In his first book on the Hurricane Katrina disaster, former FEMA boss Michael Brown charges that he was victimized by Washington politics and bureaucracy and a “fratboy” President Bush that “didn’t get” how bad the situation in Louisiana was.
“He failed to comprehend the magnitude of the story, the critical timing for evacuation, and the services and personnel that was needed,” Brown writes of Bush in Deadly Indifference, The Perfect (Political) Storm. “The president didn’t get it at first. Not many people did.” (Whispers will have more on the Brown’s criticism of the media on Monday.)
Brown, who admits he was too intimidated to be frank about the situation with Bush when he had a chance, said that he was also undermined by Michael Chertoff, then head of the Department of Homeland Security, who didn’t react as quickly to the disaster as Brown wanted.
His book portrays Bush as a leader too removed from day-to-day realities and as a “fratboy who wanted everybody to like him.”
For example, he writes that Bush thought Brown could take care of the hurricane easily since he had done so the year before in Florida, which got hit by four big storms. “To George Bush, everything was under control, he had me, someone who was experienced in dealing with hurricanes, who was respected by his brother for his work in Florida,” pens Brown. “He would think to himself, ‘It’s a hurricane. FEMA/Brown will take care of it.’ That was why it took him extra time to realize that this hurricane and its aftermath was a disaster on a far greater scale than anything else that occurred while he was president.”
He also raps Bush for acting with a business-as-usual attitude after the storm hit, holding a birthday party for Arizona Sen. John McCain, then attending a baseball game in San Diego. Brown also notes that then Gov. Kathleen Blanco urgently asked Bush for “everything you’ve got” as the killer storm passed, but Bush “went to bed without acting.”
As for the famous Bush flyover, notable for the pictures of him staring out of Air Force One at the disaster instead of landing to walk among those displaced, Brown writes that he was “livid.” A stop, says Brown, would have given him a chance to have the president reassert FEMA’s top role in the disaster instead of having to work through Homeland Security.
Brown adds that the callousness of Washington toward Katrina victims was highlighted when former first lady Barbara Bush, talking about displaced Louisianans in Texas’s Astrodome, said, “So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged, anyway, so this, this is working very well for them.”
Pens Brown: “The president and his family are not unlike European royalty. They can live privileged lives isolated from the cares and concerns of the public. Like royalty, though, they are expected to go among the people and do good work, especially after leaving office.”
Writing about the day Bush toured the disaster and, while talking to the press with Brown at his side, said, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” the former FEMA chief said his efforts to paint a picture of disarray to Bush beforehand were interrupted and ignored. [Check out a roundup of Whispers political cartoons.]
“I had specifically requested that time alone with the ‘Boss,’ as we called him among ourselves, so that I could explain to him, in person, how badly things were going. My motivation in having that meeting was to make sure he wasn’t blind sided by the awful things he was about to see,” writes Brown. But as the meeting got going, another aide interrupted to break it up and get Bush before the media. “Thus, when the president, in his usual cheerleading mode, turned to me after being complimented by my friend Governor Riley of Alabama, and publicly pinned his previously private nickname on me along with the ‘heck of a job’ accolade, the video shows me wincing. I had just been telling him how bad things were and what help I needed. Had he been ignoring me?” asks Brown. He writes that in the end, Bush did react properly, But it was too late to overcome the initial media disaster.
In the blame game, though, Brown does point at himself. First, he notes that he wasn’t as forceful with Bush about trying to get FEMA power when he had a chance before the disaster. Second, he said that it’s difficult to be a disaster boss. “The position I held within the government is not one for which anyone can train. My appointment came at a time when we were living with what might be called the certainty of the uncertain,” he wrote. And finally he conceded that he and others handling Katrina were ill-trained in dealing with the media.