He learned his lessons, and now they’re for sale.
Ousted FEMA director Michael Brown, who was vilified over his handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, plans to make a fresh start in Colorado, selling his expertise about how emergency planning can go right or so very wrong.
“You have to do it with candor. To do it otherwise gives you no credibility,” Brown said Wednesday. “I think people are curious: ‘My gosh, what was it like? The media just really beat you up. You made mistakes. I don’t want to be in that situation. How do I avoid that?’ ”
In an interview with the Rocky Mountain News, Brown acknowledged key mistakes he made while overseeing the federal response to the hurricane that ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi. He also lashed out at the media and discussed plans to base his fledgling consulting business in the Boulder-Longmont area of Colorado, where he lived before joining the Bush Administration in 2001.
“Look, Hurricane Katrina showed how bad disasters can be, and there’s an incredible need for individuals and businesses to understand how important preparedness is,” he said. “So if I can help people focus on preparedness, how to be better prepared in their homes and better prepared in their businesses _ because that goes straight to the bottom line _ then I hope I can help the country in some way.”
Brown went from a little-known political appointee to national lightning rod status just days after Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 29. Over the next several days, national television viewers were outraged by images of evacuees still waiting to be rescued or suffering in over-crowded shelters.
Although some congressional critics pointed the finger at state and local officials for failing to order mandatory evacuations soon enough, Brown took the heaviest fire over the federal response. Critics seized on his appearance on ABC News’ Nightline program, when he implied that he was unaware of hundreds of people suffering without federal help at an overcrowded New Orleans convention center.
“Don’t you guys watch television?” host Ted Koppel asked pointedly.
Brown said he had simply misspoken, but that he never was able to recover public confidence.
“That was a mistake. That was a real tipping point for me because I hadn’t slept. I misspoke,” Brown said. “People were seeing pictures of these people in the convention center that FEMA had learned about 24 hours before that. When I said, ‘We just learned about that,’ people misinterpreted that as, ‘You mean this has been going on for 24 hours and you don’t know about it?’ ”
The lesson, he said, is that sometimes leaders need to “take inventory” of everything that’s going on, “so that you give the absolute correct message to the media, because the media can’t be trusted to, one, always get the message correct, and then when you yourself give the incorrect message, that just exacerbates the whole communications problem.”
Brown, a lawyer, was lampooned for the scant emergency management experience he had before early 2001, when his friend, former FEMA director Joe Allbaugh, brought him to the agency as general counsel.
Critics portrayed him as the ultimate political crony, since his emergency experience was brief, as a low-level government employee and city councilman, in Edmond, Okla., and he had more recently spent a decade as commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, based in Colorado.
As FEMA counsel, he played a role in the response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was promoted to deputy director and later replaced Allbaugh in the top job. He describes that advancement as “the American Way.”
By the time Katrina hit, he said, he had handled more than 160 disasters, including four hurricanes in Florida.
“You come in, and you work your way up through an organization,” he said. “You learn the organization. You gain your experience.”
He compared his ascension at FEMA to a classic rags-to-riches story: “How many people come into a company in the mail room and work their way up to become president of the company?” he said.
Brown said criticism comes with the territory for any public official. The irony is that he was just days away from resigning his job before Katrina struck.
“The original plan was to be gone before the start of hurricane season,” he said. “It couldn’t quite get done in time, and so . . . my leaving was delayed slightly. And the rest is history.”
He said that he and his wife, Tamara, have put their Virginia house on the market. They plan to move to the Boulder-Longmont area full-time, while he plans to commute back and forth to a second office and apartment in Washington.
“I’m moving on with my life,” he said. “I’m doing a lot of good work with some great clients. . . . My wife, children, and my grandchild still love me. My parents are still proud of me.
“I had a very close friend to me come up and say that, ‘You’ll be judged by how you handle and how you react to this,’ ” he said. “I came out with a couple of goals in mind, to tell the truth, to admit to the mistakes that were made. . . . If people want to take shots at me, fine, but let’s figure out a way to make this thing work better next time.”
(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer at SprengelmeyerM(at)SHNS.com)