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Former FEMA Director Michael Brown Testifies Before Congress; Rescue from Rita

Aired September 27, 2005 - 11:30   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We are just past the half hour. I'm Daryn Kagan. Here's a look at what's happening now in the news.
Two U.S. service members were killed in separate incidents in Afghanistan. The military says one soldier died in combat yesterday, west of Kandahar, after U.S. and Afghan forces came under attack from small-weapons fire. The second fatality was a Marine who was killed near Asadabad in a similar assault.

The U.S. military says a Marine was killed by an improvised- explosive device in Iraq's Anbar province. It's an area where Marines have been leading a major fight against the insurgency. The deadly attack came over the weekend. The Marine's death brings the number of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq war to 1,921.

Here in the U.S., President Bush makes his seventh trip to the Gulf region, hit by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. On his agenda today, a briefing on oil-industry damage in Beaumont, Texas. He'll also take an aerial tour of Rita-devastated areas, and then meet Louisiana officials in Lake Charles.

On Capitol Hill, the former chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is answering some tough questions. Michael Brown is appearing before a congressional committee, investigating what went wrong in the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Earlier this morning, brown defended his role in responding to the storm, and blamed state and local officials for many of the failures.

Here now, an exchange between Mississippi Congressman Gene Taylor, a Democrat, and Michael Brown.


REP. GENE TAYLOR (D), MISSISSIPPI: What part of the FEMA plan envisioned that the first responders in Hancock County and in much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast would have to loot the local grocery store and loot the local Wal-Mart in order to feed themselves, would have to loot local Wal-Mart in order to have a change of clothes? What part of your plan was that?

MICHAEL BROWN, FMR. FEMA CHIEF: Congressman, I respectfully disagree with the premise of that question.

TAYLOR: No, sir. BROWN: Because there are times, in a disaster, the last thing I'm going to do is to put equipment or manpower in place where they themselves become victims and then cannot assist the people there they're there to assist.


KAGAN: With Rita's water rising, the Marines helped pull people to safety across south Louisiana.

Marine Lieutenant Colonel Grant Bakley is on the phone now from Lafayette, Louisiana.

Colonel, good morning. Thank you for being with us.


KAGAN: You didn't just go to Rita, you and your people were first at Katrina.

BAKLEY: That's correct. We've been down in Louisiana and Mississippi about a month now.

KAGAN: And what was it like to make that transition?

BAKLEY: From Rita...

KAGAN: From Katrina to Rita? Yes.

BAKLEY: We pulled up to Jackson, Mississippi to see where the storm was going to hit. And the day after the storm we got the word to head down to Lafayette, and arrived down there that night, offloaded our stuff, and were out working in Iberia Parish the next morning. So it was pretty quick.

KAGAN: And tell us about some of the rescues you and your people conducted.

BAKLEY: What we did, is we married up with the local sheriff's department there, headed by Sid Hebert, and they had been doing rescues the day before while we were moving down. They had a real good handle on the situation and where they thought people might need help at. We integrated them on some of our tactical vehicles that could hoard more water than what they had, because there was still four, five foot of water in the area, and they when the out with us on our trucks, and we went around the area and looked for people. We ended up pulling about 26 people out of the higher water on to dry land.

KAGAN: You're using these things called amtracks?

BAKLEY: We did not use any amtracks; we used the seven-ton trucks for that. The amtracks were not in place yet. They were on the way down, and we ended up not needing them. Our trucks were able to get everywhere we need to go. KAGAN: And how did the work that you were doing on Katrina compare to what you're doing at Rita?

BAKLEY: With Katrina, we mostly did secondary searches, but the primary had already been done, and we did a lot of municipal cleanup, help them get back on their feet both in Picayune, Mississippi and down in Slidell, Louisiana.

KAGAN: And how long will be you staying in the area?

BAKLEY: We're not sure. As long as we're needed. And then we'll head on home after they're done with us.

KAGAN: All right, we want to thank you for your good work and those working with you as well. Lieutenant Colonel Grant Bakley, thank you for that.

BAKLEY: Thank you.

KAGAN: I want to make a transition right now. Cameron Parish, one of the hardest hit areas by Hurricane Rita, our CNN producer Henry Schuster on the phone with us right now.

Henry, what do you have? Henry, are you with us?

All right, we'll get back to Henry Shuster and see what news he has out of Cameron Parish. We'll do that in a bit.

Right now, I want to turn to one of my colleagues, some journalists comparing the coverage of Hurricane Katrina to war zone reporting. Our Africa correspondent Jeff Koinange knows about both. He was called stateside to report on the flooded frontlines of New Orleans.

Good morning.


KAGAN: Good to see you here in the States and good to see you dry. It was a tough one; it was really tough, something completely unexpected.

KAGAN: Were new Africa when you got the call?

KOINANGE: I was actually on vacation here in North Carolina, went to visit my brother, and I got the call, and they said, hey, we hear you're in town. How soon can you make it to Atlanta. I said, what's going on? They said, New Orleans, go. Got here, next day I was on a plane. We made our way finally eventually through Houston, Baton Rogue into New Orleans. And what a sight. Airport was a triage area. Airport was completely closed. Helicopters were circling up and down. And then we finally hit the city, when down Convention Boulevard, boom, right there, just like a giant African refugee camp.

KAGAN: That's what you thought, you were back home. KOINANGE: Correct. I could have been anywhere else but here. It was unbelievable scenes. And people yelling and screaming, we want help, we want help, help us out. It was terrible, terrible.

KAGAN: And to put in perspective of the kind of stories you're usually covering, I think people remember you from Liberia and the ultimate chaos there.

KOINANGE: Correct. Bullets whizzing buy and then people in refugee camps, blue tents, everywhere United Nations on the ground. This seemed very much like that, except there were no blue tents or United Nations troops. It was the National Guard, which made it even scarier, because the had big weapons, huge APCs in the streets. It was very intimidating.

KAGAN: I want you to stay with me a second here. You know how this works, we're fluid. As things come in, we put them on the air. I think we have Henry Shuster, our colleague, who's in Cameron Parish on the phone right now.

Henry, what do you have for us?


I'm in the town of Cameron, which was probably the hardest hit by the hurricane. Behind me a Navy battalion of helicopters. (INAUDIBLE). And there's very little left of downtown (INAUDIBLE). So we're down here, it's passable now, but the city, most of what we're seeing is complete devastation, cars still underwater in some places, houses completely flattened; at one point I saw a tree that had been completely uprooted and went through a house like a spear. In front of me, businesses, a church, they're all just destroyed.

The town is -- the town was evacuated successfully, and now what they're down here trying to do is they're hoping that they can begin the Cameron Parish government to get -- to be brought back up. They're working at the courthouse. The Army is flying in. The Navy is flying in. They're bringing in some help. But it's going to be a long road. This is a place where at least 80 percent of the homes have been destroyed, not just damaged, but destroyed.

KAGAN: Like nothing there, is the pictures that we're seeing, Henry.

KOINANGE: Yes. Almost like nothing there. There are a few -- I see a couple of businesses here downtown that are left standing. But I was driving down with a state trooper. And he said, I just can't tell where I am because none of the landmarks are here.

KAGAN: Are people trying to get back, or is that even possible at this point?

KOINANGE: No, it's not possible. And the road down here has been blocked off to all civilian traffic. They've set up -- at the northern end of Cameron Parish, they've set up a headquarters. That's temporarily where the county government is working from. And by that we mean the sheriff and the parish chief are basically up their with cell phones, coming down here.

About the only building left standing in the town of Cameron is the courthouse. Water went 15 feet up in the courthouse, so it's receded some. They're trying to go through today some of the records in the town, to see if anything's left, to see if any of the government is left. Their plan is to bring about 200 people down here and just set up a camp and basically start from there and start cleaning out the town, seeing if they can get the government up and running, and then eventually they'll start letting people back in.

But as you'll see, as I was driving down here, power poles leaning over, some across the road. It could be weeks before they get electricity here.

KAGAN: Is the sentiment down there that people want to rebuild?

SCHUSTER: Yes. You know, we got here two days ago and the parish president was talking about rebuilding. He said, we're going to start rebuilding tomorrow. I think that was optimistic. I think it's recovery at this point.

But the sentiment is, yes, they want to return here. Some of them talk about -- they've flown over their homes, they've visited their homes, all that are left are slabs now, but they seem committed to returning here.

KAGAN: Henry Schuster, on the phone from Cameron Parish, Louisiana. Thank you for the latest from there.

Want to go back to Jeff Koinage, who was here with us. Usually our Africa correspondent, turned into our New Orleans correspondent in the wake of Katrina. As I was watching your coverage, which was excellent, by the way, and what you -- the feelings you brought from there and the images, I was wondering, had you ever been to New Orleans?

KOINANGE: Once, 13 years ago, Mardi Gras in 1992. So I remember Bourbon Street and Canal Street. Basically, that was it.

KAGAN: So you got to see it at its best?


KAGAN: Or it's most lively.

KOINANGE: Yes, absolutely. And then, you're right, it seemed like someone had dropped an atomic bomb in that place. There were no people. Houses were halfway down the street. Cars flipped over. It was so -- it was like a ghosttown, it was so eerie at times. And so sad to see New Orleans in that way. So, so sad. Because people kept telling us, the spirit of New Orleans, oh, we are a party town, we love to have a good time. And there was nobody, nothing. Just journalists and law enforcement and military. It was unbelievable.

KAGAN: Well, there are many who are committed to the idea that that city will party once again. So you're heading back to Africa? KOINANGE: That's right. Back to base.

KAGAN: You keep trying to move from Nigeria to South Africa...

KOINANGE: Absolutely.

KAGAN: ... but we're not making that easy for you.

KOINANGE: We'll get there eventually.

KAGAN: Eventually. OK, Jeff Koinange, thank you so much.

KOINANGE: Thank you, Daryn.

KAGAN: And safe travels back to Africa.

KOINANGE: You bet.

KAGAN: Coming up next, the U.S. military says he was the number two al Qaeda man in Iraq. Now there are new details about his fate. That story, just ahead.


KAGAN: Back live now in Washington, D.C. This is Republican Christopher Shays of Connecticut, questioning former FEMA leader Michael Brown. Let's listen in.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS, (R), CONNECTICUT: ...I did listen to that -- and you were very clear that your job is to coordinate. I want to know how you coordinated the evacuation.

BROWN: By urging the governor and the mayor to order the mandatory evacuation.

SHAYS: And that's coordinating?

BROWN: What would you like for me to do, Congressman?

SHAYS: And that's why I'm happy you left, because that kind of, you know, look in the lights like a deer tells me that you weren't capable to do the job. I would have liked you to do...

BROWN: I take great umbrage to that comment, Congressman.


BROWN: Because FEMA -- what people are missing is in this entire conversation is the fact that FEMA did more in Hurricane Katrina than it did in Charlie in Florida and the others. SHAYS: Why is that relevant?

We moved all of those in there. We did all of those things. And things were working in Mississippi and things were working in Alabama.

SHAYS: But, see, why I don't... BROWN: So I guess you want me to be this superhero that is going to step in there and suddenly take everybody out of New Orleans.

SHAYS: No, what I wanted you to do was do your job of coordinating. And I want to know what you did to coordinate. Those are your words, sir. I didn't...

BROWN: And coordinating is talking to the governor and the mayor, and encouraging them to do their obligation to their citizens. I am not a dictator and I am not going and cannot go in there and force them to do that.

SHAYS: See, what I think that is is just talk; that's not coordinating.

Were you in contact with the military?

BROWN: Yes. We were making contacts with the military on Saturday and Sunday.

SHAYS: Well, then tell me how you coordinated it.

DAVIS: Will the gentleman yield for just a second?

Let me ask you, to try to get to this, did you get all the assets that you requested from the Department of Homeland Security and from the White House? Were they timely in giving you everything you needed?


DAVIS: So you got everything you asked for?

BROWN: Yes. We were getting what we needed. We were getting what we needed to coordinate.

I think the question, Mr. Chairman, is: Did we have enough? And it goes back to the communication.

DAVIS: This is the federal government. This is the federal government. I mean, you have enough. If you didn't ask for it, they didn't give it to you.

BROWN: For example, the MERS units, the communications equipment -- FEMA does not have enough of the MERS units to, as Congressman Taylor said, put one of those in every county.

SHAYS: Mr. Brown, the last thing I sincerely want is you to be the scapegoat for failures in all levels. And I think that Mr. Rogers has made it clear the responsibility of the local and state and how they blew it big-time.

But where I'm having the problem is, I want to -- and I won't pursue it now; there will be lots more questions -- but sometime during the course of this hearing you've got to tell us what coordinating really means. Because I do believe that's your task. And I don't think you did it. I think really what you have told me is that you talked to the mayor and the governor. And that's how I'm left with the response to the question I've asked.

BROWN: But coordinating is not applicable to evacuation. Coordinating is applicable to finding out a state, "What are the resources that you need? And let us go get you those resources."

They had the resources to evacuate.

SHAYS: But, Mr. Brown, let me just conclude by saying I totally disagree with you. I think it's pretty astonishing that you said you didn't have the resources necessary to do your job and then to describe coordination in such a feeble way.

The whole reason why I think you're there is to take command of coordinating, working with, not just complaining about, what other people are doing.

BROWN: I would encourage you, Congressman Shays, to go back and read in my written statement the whole concept of emergency management in this country.

Because what you're doing is driving toward a policy debate about what the role of the federal government is. And that's the difference between coordinating and actually doing it, between coordinating and federalizing, between coordinating and coming in and doing the job for the state and locals. And I think you're using the coordination role, in the context of the evacuation, totally inaccurately.

SHAYS: Let me just reiterate again, you testified, here under oath, that everything you got from the federal government -- everything you asked for, you got in a timely manner?

BROWN: I can't, I cannot say under oath, Mr. Chairman, that we got everything...

SHAYS: Well, you are under oath. OK. I'm trying to just get the...

BROWN: ... in a timely manner.


BROWN: And that's what I said at the beginning: We made these mission assignments to the Department of Defense. What I cannot tell you today is, of these mission assignments, which ones were they actually able to fill in the timeline that we requested. And there may be differences, sometimes 24 hours, there might be differences of a couple of days. Those are the kinds of things that I have not yet had a chance to delve into.

SHAYS: OK. So you can't sit here and say that everything that you asked for from the Department of Homeland Security, from the White House, from the Defense Department, that you got in a timely manner. BROWN: That's correct.

SHAYS: Do you suspect maybe it all didn't come in a timely manner, for various reasons?

BROWN: Obviously, some of it didn't...

SHAYS: That's not what I understood you to say earlier. So, thank you very much.

DAVIS: Mr. Bonilla?

BONILLA: Thank you, Chairman.

Mr. Brown, regardless of what you actually did on the ground or while you were here in Washington before you were able to get to Louisiana, there's an overwhelming perception in this country that the people, the leadership in New Orleans, that the leadership at the state level and FEMA, were all operating as the Keystone Kops. And we want to get to the bottom of what was actually going on there.

So I'm delighted that you're here today and that you're going over the facts and what actually led to the fiasco that America watched on television.

Mr. Brown, one of the problems was that the country did not perceive that the White House was focused on this. Whether they were or were not, the perception was that there was not a focus at the highest level.

At what point do you think the White House became focused on the fact that a disaster was looming in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast?

BROWN: Oh, they were aware of that by Thursday or Friday, because Andy Card and I were communicating at that point about -- in fact, I remember saying to Andy at one point that this was going to be a bad one. They were focused about it. They knew it.

BONILLA: Some of the images that America watched on television early in the week, the president was speaking on an unrelated matter in a different part of the country, and I think he was on television with some musician. So as this storm was looming, there was not, again, out there an understanding that there was a focus at the highest level on what needed to be done to save these people.

And if, in fact, there was a failure at the local level, as the mayor of New Orleans or as the governor of Louisiana, that perhaps there could have been a message that came from the president directly to get out of town because there was a disaster on the horizon.

In hindsight, would you have wanted that? Would you have thought that would have been helpful?

BROWN: Well, that's precisely what I talked to the president about on Sunday, yes. In hindsight, I should have done it on Saturday.

BONILLA: Also, on Thursday of that week, on the 1st, there was one of the factors that led to the American public believing that you did not...

KAGAN: Things have been heating up in Washington, D.C., this House Committee talking to former FEMA director Michael Brown, a very heated exchange between Republican Christopher Shays of Connecticut just a few minutes ago and Mr. Brown.

Christopher Shays coming out and saying flatly he is glad that Michael Brown is no longer the head of FEMA, because he doesn't think that he had the ability to coordinate, which is the role of the director of FEMA.

Much more ahead as we listen in from Washington D.C. We're back after this break.



KAGAN: Critics of the former head of FEMA say he only got his job because of his political connections, not his qualifications. But is Michael Brown only a symptom of a pervasive problem in Washington?

Up next, I'll speak with a "Time" magazine reporter who went in search of political payouts. We'll tell you what he uncovered.



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