By LARA JAKES JORDAN
Top White House officials were warned that Hurricane Katrina would be "our worst nightmare" the day the storm roared ashore, former federal disaster chief Michael Brown says.
An assertive Brown told senators Friday that he described levee failures and massive flooding last Aug. 29 to chief of staff Andrew Card, deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin and others in the White House.
He said the Homeland Security Department was among a half-dozen government agencies that received regular briefings that day from him and other officials by way of video conference calls.
Administration officials have said they did not realize the severe damage Katrina had caused until after the storm had passed. But under oath, Brown told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee he could not explain why his appeals failed to produce a faster response.
"I expected them to cut every piece of red tape, do everything they could … that I didn’t want to hear anybody say that we couldn’t do everything they humanly could to respond to this," Brown said about a video conference with administration officials _ in which President Bush briefly participated _ the day before Katrina hit. "Because I knew in my gut this was the bad one."
In the end, the hurricane claimed more than 1,300 lives, uprooted hundreds of thousands more and caused tens of billions of dollars worth of damage in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities.
Brown, in his second Capitol Hill appearance since Katrina, told his side to the senators five months after he quit under fire as chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
He agreed with some senators who characterized him as a scapegoat for government failures.
"I feel somewhat abandoned," Brown said.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has said he did not know that New Orleans’ levees were breached until Aug. 30. Bush at the time said, "I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."
At an occasionally contentious White House briefing Friday, press secretary Scott McClellan said there were conflicting reports about the levees in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
"We knew of the flooding that was going on," McClellan said. "That’s why our top priority was focused on saving lives. … The cause of the flooding was secondary to that top priority and that’s the way it should be."
After three hours of testimony, Brown was handed a subpoena ordering him to reappear in front of a House panel investigating the storm response. He is expected to be questioned by House investigators this weekend _ days before the panel plans to release its findings on the storm.
Recounting conference calls that described initial damage reports the day Katrina hit, Brown scoffed at claims that Homeland Security didn’t know about the devastation’s scope until the next day. He called those claims "just baloney."
Some senators suggested Brown look inward before pointing the finger elsewhere.
"You’re not prepared to put a mirror in front of your face and recognize your own inadequacies," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn. "Perhaps you may get a more sympathetic hearing if you had a willingness to confess your own sins in this."
Brown responded: "That’s very easy for you to say sitting behind that dais and not being there in the middle of that disaster watching that human suffering and watching those people dying and trying to deal with those structural dysfunctionalities, even within the federal government."
The disjointed federal response, Brown said, was in part the result of FEMA being swallowed in 2003 by the newly created Homeland Security Department, which he said was focused on fighting terrorism.
Natural disasters "had become the stepchild of the Department of Homeland Security," he said. Had there been a report that "a terrorist had blown up the 17th Street Canal levee, then everybody would have jumped all over that," he added.
Some senators attempted to trace the failures back to the White House.
"You quite appropriately and admirably wanted to get the word to the president as quickly as you could," Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said in asking about Brown’s conversation with Hagin on the evening of Aug. 29. "Did you tell Mr. Hagin in that phone call that New Orleans was flooding?"
Brown replied, "I think I told him that we were realizing our worst nightmare, that everything we had planned about, worried about, that FEMA, frankly, had worried about for 10 years was coming true."