[Rizzn’s Note: The other day I made a notation on how hard it was to find the transcript of the House hearings today on the federal, state and local response to Hurricane Katrina. I eventually found them buried in the New York Times website. I’m going to repost Michael Brown’s opening statement in its entirety today, and then go into some analysis tomorrow. I think it’s vital that it be read, especially concentrating on the last half of the statements (essentially, the area of his opening statement where he stops talking about how FEMA works, which is important, but not as interesting as the rest). You’ll discover exactly how atrocious it was that the entirety of the media focused on the ‘sensational’ allegations he made as opposed to his supporting statements.
Incidentally, the blog he referenced in his statement was horseass.org, not JustCheck. The url wasn’t correct as stated, since he was referring to everyone’s favorite lefty wingnut central, the Daily Kos (specifically, Goldy at Horseass, a Kos contributor). The link to the originator of this is here.]
I just want to start out by saying that, you know, no longer being on the hot seat at FEMA, it is, indeed, a pleasure to be here.
And I want to say also that I agree with you completely regarding the premise of these hearings. Lessons can be learned and should be learned. That was always my philosophy at FEMA. It was what we called a ramp (ph) program, where we always looked, after every disaster, every incident, at remedial actions and what we could do to improve things.
I also want to say that I admire the efforts of many members of this committee, including you, Mr. Chairman, to actually get outside of Washington, D.C., and see what’s going on in the field. I think the more you do that, the better information that you will get and the better you will understand what took place, not only in Hurricane Katrina, but what goes in disasters all over this country.
The response of the government at all levels to Hurricane Katrina has come under some criticism. Some of it’s valid, and I’ll tell you some of it is just not valid.
FEMA must be understood in the context of what we do and how we do it before we decide to start Monday morning quarterbacking what took place, and so I think it’s really important to understand what the role of FEMA is and what we do.
Likewise, there have been some criticisms leveled against me personally, and so I would like to take time later in this statement to address some of those.
As everyone on this committee certainly understands, you can’t believe everything that you read in the newspapers, or everything that you see on television.
To understand the role that FEMA undertook in Hurricane Katrina and all the other disasters that we have successfully handled throughout my tenure and the tenure of others, it’s important to understand the basics of emergency management in the United States.
At its most basic level, emergency management can best be described as a cycle. You first prepare for a disaster. You then respond to the disaster. You recover from the disaster. And finally, you start mitigating against future disasters based on what you have learned.
This cycle is the standard throughout the entire world. It doesn’t vary anywhere in the world.
These four pillars that I just described — prepare, respond, recover, and mitigate — is how any effective emergency management organization, agency, directorate must be organized in order to be effective and to help citizens in times of emergencies.
Emergency management begins at the local level. Municipal and county governments are best suited to understand the needs and capabilities of their locales. Mayors, city councilmen, county commissioners, county administrators, parish presidents, all of these people are in a unique position to understand both the capabilities of their communities and the vulnerabilities of their communities.
Local governments develop the operations plan by which their communities are going to respond to disasters, either natural or manmade.
State governments have a role. State governments develop emergency operations plans for disasters. They provide liaison support to the local government, and they administer the mitigation programs that the federal government supports at the state and local level.
The reason that this primary responsibility, this first response is at the local level is that it’s inherently impractical, totally impractical for the federal government to respond to every disaster of whatever size in every community across this country.
It breaks my heart to think about the disasters that we respond to as FEMA, and to think about also the disasters that we don’t respond to — the small town in Wyoming that has a tornado that wipes out five homes. We don’t respond to that, yet those people suffered as much as any other people that we might respond to.
The role of the federal government is not and should not ever be that of a first responder. The role of the federal government in emergency management is generally that of a coordinator and a supporter. The federal government develops national policies and assists the state and locals.
The concept of federalism in this country has long provided the basis by which all levels of government interact. Those principles of federalism should not be lost in the short-term desire to react to a natural disaster of catastrophic proportions, for it is my contention that if we lose that concept of federalism, we will have a breakdown in the local, state, and national emergency management systems, it will inherently drive decision-making to the federal level, it will inherently create a system whereby communities become dependent upon the federal government to respond to all disasters, and that’s just not right or workable.
These roles are also fully supported by the basic concept of federalism, recognizing that sovereign states have the primary responsibility for emergency preparedness and response in their jurisdictions.
For example, governors have control over the National Guard. Law enforcement is primarily a local responsibility.
I think if you ask any of your constituents, any citizens in this country, they understand that fire protection, police protection, emergency medical care are clearly a local responsibility.
Now, many may be surprised to learn that FEMA is not a first responder.
Many may be surprised to learn that, guess what, FEMA doesn’t own fire trucks; we don’t own ambulances; we don’t own search and rescue equipment. In fact, the only search and rescue or emergency equipment that we own is a very small cadre to protect some property that we own around the country. FEMA is a coordinating agency. We are not a law enforcement agency.
It has always been my contention that the all-hazards approach is the approach that the federal government should take towards emergency management. By that I mean that if we adopt a cycle of preparing through training, exercises, planning, we respond to disasters with those that we have trained with, exercised with, worked with, we recover through rebuilding and reconstruction, we mitigate by enforcing and helping develop building codes, standards, protocols, retrofits.
If we do all of those things in an all-hazards approach, that means that we can respond to any disaster anywhere, regardless of what causes that disaster, whether it’s man-made, natural, or a terrorist event.
But I want to emphasize that if we break that cycle and if we break that concept of federalism, we minimize our effectiveness and maximize our potential for failure.
Every level of government in this country has a role to play, including individuals. Individuals m
ust take personal responsibility for being prepared. First responders may not be able to get to them quickly.
And in fact, in speeches that I give all over the country when I talk about preparedness, I always ask individuals this: Do you want to be the person that causes the first responder to either lose their life or become injured because you didn’t take the basic steps yourself as an individual to be prepared? Individuals have a responsibility in this system of emergency management also.
Local governments must be prepared to respond just as well, because, as simple as it seems, disasters always occur in local communities. Locals are the first responders, and they have the primary responsibility to respond on behalf of their communities.
The emergency management cycle that I have described does not exist in FEMA today because of it’s just wishful thinking. It exists because we recognize that only through our partnerships, with state and local governments, can we be effective. And only through those partnerships can we actually respond and come in and help them coordinate and assist them when disaster strikes in their communities.
FEMA cannot come in and be the first responder, but we can come in and help them train and exercise and learn how to do their job and be prepared for any kind of disaster.
People in the country might be surprised to learn that FEMA is a very small agency. They hear that FEMA is part of the Department of Homeland Security. The Department of Homeland Security has over 180,000 employees, and a budget of some $42 billion.
FEMA has less than 3,000 employees. And if you take away the disaster relief fund, we have an annual operating budget of less than $1 billion dollars.
We are a very small organization within a very large organization.
But despite that, despite that contradiction in the size, I believe that FEMA is an honest broker that can effectively bring to bear the resources of the federal government to help state and local governments when they are responding to disasters.
What happens when we do that? When FEMA responds, we become a partner with the state. We establish a unified command structure — a unified command structure that has worked well throughout 150-plus disasters that I have overseen since being at FEMA.
This unified command structure allows the federal, state, and local governments to work hand-in-hand, recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of each level, distributing the resources and assets according to how they can best be utilized, and recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of the state, federal and local governments so we can best respond to help our citizens.
And it is only through such a unified command structure, coupled with an incident management system within that unified command structure — and actually, an incident command structure has been recognized by fire departments and the Forest Service and others for decades in this country.
But it is only through that kind of unified command structure that we can be successful when we respond to a disaster.
That’s FEMA. It’s not a first responder. It’s a coordinator. It’s an honest broker.
But what was our role during Hurricane Katrina? FEMA began monitoring Tropical Depression 12 long before it became a hurricane — almost a full week before it made landfall in Louisiana. FEMA prepositioned supplies, equipment and manpower in areas where they were out of harm’s way so that that equipment and that manpower would not itself become a victim of Hurricane Katrina.
We prepositioned those assets so that we can move them in rapidly when it’s safe to do so.
FEMA conducted daily video teleconferences to learn the states’ needs, to find out what we could do to best help them coordinate their response, and to respond to any requests that the states might have made of us that they needed in being prepared.
The hurricane liaison teams worked closely with the National Hurricane Center — FEMA people actually in the National Hurricane Center to provide us the most updated information so we would know what we could tell the states and what the states needed to know.
We established several mobilization centers throughout the Gulf states. Again, these mobilization centers were not in downtown New Orleans. They weren’t in Pascagoula. They were located out of harm’s way so they themselves would not become disaster victims — and we could move in after the hurricane made landfall.
FEMA activated and deployed the national disaster medical teams. We activated and deployed the urban search and rescue teams. We activated and deployed the rapid needs assessment teams. We activated and deployed the emergency response teams to all of the potentially affected states.
We sent federal coordinating officers, our eyes and ears on the ground, to each of the state emergency operation centers in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana prior to landfall, so that we could know everything that the state needed to know, that they could convey back to us.
The American Red Cross, one of our partners, established shelters and feeding stations in each of the affected areas. The National Emergency Assistance Compact, EMAC, was activated, so that other states, in partnership with FEMA and the affected states, could move supplies and resources in.
I want this committee to know that FEMA pushed forward with everything that it had, every team, every asset that we had, in order to help what we saw as being a potentially catastrophic disaster. FEMA was prepared to fulfill its role as a partner in responding.
The way that FEMA works with state and local officials is well-established, and it’s worked well. FEMA designates the federal coordinating officer to go to the state emergency operations center so that from that moment on, from the moment that our FCO, that federal coordinating officer, lands in an emergency operations center, he or she is hooked up with the state coordinating officers, so that we can have a unified command structure and we can know what the states need and we can start reacting to that before the disaster occurs, before the hurricane makes landfall.
These two persons in the ideal situation work together in the same room. They sit at conference tables like this. They know what they need to do. They work as a team. They feed those requests, those requirements into the emergency support functions, such as transportation, mass care, energy, so that we know what they need, and we can respond and help them get the assets they need.
When the needs are identified, the coordinators assess that, so we know where best to utilize those resources and where to send them.
This is exactly — exactly — the approach that FEMA used in 2004 to the historic four hurricanes that struck Florida. This is exactly the approach that FEMA used during the Columbia space shuttle disaster that stretched all the way from Texas through New Mexico, Arizona and California. This is exactly the system that FEMA used in the historic outbreak of tornadoes in the Midwest, where small communities were obliterated from the face of the earth. And this is the exact system that FEMA used in the outbreak of wildfires in California in 2003.
I emphasize that because it is also the same unified command structure that FEMA used in Mississippi, in Alabama, and Florida this year when we responded to Hurricane Katrina.
Unfortunately, this is the approach that FEMA had great difficulty in getting established within Louisiana. This exact approach worked well in Mississippi and Alabama and Florida. I had some of our best, most competent coordinators in those states, in all of the states, to do everything we could to assist them.
In retrospect, I got to tell you that I am very glad that on Sunday morning I was on the news shows talking, and I was pushing my staff to find out, has the governor of Louisiana, has the mayor ordered a mandatory evacuation? We could not get the definitive answer that they had or t
hey were going to.
So I went on the news shows Sunday morning, and I said, uncharacteristically of me, that I don’t care what the governors are saying and I don’t care what the mayors are saying, if you live in New Orleans, evacuate and get out of that city now.
I assume that today some of you are going to ask me whether I did all that I could, or whether I would have done anything differently. The answer is yes. Of course. And I want to talk about that, because we can always improve how we respond to disasters.
I do believe there are a couple of specific mistakes that I made that I want to put on the table right now.
First, I failed initially to set up a series of regular briefings to the media about what FEMA was doing throughout the Gulf Coast region. And instead, I became tied to the news shows, going on the news shows early in the morning and late at night, and that was just a mistake. We should have been feeding that information to the press and in the manner and in the time that we wanted to, instead of letting the press drive us.
Second, I very strongly personally regret that I was unable to persuade Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down, get over their differences and work together. I just couldn’t pull that off.
I want to spend just a minute, Mr. Chairman, if I can, to discuss a little bit about the personal charges that have been leveled against me.
While FEMA was trying to respond to probably the largest natural disaster in the history of this country, a catastrophic disaster that the president has described covering an area the size of Great Britain — I have heard 90,000 square miles — unless you have been there and seen it, you don’t realize exactly how bad and how big it was — but in the middle of trying to respond to that, FEMA’s press office became bombarded with requests to respond immediately to false statements about my resume and my background.
Ironically, it started with an organization called horsesass.org, that on some blog published a false, and, frankly, in my opinion, defamatory statement that the media just continued to repeat over and over. Next, one national magazine not only defamed me, but my alma mater, the Oklahoma City University School of Law, in one sentence alone leveling six false charges.
But that was just a prelude to what was to come. Time magazine then called the press office while I was in Baton Rouge trying to coordinate the response and was told that I supposedly embellished my resume and was given 45 minutes to respond to their story.
BROWN: The story wasn’t true, but apparently that doesn’t matter. For almost 20 years, you see, I have worked in state, local and federal government.
I started out as an intern while I was in undergraduate school in the city of Edmond, Oklahoma, which at the time was the fastest growing city in Oklahoma. We were issuing sometimes upwards of 1,000 building permits per month. That’s a lot of growth.
I started out as an intern in the planning office. I then became the assistant to the city manager, where I was liaison to the Emergency Services Division, the police and fire departments. I ended up drafting the emergency operations plan. I ended up putting together with a committee the emergency operations center. I worked closely with the emergency, fire and police departments.
I went on those runs, and I know what it is like to see a family’s house burn to the ground because they weren’t ready, they had a Christmas tree that was faulty, lights that were faulty. I know what it’s like to see men and women in police and fire departments put their lives on the line.
I have represented cops throughout my legal career. I have represented police departments. I guess I did a good enough job in negotiating on behalf of the city of Edmond during their labor relations that later the unions came and asked me to negotiate on their behalf.
You see, I get it when it comes to incident command systems. I get it when it comes to emergency management. I know what it’s all about.
But if that’s not enough, I came to FEMA as general counsel. As general counsel, I had to learn about all of the programs in FEMA. I had to understand what all of this emergency management cycle at the federal level was about.
I was then asked by the president after September 11, and running operations from FEMA headquarters on September 11 to become the deputy director.
I have overseen over 150 presidentially declared disasters. I know what I am doing. And I think I do a pretty darn good job of it.
The media even claimed that — falsely stated I was never an adjunct professor. I find that funny because there’s a gentleman in the room right now who has represented me on many occasions that I actually asked to come in and fill in for me one time and come and speak to my class that I was teaching. So maybe we’re both hallucinating about teaching that class, but I did teach law school. And, in fact, I taught legislation and I taught state and local government law. I know how municipal governments work.
Interesting, Time then quoted my employer, one of my first employers after law school, and said I had done a lousy job. I guess they wanted me in the middle of the disaster to run back to Virginia, dig through my papers and find the personnel records that talked about the outstanding job that I had done.
But I guess it’s the media’s job. But I don’t like it. I think it’s false. It came at the wrong time. And I think it led potentially to me being pulled out of Louisiana, because it made me somewhat ineffective.
BROWN: My experience at FEMA has been one of the greatest privileges of my life. The men and women of FEMA — every single one of them are dedicated to the mission of saving lives, sustaining lives, of building and keeping this robust emergency management system working as well as it can.
FEMA has faced some trying times. If you think it’s difficult to merge Compaq and IBM — ask Holly (ph) what she thinks of that — try to merge FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, and then try to reorganize that again from having been an independent agency.
The people of FEMA are tired. The people of FEMA are tired of being beat up — and they don’t deserve it. The men and women of FEMA, the career civil servants, the career people that I work with are dedicated to doing the absolute best they can to help communities because they chose to come to work at FEMA. And they deserve better than what they are getting.
Mr. Chairman, it’s my belief that FEMA did a good job in the Gulf states. We could do things better. We could improve them. And I hope that, through these hearings, we can find ways to not only improve FEMA and make it better, but that we can strengthen the emergency management system in this country.
Mr. Chairman, I would be happy to answer any questions that the committee might have.