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Michael Brown, ex-FEMA director, thinks feds dealt with Hurricane Irene better than media

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As the man in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during the 2005 period when Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, Michael Brown knows a thing or two about hurricanes, and the media's coverage of them. So what kind of grades does the current KOA talk-show host give to the agency, and to local officials, in dealing with the latest catastrophe, Hurricane Irene? Better marks than he doles out to the press.

"I think FEMA did fine," says Brown, who critics tend to refer to as "Brownie," the nickname used by President George W. Bush when praising him for doing a heckuvah job. "They did exactly what they should have done. They offered states whatever help they needed, and it was appropriate based on the severity of the storm. The supplies were pre-positioned outside the potential danger zone, they coordinated things well, and they were there with their checkbook, presuming they had the money to cover it."

As this last comment implies, Brown echoes House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's thoughts about offsetting FEMA expenditures with spending cuts. "We're beyond the tipping point in terms of the federal fiscal disaster," he maintains. "So I hope between the hullabaloo over the money, we actually have a serious national debate about our priorities. If our priorities are for FEMA to respond to natural disasters that may or may not be beyond the capabilities of the states, then we need to talk about where that money is going to come from."

Much of the worst Irene-related problems came as a result of flooding, not wind, in locations like Vermont, which wasn't thought to be ground zero for the storm. Brown isn't surprised by this twist of fate; he cites previous hurricanes that caused inland flooding at least as serious, if not more so, than damage to coastal localities. Still, he has measured praise for governors and other administrators who dealt with Irene's fickleness, and he makes no partisan distinctions.

"The initial response from everyone from Chris Christie to Andrew Cuomo was, 'The storm looks pretty serious. We want you to evacuate.' And that was the perfect thing to do. But I think they can be criticized a little bit when it became clear the hurricane itself wouldn't have the anticipated impact in places like Philadelphia and Newark and New York. At that point, they could have gone back on the air and said, 'The hurricane has degenerated, collapsed somewhat. It's not as bad as we thought, but we still urge you to be cautious.' But everybody's scared to walk things back a little bit. I don't want that criticism to overshadow the compliments for how they handled things in the beginning. But, for example, Michael Bloomberg could have started up the subway in New York twelve hours or so before he did."

And the media? Brown chides news agencies for always assuming the worst-case scenario is the likeliest one, and for not dialing down the rhetoric even when it becomes clear things aren't as bad as they could have been.

"We live in the moment vicariously through the media," he allows. "And when I hear news people say things like, 'The map of the outer banks has changed,' I have to chuckle. The map changed with Hurricane Hugo, it changed with Hurricane Andrew. All these things occur repeatedly, but they act like, 'Oh my God, the sky is falling.'"

As for other examples of excess, he cites "something that was on Fox, I think. They're just as guilty of playing up the hype as everybody else. A reporter was on a pier, and the cameraman was panning the camera around. The reporter said they were looking for damage, and they found two boards missing. And he said, 'There are two boards missing!' instead of saying, 'This place dodged a bullet.' It's like they're desperate to find chaos."

Still, Brown's favorite was on CNN. "The guy's acting like he's having a hard time standing up, and you see people just strolling along behind him. I thought, what a great contrast. Why didn't he just stand up and say, 'We were very lucky'?"

No doubt Brown would have loved it if circumstances in New Orleans and elsewhere had allowed him to make the same statement back in 2005. Here's the aforementioned CNN clip:

More from our Media archive: "Michael Brown: Ex-FEMA boss on return to New Orleans for 5th anniversary of Katrina."

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