In the decade since Hurricane Katrina, the image of former President George W. Bush telling Michael Brown, then the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job," has become a potent symbol—shorthand for what many viewed as the White House's mishandling of the natural disaster.
Brown left later that year and now hosts a radio show in Colorado. Ten years after that turning point, Brown talked with National Journal about why New Orleans suffered worse, that infamous phrase, and why questions about race with regard to Katrina are "utter bullshit." The interview has been condensed for clarity.
National Journal: You've said in the past you think the Bush administration didn't understand the magnitude [of Katrina]. ... Why didn't the administration do so and what would have been done different if the administration had taken it seriously?
Michael Brown: I think rather than using the word "seriously," to be more accurate I would say, the administration just assumed because of the incredible success that we had had in 2004 [when] we had four hurricanes strike Florida. It was right in the middle of a presidential election, so we had an amazing amount of political pressure... So I think you couple that experience just the year before along with everything I had done in all of the disasters all of the way back to 9/11, I think maybe there was this assumption that, "Hey, it's just a hurricane, there won't be any problem." And I think there was also kind of, "Brown's good at this stuff, so there's not a lot for us to worry about." I think it was that coupled with a failure to recognize that ... [the hurricane] was going to the one place that we wished it wouldn't go to, and that was the fishbowl called New Orleans.
NJ: Since people felt you had it under control, do you think that's what led President Bush to say, ... "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job?"
MB: Well let me tell you the backstory to that. I had talked to the president just the day before ... and had explained to him that we were having a very difficult time getting a unified command structure set up, and that things were pretty bad down here, and that I once again reiterated to him that I really need the Cabinet full hands on deck. That when I ask for X, I really need the Cabinet to know that you, Mr. President, have instructed the Cabinet to give me whatever I need. I talked to one of the chiefs of staff. I said, "Look guys, when you land at this Air National Guard Base, I need five minutes with the boss before we do the public briefing." And they wanted to know ... "Well, what do you need to talk with him before the briefing?" I said, "Because he needs to understand exactly how bad things are here. I need to look him in the eye and say: 'Mr. President, look, what you're going to see, first of all you're going to see horrific destruction, not so much in Alabama, but then the tour is going to take us to Biloxi and Gulfport, and you are going to see some amazing damage. I mean, absolutely amazing damage. And you are going to see some things that I had told you about in the Oval Office, somewhat similar to the tsunami [from] early 2005, late 2004.'"
Then I wanted to make sure he knew that when we walked into New Orleans, ... I was going to recommend in the meeting that we federalize the response in Louisiana, not in Mississippi, not in Alabama. So that was the purpose of the meeting before we went to the public briefing. So the president lands, we go to the green room or whatever kind of holding room we got, and the president and I are starting to talk, and I am starting to tell him just exactly what I just told you except I get cut off about to the point where I'm describing when we get to New Orleans and about at that point, one of the press persons comes in, we've got to leave right now, we've got to get out of here and do this briefing, and they pull the president out and I'm like, "Crap-o-la, I haven't had the opportunity to tell him everything he needs to know."
So when we're sitting there, we're standing there doing this briefing, if you talk to former Gov. of Alabama Bob Riley, if you talk to former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, if you talk to just people in general, the emergency managers, citizens, everybody, the response we were doing in Mississippi and Alabama was on target. It was a great response. It was great because those two governors knew the differing roles between the federal and state government, and they knew how to work with us. And I always hesitate pointing out how great those two were, they deserve the kudos, but detractors always say, "Well you say that because they were Republicans." No, I say that because they knew what their job was.
So we walk into that briefing and we're standing there, it's the typical photo op, I'm talking to the president about what we're going to see and the press pool is there, and Gov. Riley, who I'd known for years even when he was a congressman, made a simple comment, and said, "Mr. President, I want you to know that I think FEMA is doing a great job in Alabama." And the president, because he and I had a good working relationship, the president just took that cue and, as is his style, immediately kind of slapped me in the gut like he would do and said, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." And I was like, at that instant, I knew one, the media was going to jump all over that, because I knew that we weren't doing a good job in Louisiana. And we can debate who was and wasn't doing a good job, but I knew things weren't working in New Orleans, and he was looking as if he didn't have a clue what was going on.
So as soon as that meeting was over with, we get on Marine One and we head up the coast, and I start trying ... to explain to him, 'Look Mr. President, this is bad, and when we get to this meeting with Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin, here's is what all of us have agreed to do.' That was very difficult to do on Marine One. ...
NJ: [So] you wanted to advise the White House to federalize the response to Louisiana, not to Alabama and Mississippi.
MB: We had already made that decision on the ground. We already decided to make that recommendation, because clearly we can't make that decision. That's the decision the president has to make. We had decided that's what we're going to do when we get to the meeting on Air Force One. You know in D.C. how things work. The president flies in on Air Force One, Marine One is there, we do the photo op, we do the shaking hands, and everything, we get on Marine One and Air Force Onejumps ahead and goes to the meeting spot.
NJ: Why wasn't the response federalized?
MB: Fast-forward now, Marine One lands at Louis Armstrong International Airport, Air Force One is waiting for us, we have a meeting scheduled with the Governor of Louisiana Kathleen Blanco, the Mayor, Mayor [Ray] Nagin, General [H. Steven] Blum from the National Guard, myself, I think [Homeland Security Secretary Michael] Chertoff was in and out of the meetings. And we sit down at the conference table on the plane, I make the recommendation that we need to federalize because we can't get a unified command structure in place. And the president, and this is really important, the president agrees to that. ...
Gov. Blanco, I don't know whether to give her credit or to criticize her for it, but Gov. Blanco says, 'Well Mr. President I need 24 hours to think about it.' And what surprised me in all of this was the president's reaction, and I think the president … was then thinking, 'Well, if I was on the other side of the table as a governor, I'd want to think about this, too.' And so he gives Gov. Blanco 24 hours to think about it. Twenty-four hours in a disaster, particularly one like Katrina, is the death knell because now you have another entire news cycle, you have another 24-hour period where you can't do the logistical that things you need to do, so you start scrapping and trying to put things together the best you can. And of course history shows us, Gov. Blanco, I think politically, and again I can't read her mind, but I think Gov. Blanco realized that as a Democratic governor of a Southern state, she cannot capitulate and agree for her state to be taken over by the federal government.
So she says no and we never get it federalized. So now we start trying to figure how can we do this in a way without federalizing it. And that's when we come up with the idea that the president ought to appoint someone, get someone, and this is where General [Russel] Honoré comes in, to bring Gen. Honoré in, and of course he in particular is selected because as he would say himself: "Hey, I'm a Cajun boy from this state. I know how this state works." So he was selected to come in and do informally what we couldn't do formally.
NJ: How much blame would you say the state and local government [deserve], how much blame does the administration share, and how much would you say, "I made some mistakes"?
MB: Let's work them backwards. There's no question I made some certain mistakes, and at some point, I will walk through a few of those mistakes that I made. But let's go to the larger question first. Rather than assign a percentage, let me describe it to you this way: But for the failure... the utter... I don't know whether to use the word "stupidity," "lack of leadership," "lack of decisiveness," I don't know what it is, but the failure of Gov. Blanco and in particular Mayor Nagin to order a mandatory evacuation when both myself and the director of the National Hurricane Center, Max Mayfield, recommend that they do so, which was about 48 to 72 hours in advance, but for the failure to do that and to utilize at that time—because I had every major airline, I still had Amtrak in the city, I still had bus lines in the city, we had school buses that the mayor could have used. I'm not even talking about federal resources, but for the failure to evacuate his people in the city, you never would have seen what happened in the Superdome.
That is to me the major failure. That is and what happened and, you will see, Fox News did a documentary on Friday night. Were you able to see it?
NJ: I caught it in preparation for this interview
MB: If you look at that, the mayor and governor come out on a Sunday, somewhere [between] 10 a.m. and noon, and in these kind of wishy-washy words, start to encouraging their citizens to leave New Orleans. The hurricane makes landfall at 5, 4 o'clock that morning. That's too late. …
NJ: What are some mistakes FEMA has learned from in the past and what are some things FEMA and state governments can do in the future, ... because it wasn't the hurricane disaster itself, it was the response?
MB: It's interesting that you put it that way. The hurricane not only was really not the problem, it was the storm surge after the hurricane passed through, when Lake Pontchartrain, the waters are pushed back southward back across into the city, and that's what caused the breach of the levees. So it's funny we always refer to Hurricane Katrina, well it was by that time, it was a tropical storm moving on up into Tennessee and Kentucky, the upper Midwest. But here's what's interesting about your question, and this is a point that still frustrates me. FEMA is not a first-responder. FEMA does not have planes, trains, and automobiles in the sense that we've got firetrucks and helicopters and amphibious equipment. We don't have those kinds of things to be a first-responder. We rely solely upon, and I think rightfully so under our system of federalism, we rely upon state and local governments. ...
So there's this misconception that FEMA is a first-responder and it's not. FEMA is really just a giant orchestra conductor with a checkbook. We get a big fat checkbook called the U.S. Treasury and the Disaster Relief Fund, and that's what FEMA has to offer. Now FEMA employees would argue and say, "Well no no, we have more than that." And yes, I'm simplifying it. Yes we have things, we have the training programs, we have the grant programs, we have the ability to coordinate and to ask other states through mutual aid to help each other, but at the end of the day, we are not a first-responder and FEMA just can't do that. And the more that people try to make FEMA a first-responder ... that means the state and local governments become weaker and weaker because they become dependent on the federal government, and it is real easy for a governor or a mayor to say, "Well, I don't really need to put this money in the firefighting budget, because I could always depend upon the feds to come in."
NJ: So it allows them to take a hands-off approach?
NJ: One of the things that was very controversial, and it still is something a lot of people talk about to this day, is some people did feel that there was a disproportionate response when the disaster hit heavily African-American areas, that their government did not respond properly. … There were discussions if this had happened in an upper-income area, this wouldn't have been the same way. Do you think in any way, did race and socioeconomic status at all affect the response to the hurricane?
MB: Well, first that premise is utter bullshit. Utter complete bullshit, and you can quote me on that. And I'll tell you the other thing—and this isn't pointed toward you, this is pointed toward the people who make that contention—that is offensive to every person that works at FEMA. That is offensive to every first-responder, to every firefighter. That is offensive to every member of an Urban Search and Rescue team. That is offensive to every single person that responds in a disaster. Because I will guaran-damn-tee you that not one of those individuals ever thinks about either the political affiliation, the color of their skin, the size of their bank account, they don't give a rat's ass about that. All they care about are trying to save lives and minimize damage to property.
And one further thing, the response to Katrina in terms of the amount of material, personnel, food, water, medical supplies was larger than on 9/11. It was the largest I think even since then. It was the largest deployment of resources in American history. And if you go back and you read the mission assignments and you look at the amount of money that was spent in terms of predeployment—of 18-wheelers and reefer trucks and rescue teams that ICE position in an arc all the way from Atlanta and Houston just outside the perimeter of possible damage because you don't want the first-responders themselves to become victims—I find that premise personally offensive. Can I be any more clear on that one? ...
NJ: I want to give you a chance, going back and if you had a magic wand to fix the mistakes you made, what would you have done [differently]?
MB: I'll give you ones that instantly come to mind. Obviously, I've been asked this question before and I've thought about it, but I'll just give you ones that instantly come to mind. There were times at the very beginning of the disaster where I would issue or I'd have my staff make what's called a mission assignment. … It's basically FEMA saying to, for example, the Department of Defense, we need you to do XYZ. ... The [Defense secretary] and the deputy secretary don't have to sit there and gnash their teeth and wring their hands and worry about how that affects their operational budget, because we pay for that. We reimburse them for it. …
So when I would issue mission assignments and I would ask for certain things to be done. .... The governor asked for 500 buses. I signed a mission assignment for the Department of Transportation to find 500 buses. As a footnote, I did that knowing that even if we got the buses into New Orleans, we still had to figure a way to get people out of the Superdome into those buses because the Superdome was surrounded 8-12 feet of water? But nonetheless, that's what the governor requested, I was willing to do that, I executed the mission assignment, and it never got fulfilled.
And do you know why it didn't get fulfilled? Because some financial person, not within FEMA, because the FEMA financial people knew when I asked for something, they knew just go do it ... but some financial person within DHS, because you have to remember, this is now the first time DHS has really interfered in a response to a disaster.
NJ: FEMA had just got incorporated into DHS after 9/11.
MB: Yes, and actually and that's another footnote, this is two years into DHS. And for the first two years under Tom Ridge, we never had that problem because Tom is a former governor, Tom Ridge as a former congressman and author of the Stafford Act, knew how FEMA operated, and he wasn't going to upset that apple cart. He knew the way it was supposed to work.
So back to the mission assignment, I requested the 500 buses and they never got delivered because some bureaucrat back in D.C. was sitting on their butt not getting it done because they thought it seemed excessive. When I started realizing that things weren't happening as quickly as they should within [the Department of Defense], within Department of Transportation or anywhere else, I should have immediately during one of those press conferences said something to the effect, "Yeah, I don't know what the hell's going on back in D.C., but I can tell you right now that whoever in D.C. is slowing things down, they're costing lives, they're costing us extra money, damage is getting worse and they better get off their butts and do something." Now, that probably would have gotten me fired, but it would have gotten the attention to people inside the Beltway who were being bureaucrats while we were on the ground trying to make things happen. That is the first and foremost mistake that I made.
The second mistake that I made was I had been in Mississippi. Now remember, Katrina covered 90,000 square miles. So I've got operations going on from Florida to Texas. I'm in Mississippi meeting with Gov. Barbour and the purpose of that meeting was what's going on here, what do you need, what's working, what's not working, what do I need to fix? I mean, that's the kind of meeting I have every time there's a disaster with a governor. So I'm in that meeting doing that. I get back on the Gulf Stream to head back to Baton Rouge and the pilot comes on and says that Secretary Chertoff wants to talk to me. So I take the phone call, and Chertoff starts chewing me out. "Where've you been, I can't get a hold of you." Now, I'm thinking, 'Well, all you had to do was like, ask my chief of staff, all you had to do was watch the news. You would have seen exactly where I was, what I was doing.' But I'm trying to be a good soldier, right? So I listen to him and he's livid, because I'm flying around too much. I don't need to be meeting with the governors. I need to stay back in my office. And I'm listening to this and I'm thinking to myself, "You dumb ass." ...
And I am thinking, "You're telling me to go back and sit in an office and try to run a disaster of this magnitude from sitting in an office in Baton Rouge? You're full of crap." But I didn't say anything. What I should have done was I should have either called his bluff, or told him to get screwed, because that's not how you do it, and if you don't like that and that's the way I'm going to have to operate, then you better find somebody else right now. And truthfully, Eric, that would have brought everything to a head, that would have put me on the offensive instead of the defensive, and it would have caused the president to go, "What the crap's going on down there?" And I think at that point, it would have been full-steam ahead, get the Cabinet together and tell the Cabinet: "I don't care if Brown asks for, you know, 50 tanks. If he asks for 50 tanks, there must be a reason, give him his freakin' 50 tanks."
NJ: So it seems it was more [about] how you coordinated and how you corresponded both using the media and … with people in the administration as well.
MB: That's right. I was trying to balance two conflicting concepts. And that is on the ground. ... This is how FEMA had worked since 1979; this is how FEMA worked post-stand-up of DHS on March 3, 2003; this is the way we worked; this is how we got things done; this is, in fact, how the White House expected to get things done. So when I now have this new bureaucracy on top of me, the biggest mistake I made that I think a D.C. insider would understand is I was now trying to balance these two bureaucracies and trying to balance these two conflicting ways of doing business. And I did know, but I kept trying to somehow balance those two, and in hindsight, it was stupid.
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Eric Garcia is a staff correspondent for National Journal. He previously was a transparency reporter for MarketWatch, where he reported on financial regulation issues. His work has also appeared in the Southern Political Report, Salon, the American Prospect and the New Republic. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and covered politics for its campus paper, the Daily Tar Heel.