon, Mr. Bush said that recovery is on the way and progress is being made, although a lot of serious and hard work has yet to be done. He said relations among various levels of government have improved and that people are beginning to think about the long-term revival of New Orleans and surrounding parishes.
He strenuously denied allegations that relief was delayed because so many of the victims were poor and black. The storm didn t discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort, he said.
Mr. Bush said he knows there is a lot of second-guessing and said that there will be time for learning lessons and finding out what went wrong. But he complained that there is too much of a blame game going on, and he rejects that.
My attitude is that we need to learn everything we possibly can. We need to make sure that this country is knitted up as well as it can be in order to deal with significant problems and disasters. Meantime, we got to keep moving forward, he said.
He also dismissed charges that the 90,000 National Guard troops deployed in Iraq, including 11,000 from the affected region, contributed to the sluggish federal response.
It is preposterous to claim that the engagement in Iraq meant there weren t enough troops here, just pure and simple, Mr. Bush said.
If Mr. Bush decides to nominate Mr. Paulison as permanent head of FEMA, he will have to be confirmed by the Senate.
He was confirmed previously to head the U.S. Fire Administration, now part of FEMA. Such hearings are certain to be passionate recriminations of what went wrong with relief efforts in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.
Contact Ann McFeatters at: email@example.com or 202-662-7071.