Casualty of Firestorm: Outrage, Bush and FEMA Chief
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
WASHINGTON, Sept. 9 - To Democrats, Republicans, local officials and Hurricane Katrina's victims, the question was not why, but what took so long?
Republicans had been pressing the White House for days to fire "Brownie," Michael D. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who had stunned many television viewers in admitting that he did not know until 24 hours after the first news reports that there was a swelling crowd of 25,000 people desperate for food and water at the New Orleans convention center.
Mr. Brown, who was removed from his Gulf Coast duties on Friday, though not from his post as FEMA's chief, is the first casualty of the political furor generated by the government's faltering response to the hurricane. With Democrats and Republicans caustically criticizing the performance of his agency, and with the White House under increasing attack for populating FEMA's top ranks with politically connected officials who lack disaster relief experience, Mr. Brown had become a symbol of President Bush's own hesitant response.
The president, long reluctant to fire subordinates, came to a belated recognition that his administration was in trouble for the way it had dealt with the disaster, many of his supporters say. One moment of realization occurred on Thursday of last week when an aide carried a news agency report from New Orleans into the Oval Office for him to see.
The report was about the evacuees at the convention center, some dying and some already dead. Mr. Bush had been briefed that morning by his homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, who was getting much of his information from Mr. Brown and was not aware of what was occurring there. The news account was the first that the president and his top advisers had heard not only of the conditions at the convention center but even that there were people there at all.
"He's not a screamer," a senior aide said of the president. But Mr. Bush, angry, directed the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., to find out what was going on.
"The frustration throughout the week was getting good, reliable information," said the aide, who demanded anonymity so as not to be identified in disclosing inner workings of the White House. "Getting truth on the ground in New Orleans was very difficult."
If Mr. Bush was upset with Mr. Brown at that point, he did not show it. When he traveled to the Gulf Coast the next day, he stood with him and, before the cameras, cheerfully said, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
But the political pressures on Mr. Bush, and the anxiety at the White House, were only growing. Behind the president's public embrace of Mr. Brown was the realization within the administration that the director's ignorance about the evacuees had further inflamed the rage of the storm's poor, black victims and created an impression of a White House that did not care about their lives.
One prominent African-American supporter of Mr. Bush who is close to Karl Rove, the White House political chief, said the president did not go into the heart of New Orleans and meet with black victims on his first trip there, last Friday, because he knew that White House officials were "scared to death" of the reaction.
"If I'm Karl, do I want the visual of black people hollering at the president as if we're living in Rwanda?" said the supporter, who spoke only anonymously because he did not want to antagonize Mr. Rove.
At the same time, news reports quickly appeared about Mr. Brown's qualifications for the job: he was a former commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association and for 30 years a friend of Joe M. Allbaugh, who managed Mr. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign and was the administration's first FEMA director. Mr. Brown's credentials came to roost at the White House, where Mr. Bush faced angry accusations that the director's hiring had amounted to nothing more than cronyism.
Members of Congress quickly weighed in. Senator Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who was in New Orleans or Baton Rouge for more than a week after the hurricane swept ashore, said of Mr. Brown last Friday that "I have been telling him from the moment he arrived about the urgency of the situation" and "I just have to tell you that he had a difficult time understanding the enormity of the task before us."
Members of Mr. Bush's party also were angry. Last week House Republicans pressed the White House to fire Mr. Brown. Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi pulled the president aside for a private meeting on Monday in Poplarville, Miss., to ask him to intervene personally to untangle FEMA red tape. Mr. Lott, exasperated, told Mr. Bush that he needed to press the agency to send the state 46,000 trailers, promised for days as temporary housing for hurricane victims.
For a time, Mr. Lott did not directly criticize Mr. Brown or the federal response in public. "My mama didn't raise no idiot," he joked on Capitol Hill last week. "I ain't going to bite the hand that's trying to save me."
But on Friday, with Mr. Brown's tenure in the relief role at an end, the senator issued a statement that made clear his views, and those of many others.
"Something needed to happen," Mr. Lott's statement said. "Michael Brown has been acting like a private instead of a general. When you're in the middle of a disaster, you can't stop to check the legal niceties or to review FEMA regulations before deciding to help Mississippians knocked flat on their backs."
Mr. Bush, characteristically, did not officially dismiss Mr. Brown, instead calling him back to Washington to run FEMA while a crisis-tested Coast Guard commander, Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, was given oversight of the relief effort. The take-charge Admiral Allen, who commanded the Coast Guard's response up and down the Atlantic Seaboard after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, immediately appeared on television as the public face of the administration's response.
In Baton Rouge, Mr. Brown appeared briefly at Mr. Chertoff's side before heading back to the capital, where, the secretary said, the director was needed for potential disasters.
"We've got tropical storms and hurricanes brewing in the ocean," Mr. Chertoff said.