Politics

After Katrina, Disgraced Former FEMA Director Continued Disaster Aid. It Didn’t Go Well.

CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Former FEMA Director Michael Brown testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about the failures of the government response to Hurricane Katrina, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Feb. 10, 2006.

Michael D. Brown sounded incredulous. I had just asked him about how his life was going now, and he said it was going well. I said I was glad.

“No you’re not. You think I’m an idiot,” he countered. “That I was the total screw-up.”

A lot of people do think Brown is a screw-up. He’s the guy at the center of that infamous quote from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

If you don’t remember it, it was said 10 years ago this week by President George W. Bush, a few days after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. At the time, “Brownie” was the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and his reputation in the media was that he wasn’t doing a “heck of a job” at all. In fact, he was facing serious criticism for his handling of the federal government’s response. One notable failure was a $100 million stockpile of ice that never got delivered, ordered by FEMA for stranded victims’ food and medicine. The agency’s former practice of delivering ice for non-medical purposes during emergencies is one that Brown strongly opposes today.

“It was a program where we spent tens of millions dollars a year on ice! That’s a waste of money,” he said. “It’s not a government responsibility to make sure an individual American citizen is able to keep their bologna cold in the refrigerator.”

Brown resigned as FEMA’s director shortly after the “Brownie” quote hit the press. But he remained adamant that his reputation had been unfairly tarnished, as he does to this day. On our phone call, Brown said the the perception that he’s a “total screw-up” is incorrect. “We actually did a good job despite all the negative press, considering everything that was going on,” he insisted.

“Did I make mistakes? Of course,” he said. “Has everybody? You bet.”

Whether Brown deserved the intense criticism he faced is a question that’s been beaten nearly to death by media reports over the years. But what’s rarely been explored is what happened to him in the 10 years since. Soon after the storm, Brown did something many considered surprising — he decided to continue emergency management work, as a consultant. A 2006 New York Times profile of Brown and his foray into disaster aid consulting mentioned two projects — a consulting job with a company called OnScreen Technologies, and an unpaid position helping St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, secure federal grants for its cleanup effort. Neither panned out successfully.

“He was supposed to do work here [in St. Bernard], but the Parish council at the time decided that they didn’t want to do anything with him, because of his reputation,” said Henry Junior Rodriguez, the president of St. Bernard Parish at the time. “He offered to help us, and the council just, at the time, didn’t think it was appropriate.”

As for OnScreen, Brown had been working with the company on a product called RediAlert, a portable, LED sign for emergencies. The product was intended for first responders, who could use the battery-powered sign to deploy emergency messages in remote locations. It had a perforated face, so relatively high winds could blow through it and not damage it.

OnScreen announced that Brown would join the company to build awareness for RediAlert in an April 2006 press release. But Michael Kline, who worked for a company called Accord Industries and marketed RediAlert, recalls meeting Brown and briefly discussing the product much earlier, at a trade show in Orlando a few months after Katrina.

“He had just been fired,” Kline said. “When I met him, people were on their way to Texas to be temporarily housed while they fixed the levies. There were still places underwater when I met him.”

The plan, Kline said, was for RediAlert to be a national product, but it just never took off. Kline doesn’t blame Brown. “It never quite caught on,” he said.

Brown, for his part, admitted that some of the products he worked on fizzled. “There were failures,” he said. “[RediAlert] was an example of someone who thought they had built a better mousetrap, but the marketplace wasn’t there for it.” He noted that one of the companies for which he served on the board of directors went through bankruptcy during his time with them. “I picked up a few clients, and they paid good money,” he said of his post-Katrina consulting career. “But I gotta tell you, I just didn’t enjoy it. It was not fun.”

What eventually brought Brown out of consulting was talk radio. Brown said around the time he and his wife moved back to Colorado to start his business, he was invited to fill in on a Saturday program for iHeartMedia, a San Antonio-based radio network that boasts more than 850 stations nationwide. Brown said that eventually turned into a bigger evening show, which led to an even bigger afternoon drive-time show. Now he offers controversial opinions on topics like global warming (“I doubt whether man has much impact“) and Black Lives Matter (“absolute dip-wads“). It’s turned out to be an interesting choice, considering that in his interview with ThinkProgress he slammed the “echo chambers” of media today.

“If there’s one thing I do, it’s trying to convince my listeners to become discerning consumers of news,” he said. “Don’t just read National Review.”

He also still appears occasionally on television news shows to talk about emergency management. This year on Fox News, for example, he railed against a new FEMA policy that requires states to include consideration of climate change in their disaster mitigation plans. He said he also delivers about four speeches per year on the topic. And with a Bush running in 2016 again, it’s hard not to make him part of the election. Brown recently appeared in a campaign video for Jeb Bush, which touts the presidential candidate as a competent and trustworthy leader in hurricane relief.

Now he seems to have found his true calling in punditry. “Having been through what I’ve been through, I wasn’t going to waste anymore time with stuff I didn’t like,” he said. “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life in a job that I just don’t enjoy.”

Talking about his first appearance on radio, he beamed. “It was very fortunate that the radio gods loved what I was doing, and I loved what I was doing on the radio. And now it’s a small, syndicated program that I make good money at and I love doing it.”

“Katrina gave me a great opportunity to reinvent myself. And I’ve done that,” he said. “Katrina probably made me a little more adamant. I frankly don’t care what people think, because I know what I did, how I did it, and I know the mistakes I made. I’ve owned up to those mistakes.”