FEMA director steps down

Darlene Superville: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Mike Brown, the subject of blistering criticism after Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast and overwhelmed the government’s response, quit Monday as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The White House moved quickly to replace him, installing a top agency official with three decades of firefighting experience as acting director.

Some of Brown’s critics agreed with his decision, saying it would put the focus on efforts to manage the aftermath of the disaster, including helping the thousands of people left homeless.

Bush named R. David Paulison to replace Brown.

The president was told of Brown’s resignation earlier Monday and spoke to Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff, who was Brown’s boss, from Air Force One in the afternoon as he flew back to Washington from an overnight visit to the region.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the White House did not seek Brown’s resignation.

“This was Mike Brown’s decision and we respect his decision,” McClellan said.

McClellan praised Brown’s work but conspicuously left out any reference to his contribution to the Katrina efforts.

“The president appreciates Mike Brown’s service,” he said. “Mike has done a lot of great work on a number of hurricanes.”

Paulison has led the U.S. Fire Administration, a division of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, since December 2001, according to a biography posted on FEMA’s Web site. He led FEMA’s emergency preparedness force from 2003-2004. He also is a certified paramedic.

He is a career firefighter from Miami who was among the emergency workers responding to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Florida Everglades in 1996.

Paulison also was chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department, leading 1,900 personnel and a $200 million operating budget. He was in charge of Dade County’s emergency management office.

In an interview, Brown said he feared he had become a distraction.

His resignation came three days after he was sent back to headquarters from the Gulf area, where he had been the government’s disaster point-man. It also came a little more than a week after Bush, on his first on-the-ground visit to the region after the storm, said, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”

“The focus has got to be on FEMA, what the people are trying to do down there,” Brown told The Associated Press on Monday.

Brown said he spoke Saturday to White House chief of staff Andrew Card and was not asked to resign. Brown said the decision to step down was his.

“I think it’s in the best interest of the agency and the best interest of the president to do that and get the media focused on the good things that are going on, instead of me,” he said.

Brown said he last talked to Bush five or six days ago.
“For anyone to claim that FEMA fell on its face, or that FEMA did not do its job with Hurricane Katrina, I think is just, just incorrect,” he said.

In a separate interview with AP Radio, Brown said: “It’s never fun being the fall guy, and I’m not certain I’m being made to be the fall guy. But if being the fall guy gets done everything I want to get done, fine.”

Brown, 50, and his agency fell under intense criticism from Democrats and Republicans almost from the moment Hurricane Katrina tore through Gulf Coast areas of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

FEMA’s response was criticized as slow and ineffective, posing political problems for a president who prizes his reputation as a leader, burnished after his swift response to the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Polls show most Americans believe Bush could have done more to help Katrina’s victims, though they also blame leaders of Louisiana and New Orleans. Bush’s overall job approval rating is at the lowest point of his presidency.

Brown had conceded that all the resources the agency had in place before the storm were overwhelmed and that he did not anticipate the total breakdown in communications.

His limited, prior experience in disaster relief also became an issue. Before joining FEMA as deputy counsel in 2001, Brown, a lawyer, was head of the International Arabian Horse Association.

Brown also didn’t help himself with seemingly insensitive or ill-advised comments, such as when he said the government didn’t know about 20,000 people holed up in squalid conditions at the New Orleans convention center until a day after their difficulties had been widely reported in the news.

Last week, Brown denied allegations that his resume exaggerated his emergency management background. He also canceled, two days after announcing it, a debit card program that was to give $2,000 to hurricane evacuees.

“Michael Brown’s departure from FEMA is long overdue, and his resignation is the right thing for the country and for the people of the Gulf Coast states,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. But she and other critics said more needs to be done to fix the problems that plagued the federal government’s response to Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., stopped short of criticizing Brown but said he was pleased with the leadership now in place in what he described as a government-wide failure in responding to Katrina. Brown was replaced in the Gulf area by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen.