The Eye of the Storm
"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.
"I go back to my biggest mistake. At some point, I should have put down those stupid talking points and said, ŒLook, I've asked for buses and they're not here yet. The Army is two days away.' Like with JonBenét, you have to give people a reality check."
Brown got one big reality check last year, and reality bites. "I get madder every day," he says. "When Chertoff made me stay in Baton Rouge, that was like the tipping point. In Florida, I was everywhere. Now I was chained to the desk. I'm mad for not having told him to stick it. Someone who doesn't get it to that extent, what is he doing running Homeland Security? I'm mad at myself and at Chertoff."
And at Chertoff's boss, George Bush.
"The way Chertoff and the president treated me, I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy," Brown declares.
But then, there are 1,800 people who can't complain about how Brown and FEMA treated them. They all died in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
For Brown himself, "the day that Chertoff relieved me, that was the worst," he remembers. "The security guys got my stuff loaded up in the SUV, and I headed to the apartment. Katrina was nine days long by then. I'd been working 24/7, and it came to a screeching halt."
That 24/7, by the way, is the talking point that Brown now trots out to explain his Koppel statement. When Brown said the agency had just learned about the people at the convention center that day, he was thinking back to when his day had begun, about 36 hours earlier. As for reaching those people, the media could just helicopter in. But FEMA had to follow rules about protocol and procedures and make sure that the information was double- and triple-checked before moving ahead.
Brown's best moment came when he broke the rules, "at the point where, after Chertoff told me to stay in Baton Rouge, I got fed up and went to St. Bernard Parish," he recalls. He helicoptered in, met with parish president Henry "Junior" Rodriguez and saw the situation for himself, firsthand and unfiltered. "We walked out of there good friends," Brown adds. In fact, this spring, Rodriguez wanted to hire him as a paid consultant to help St. Bernard work through the FEMA bureaucracy. Controversy scotched that gig, but Brown continues to do pro bono work for the parish, where only 4,000 of the 20,000 houses that stood there last year are habitable today.
Brown's second-best moment came months after the flood, when the finger pointing and scapegoating had subsided, and people began to realize that as clueless as Brown seemed, he had tried to warn the White House that "the big one" was coming a few days before Katrina hit. More vindication came in the form of a September 2005 e-mail buried in the stack of released documents, sent by an as-yet-anonymous official high in the White House: "I did hear of one reference to you, at the Cabinet meeting yesterday. I wasn't there, but I heard someone commented that the press was sure beating up on Mike Brown, to which the president replied, ŒI'd rather they beat up on him than me or Chertoff.'" The author then added, "Congratulations on doing a great job of diverting hostile fire away from the leader."
Brown was at Ronald Reagan International Airport in D.C., having gone through security and "trying to get dressed again," he remembers, when a woman screamed, "Oh, my God, is that Michael Brown?" Months before, he might have ducked. Now, everyone was looking, she was screaming -- and then she came up and hugged him, thanking him for what he had done to help people in New Orleans, where her father is an artist.
The people there still need help. Brown has thought a lot about that, too: "The issue still comes down to at what level do we help people, and how long do we do that? How do we help people get their feet back on the ground so they can start re-creating their lives?"
Particularly when their feet aren't going to be back on the same piece of ground.
And how do we prepare for the next crisis, which could be worse? Despite the immense costs of Katrina -- damage at close to $100 billion, more than 2 million people evacuated, many of whom have yet to return home, almost 2,000 lives lost -- it's ranked officially as a "near-catastrophic disaster." But there's no real plan to handle another disaster of this magnitude, much less one that's bigger, Brown insists, in another one of his talking points making the rounds. FEMA's budget is still cut back, and the agency is still stuck within the DHS bureaucracy.
Brown plans to write a book about his experience, and while he has an agent, he's not yet sure what form it will take. "I could write the kind of book that no one would read, about public-policy issues," he says. "Or all about me, and no one cares about that. But instead, I'll do something in the middle."
About being at the eye of the storm -- and coming out on the other side.
"People ask, `Would you really hire Brown to give you advice?'" he says, then offers his own answer: "Are you kidding? I've seen the best of it and the worst of it."
Just by looking in the mirror.
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