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'Can I quit now?' FEMA chief wrote as Katrina raged

E-mails give insight into Brown's leadership, attitude

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Brown defends his performance as he testifies before a House committee in September.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Louisiana congressman says e-mails written by the government's emergency response chief as Hurricane Katrina raged show a lack of concern for the unfolding tragedy and a failure in leadership.

Rep. Charlie Melancon, whose district south of New Orleans was devastated by the hurricane, posted a sampling of e-mails written by Federal Emergency Management chief Michael Brown on his Web site on Wednesday.

The Democratic lawmaker cited several e-mails that he said show Brown's failures. In one, as employees looked for direction and support on the ravaged Gulf Coast, Brown offered to "tweak" the federal response.

Two days after Katrina hit, Marty Bahamonde, one of the only FEMA employees in New Orleans, wrote to Brown that "the situation is past critical" and listed problems including many people near death and food and water running out at the Superdome.

Brown's entire response was: "Thanks for the update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?" (Copies of e-mails posted by critic -- PDF)

On September 12 Brown resigned, 10 days after President Bush told him, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

Brown is still on the federal payroll at his $148,000 annual salary. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, saying Brown's expertise was needed as he investigated what went wrong, agreed to a 30-day extension when Brown resigned. Chertoff renewed that extension in mid-October.

Brown took over FEMA in 2003 with little experience in emergency management. He joined the agency in 2001 as legal counsel to his friend, then-FEMA director Joe Allbaugh, who was Bush's 2000 campaign manager. When Allbaugh left FEMA in 2003 Brown assumed the top job.

Before joining the Bush administration, Brown spent a decade as the stewards and judges commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association.

The e-mails Melancon posted, a sampling of more than 1,000 provided to the House committee now assessing responses to Katrina by all levels of government, also show Brown making flippant remarks about his responsibilities. (Read how office e-mails can come back to haunt)

"Can I quit now? Can I come home?" Brown wrote to Cindy Taylor, FEMA's deputy director of public affairs, the morning of the hurricane.

A few days later, Brown wrote to an acquaintance, "I'm trapped now, please rescue me."

"In the midst of the overwhelming damage caused by the hurricane and enormous problems faced by FEMA, Mr. Brown found time to exchange e-mails about superfluous topics," including "problems finding a dog-sitter," Melancon said.

Melancon said that on August 26, just days before Katrina made landfall, Brown e-mailed his press secretary, Sharon Worthy, about his attire, asking: "Tie or not for tonight? Button-down blue shirt?"

A few days later, Worthy advised Brown: "Please roll up the sleeves of your shirt, all shirts. Even the president rolled his sleeves to just below the elbow. In this [crisis] and on TV you just need to look more hard-working."

On August 29, the day of the storm, Brown exchanged e-mails about his attire with Taylor, Melancon said. She told him, "You look fabulous," and Brown replied, "I got it at Nordstroms. ... Are you proud of me?"

An hour later, Brown added: "If you'll look at my lovely FEMA attire, you'll really vomit. I am a fashion god," according to the congressman.

The e-mails came from Chertoff, who oversees FEMA, following a request by Melancon and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Virginia, chairman of a House committee appointed to investigate what went wrong during Katrina, Melancon said.

Brown resigned amid accusations that FEMA acted too slowly after Katrina hammered Louisiana and Mississippi, killing more than 1,200 people. He defended the government's response and blamed leaders in Louisiana for failing to act quickly as the hurricane approached.

He acknowledged he made some mistakes as FEMA's director, but he stressed that the agency "is not a first responder," insisting that role belonged to state and local officials.

Brown could not be reached for comment Wednesday night on the e-mails and Melancon's charges.

Although Chertoff has not turned over all the documents requested by the committee, Melancon charged that the material received so far contradicts testimony by Brown before the committee in which he described himself as an effective leader. (Melancon's analysis of e-mails -- PDF)

Melancon used an e-mail sent September 2, four days after the hurricane hit, to illustrate his point. On that day, Brown received a message with the subject "medical help." At the time, thousands of patients were being transported to the New Orleans airport, which had been converted to a makeshift hospital. Because of a lack of ventilators, medical personnel had to ventilate patients by hand for as long as 35 hours, according to Melancon.

The text of the e-mail reads: "Mike, Mickey and other medical equipment people have a 42-foot trailer full of beds, wheelchairs, oxygen concentrators, etc. They are wanting to take them where they can be used but need direction.

"Mickey specializes in ventilator patients so can be very helpful with acute care patients. If you could have someone contact him and let him know if he can be of service, he would appreciate it. Know you are busy but they really want to help."

Melancon said Brown didn't respond for four days, when he forwarded the original e-mail to FEMA Deputy Chief of Staff Brooks Altshuler and Deputy Director of Response Michael Lowder.

The text of Brown's e-mail to them read: "Can we use these people?"

Melancon also charged that few of the e-mails from Brown show him assigning specific tasks to employees or responding to pressing problems.

On September 1, FEMA officials exchanged e-mails reporting severe shortages of ice and water in Mississippi. They were to receive 60 trucks of ice and 26 trucks of water the next day, even though they needed 450 trucks of each.

Robert Fenton, a FEMA regional response official, predicted "serious riots" if insufficient supplies arrive.

Brown was forwarded the series of e-mails about the problem, but no response from him is shown in the e-mails provided to the committee, Melancon said.

Katrina came ashore along the Louisiana-Mississippi state line, after being downgraded from a Category 5 to a Category 4 storm. It flooded 80 percent of New Orleans. It was followed about a month later by Hurricane Rita, which caused more damage and flooding.

Melancon and several other Democrats from districts directly affected by Katrina were invited to participate as a ex-officio members of the Katrina investigative committee, though they have no formal role. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi refused to appoint any Democrats to the panel after GOP leaders rebuffed Democratic demands for an independent probe.

This is the second time a congressional committee had dealt with e-mails relating to FEMA's Katrina response. A complete transcript of Brown's e-mail traffic during the Katrina crisis has not been released by the Department of Homeland Security.

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