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Michael Brown, ex-FEMA head, has advice, criticism for Obama about Hurricane Sandy

Colorado is not facing any danger from Hurricane Sandy, but the effects of the storm can still be felt here, with the Obama and Romney camps canceling scheduled rallies. Today, we decided to check in with a local expert on natural disasters who also has a perspective on potential political ramifications of Sandy: Michael Brown, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who's now a local radio host. He feels Obama may have jumped the gun with his first announcement about the storm, which is expected to hit the East Coast tonight.

Brown, who faced a great deal of backlash for the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, eventually stepped down and returned to Colorado, where he now partners with David Sirota during KHOW's afternoon-drive program.

Obama receiving update at FEMA headquarters.
Obama receiving update at FEMA headquarters.
White House photo / Pete Souza

According to Brown, who famously dubbed "Brownie" by President Bush, it's unlikely that Hurricane Sandy will dramatically impact the presidential race and news coverage in the final week of the election. However, he has some words of advice for the president and his reelection team.

Holding a press conference at FEMA yesterday might have been a bit premature, given that the most serious impacts of the storm are not expected until later today, he feels.

"Here's my concern," Brown says. "People in the northeast are already beginning to blow it off.... [New York City Mayor Michael] Bloomberg has shut down the subway...[launched] evacuations.... I don't object...they should be doing all of that. But in the meantime, various news commentators...[and others] in New York are shrugging their shoulders, saying, 'What's this all about?' It's premature [when] the brunt of the storm won't happen until later this afternoon."

Brown says he understands why the president might have chosen to have a news conference earlier rather than later.

"My guess is, he wants to get ahead of it -- he doesn't want anybody to accuse him of not being on top of it or not paying attention or playing politics in the middle of it," he says. "He probably figured Sunday was a good day to do a press conference."

For a FEMA director, Brown says, timing is always an important question: When is it most effective for the president to make an announcement?

"He probably could've had a little more impact doing it today," says Brown. (The president did hold another press conference today as well: He told reporters that he is not worried about the storm's impact on the election).

Brown expects that in the coming days, there will also be comparisons between Obama's quick response to Hurricane Sandy and his slower response to the attacks in Benghazi, which has become a challenging campaign issue for the president.

"One thing he's gonna be asked is, why did he jump on this so quickly and go back to D.C. so quickly when in...Benghazi, he went to Las Vegas?" Brown says. "Why was this so quick?... At some point, somebody's going to ask that question.... This is like the inverse of Benghazi."

Continue for more from our interview with former FEMA director Michael Brown.

In general, Brown feels, it's a challenge for both campaigns to respond to an issue like Hurricane Sandy, when it's still unknown what kind of impact it will have once it really hits.

"The problem is -- everybody, both campaigns, the public, the media, even the first responders, are in this awkward time period," he says. "It's either gonna be the worst thing...or not be nearly as bad as expected or fizzle out.

Michael Brown interviewing Governor John Hickenlooper
Michael Brown interviewing Governor John Hickenlooper
Courtesy of KHOW

"It's the most awkward time.... You don't want to send the wrong message politically...on how seriously you should take it.... The message should be, you need to take it seriously."

And as someone who has experience in natural disasters, does Brown have any general advice for the president?

"My advice to him is that he needs to call the cabinet and tell the cabinet members that if [current FEMA head] Craig Fugate calls and asks for something, the expectation is he is going to get whatever he needs," Brown replies. "The cabinet will fully cooperate and give him whatever he wants."

And when it is appropriate for either side to resume campaign activities and travels?

"It's really a tough question," he concedes. "It depends on if there's really minimal-to-no loss of life, if there's minimal property damage. If it just boils down to subways and airports being shut down, if it's a huge inconvenience, then I say go ahead.... But if it turns into a situation with a major blackout in the northeast...infrastructure problems, bridges and railroads out, then he needs to weigh that.... It might be 24 hours, 36 hours, might be three days."

The president was scheduled to have a rally in Colorado Springs tomorrow, but that has since been canceled. At this writing, however, he has a scheduled rally in Boulder on Thursday.

Paul Ryan was also supposed to attend rallies throughout Colorado tomorrow, but at this time, all those events have been canceled as well.

"Right now," Brown maintains, "both campaigns need to let the first responders and governors do what they need to do. Basically say, 'If we can help in any way, let us know.'"

Since Hurricane Sandy has dominated headlines in recent days, 2011 comments from Romney saying that FEMA should be shut down and power should be given to the states have resurfaced. His campaign has clarified that Romney believes states should have more authority, but he does not think FEMA should be abolished.

Brown agrees. "It's more of a statement of fact.... This has always been my theory. The stronger you make the federal government, the weaker you make local governments.... State and local responders need to be as robust as they possibly can.... What FEMA should be doing right now is coordinating, [telling governors and mayors], 'What do you need? How can we help?'"

He adds, "Everything that really needs to be done is a state and local issue.... The feds are more about helping financially."

Even though early voting has already begun in Colorado, could the canceled rallies have any sort of impact on either campaign in this key battleground state?

"The rallies drive...media, and that helps keep enthusiasm up to the extent that rallies can," he says. "So if the enthusiasm is at a level five, a rally might take it up to a level six... They just need to make sure their ground games continue."

Offering his take on the state of the race in Colorado, he adds, "I think the enthusiasm level is great in Colorado for Romney, and at the end of the day, that'll carry Romney over the top."

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Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.


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