Disgraced Fema boss hits back at criticism

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The Independent US

"I've overseen over 150 presidentially declared disasters," Mr Brown said in testimony to a special Congressional committee, pumping his hands on occasion to make his point. "I know what I'm doing, and I think I do a pretty darn good job of it," he said.

Mr Brown, who was relieved of direct involvement in the Katrina relief on 9 September before resigning three days later, has become the symbol of the Bush administration's botched response to the hurricane, which killed over 1,000 people when it smashed into the US Gulf Coast on August 29.

A former horseracing official, whose main qualification appears to have been his friendship with President Bush's White House campaign manager in 2000, he is for critics the embodiment of the cronyism used to fill vital posts in the federal government.

They are particularly incensed that even after his disgrace, Mr Brown is still working for FEMA as a consultant. Agency spokesmen however say this arrangement is about to end, and that Mr Brown would be paid for just one extra month "for transitional purposes."

In the meantime Mr Bush's lavish praise for him a few days after the hurricane – "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" – has become catch phrase for a floundering Presidency.

Yesterday however, Mr Brown rounded on his accusers, denying their "false charges" and blaming the media for ‘misrepresenting' his qualifications. Yes, he admitted, he had made mistakes, among them spending too much time giving exclusive interviews to network TV instead of regularly briefing the media. But, he insisted, he had done all he could do to co-ordinate the response to Katrina.

A major problem he said, was the animosity between top state and local officials in Louisiana, and their failure to organise a full evacuation before the Category Four hurricane struck.

"I'm not a dictator," Mr Brown declared. "My strongest personal regret is that I could get [Louisiana's] Governor Kathleen Blanco and [New Orleans'] Mayor Ray Nagin to work together and get over their differences." His biggest mistake, he claimed, was "not recognising by Saturday [August 27] that Louisiana was dysfunctional." The hurricane made landfall early the following Monday morning.

But this was not enough to satisfy the Republican-led Committee, plainly determined to have his hide. "I'm happy you aren't there any more," said Christopher Shay, a Connecticut Republican, complaining about Mr Brown's "deer in the headlight look that tells me you weren't capable to do the job."

But even the spectacle of Republicans attacking their own was not enough for Democrats, who demand an independent outside probe of the handling of Katrina, along the lines of the commission that probed the 9/11 attacks. A Republican-controlled Congress, they warn, will merely produce a whitewash of a Republican-run federal government.

With the exception of two Congressmen from states vulnerable to hurricanes, Democrats boycotted yesterday's hearings. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, issued a blistering statement describing proceedings as a "sham."

Mr Brown, once the Stewards and Judges Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Asssociation, has been mocked for appearing ignorant of the appalling conditions in the New Orlean's Superdome and convention centre, even as they were being broadcast live on television. But he claimed again yesterday he had been alive from the outset of the potential threat posed by Katrina.

"The people of FEMA are being tired of being beat up, and they don't deserve it," Brown said. "we did more with Katrina than we did with [Hurricane] Charley in Florida last year and the others."

Since Mr Brown's departure, FEMA has been headed by interim director David Paulison. It has been praised for its performance during Hurricane Rita, which followed Katrina's path closely before hitting the Texas/Louisiana coast last weekend as a Category Three storm.

Thanks in part to a comprehensive prior evacuation of threatened towns, the death toll thus far is under 10, despite the virtual obliteration of some small coastal communities in western Louisiana. Even yesterday, flooding stretched a dozen miles or more inland, as President Bush paid his seventh visit to the region since Katrina struck.