Three days after being relieved of his duties managing the on-the-ground response to Hurricane Katrina, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown resigned from his post Monday.
Later Monday afternoon (September 12), the White House issued a statement announcing that Brown has been replaced by R. David Paulison, head of FEMA’s emergency preparedness force. A firefighter with three decades of experience, Mr. Paulison was chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department in Florida before joining FEMA in December 2001.
Brown had come under withering attack for his agency’s slow response to the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, which has so far claimed more than 400 lives and caused more than $100 billion in damage.
Saying he feared he was becoming a distraction to relief efforts, Brown submitted his resignation to President Bush on Monday morning, saying it was in the “best interest of the agency and the best interest of the president,” according to an Associated Press report.
Just days after the hurricane struck, President Bush had praised the FEMA chief, saying, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” But it quickly became apparent that Brown and FEMA were slow to respond to the disaster, due to a combination of bureaucratic red tape, a lack of preparedness and confusion over the scope of the destruction.
In dispatching Brown to Washington, D.C., on September 9, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that he wanted the FEMA chief in Washington to “coordinate the federal response to this unprecedented challenge,” but according to FOX News, Chertoff would not comment at the time if the reassignment was the first step in the resignation process.
Brown was replaced on the ground last Friday by Vice Admiral Thad Allen, the Coast Guard’s chief of staff.
As the horror of Katrina unfolded, critics quickly seized on Brown’s lack of experience, with some accusing him of padding his résumé and others citing his previous job as the commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association as a poor qualification to lead a huge organization devoted to helping citizens after catastrophic events. Brown became deputy director of FEMA in 2001 and director two years later. On Sunday, FEMA revised his official biography on its Web site, clarifying his previous experience in emergency planning after several magazines reported that he had less hands-on experience than claimed.
To the shock of several TV newscasters, just days after Katrina hit, Brown claimed in interviews that he wasn’t aware that 20,000 evacuees were suffering at New Orleans’ chaotic downtown convention center — despite the footage being played repeatedly on news networks for the preceding 24 hours.
That and other missteps led to both Democrats and Republicans criticizing Brown and calling for his resignation, though President Bush would not comment while touring the devastated town of Gulfport, Mississippi, on Monday. “Maybe you know something I don’t know. I’ve been working,” the president said. “There will be plenty of time to figure out what went right and what went wrong.”
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who called for Brown’s resignation days after the hurricane, praised the move in a statement. “His resignation is the right thing for the country and for the people of the Gulf Coast states,” Pelosi said.
With polls showing many Americans saying the government should have done more to help the victims of Katrina, the flap over Brown likely contributed to new polls, which show the president’s job-approval ratings at the lowest ebb of his presidency. Also potentially contributing to those low numbers are lingering charges from some, among them Kanye West, that race may have played a part in the slow response to the plight of the many poor, black victims of the storm (see “Kanye West Stands By Critique Of President Bush At $2 Bill Show” ).
President Bush denied the claim Monday, saying, “The storm didn’t discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort.”
Meanwhile, the death toll in the region rose on Monday as Louisiana officials announced the discovery of 45 bodies at the Memorial Medical Center, according to the AP, pushing the total of deaths past 400. With many house-to-house searches completed, Army Lieutenant Gen. Russell Honore told CNN that the death toll in New Orleans is likely to be far less than the 10,000 predicted by Mayor Ray Nagin.
As businesses sporadically began to open their doors in the areas where floodwaters have receded, smatterings of good news emerged, including word that the first commercial airline flights were scheduled to begin on Tuesday at Louis Armstrong New Orleans Airport. Running water and power began to trickle on in spots, with most customers on the Mississippi coast having their electricity restored by Monday.
The several thousand hold outs who refused to leave inundated New Orleans also got a reprieve over the weekend, when officials announced that they would rescind last week’s mandatory evacuation order.
But, two weeks after the hurricane, more than half of New Orleans remained under water and officials are so concerned about the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses such as West Nile that they are to begin spraying pesticide over the city on Tuesday.
To find out what you can do to help provide relief to victims of Katrina, head to think MTV’s hurricane relief page.