The Eye of the Storm

From the bayou to Boulder, Michael Brown's had a heckuva year.

"I'm a conservative Republican," Michael Brown says. "What am I doing here?"

Still, on the list of tight spots where Brown, former head of FEMA, has found himself in the last year, the Westword office should rank low.

For starters, there was that emergency-response photo op on September 2, 2005, when 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded, people were still trapped in attics, on roofs and in hospitals, and President George Bush told him and the cameras, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job."

There was the congressional hot seat later that month, when Brown was grilled on his Hurricane Katrina response by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, after he'd been removed from his post at FEMA -- but while he was still collecting a check as a consultant to the agency. And that spot got hotter in November, when a House committee released almost a thousand e-mails exchanged by Brown and colleagues during the crisis, including this one from the FEMA chief to an aide on August 29, the day Katrina hit: "Can I quit now? Can I go home?"

There was that appearance on The Colbert Report in February, a gig negotiated for two months, when the mock-right-wing host discussed margaritas with the man who couldn't get water to the New Orleans Convention Center, who'd told the media on September 1, four days after Katrina came ashore, that FEMA had just found out that day about the people at the center, leading Ted Koppel to ask: "Don't you guys watch television?"

And then, of course, there was that heckuva job he'd somehow ascended to in the first place. Before Brown moved from Colorado to Washington, D.C., in early 2001 -- brought to FEMA as general counsel by buddy and 2000 Bush campaign manager Joe Allbaugh -- his post had been as the Judges and Stewards Commissioner for the Longmont-based International Arabian Horse Association, an organization whose largest disaster appeared to be a dispute involving Brown and the board. Two years later, Brown moved into FEMA's top slot and oversaw the agency's response to more than 150 natural disasters -- wildfires out west, hurricanes in Florida -- in relative obscurity.

Then Katrina put him smack in the eye of the storm.

And now, a year later, Brown is everywhere. In the current issue of Playboy. ("Thanks for giving me an excuse to buy Playboy," one friend said, while another told Brown he'd gone through the magazine three times before finding the interview.) Sunday on This Week With George Stephanopoulos. On Today's Katrina anniversary show Tuesday morning, holding fast to his talking point about how one of his biggest mistakes was espousing the White House's "talking points" for as long as he did.

He would have appeared in When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee's HBO documentary (unlike Condoleezza Rice and Michael Chertoff, Brown had agreed to an interview), but Lee never got around to talking to him. It's not like Brown wasn't available, either; he spends a lot of time back east, where he has friends and a grandchild in D.C., a place he'd rather visit than work in. "Being a native Westerner, getting shoved into the Beltway, it's like going to the Twilight Zone," he says. "I'm motivated about how to explain to people what comes out of D.C., and how not to take things at face value."

He explains that to clients in Colorado, in New York, abroad. Yes, clients: Brown now runs a disaster-consulting firm.

And why not? Last year, he was a walking disaster.

Brown's firm is based in Boulder, of all places, which could use some disaster-consulting of its own right now. ""Look, I don't want to compare my situation to JonBenét," he says. "But if she [DA Mary Lacy] had just stepped forward and said, ŒHere's what we're doing,' I think people would have been more accepting. Now there's this whole charade."

Even with all the national media littering the town, "It's nice to be back in Boulder, to be a Republican living in Boulder County," he says. "But I'm teetering."

After all, his Republican pals were quick enough to throw him under a bus -- not that there were any buses in New Orleans when they were needed. In one of his own talking points that's gotten lots of use over the past few days, Brown blames that on bureaucracy. Back when FEMA was an independent agency, if he needed 500 buses, he'd tell his procurement officer to get them any way he could. But after FEMA was moved under the Department of Homeland Security, if Brown told his procurement officer to get the buses, then that officer had to talk to DHS's procurement officer, and that officer had to talk to someone else, and then "everyone's trying to cover their rear ends," he says, and the result was no buses.

There's this cartoon that captures how Brown felt during Katrina. A guy in front of a machine is pulling all the levers, while in back, someone has cut the wires. "I'm pulling strings to make these things happen, and nothing happens," he explains.

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