I’m often asked, as the person who was running FEMA when Hurricane Katrina hit, why I didn’t evacuate New Orleans. My response is simple—FEMA had no authority to do that under the Constitution, which clearly establishes a system of federalism in which state and local governments are autonomous governmental entities. We call first responders “first” for a reason. When you dial 9-1-1 your call isn’t answered by an operator at 500 C Street SW, Washington, D.C., 20472. Your call is answered by a local government entity that has first and primary responsibility for a disaster.
Could FEMA have ordered the evacuation of New Orleans? Yes, had it waived posse comitatus and invoked the Insurrection Act, which Congress ultimately amended in 2006 to permit deployment of troops in response to natural disasters. That unprecedented action was actually contemplated days after landfall aboard Air Force One—and I advocated for it. After I advised the president to federalize the response, he sat with Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Air Force One and outlined his plan. We immediately started drafting the federalization documents for the president’s signature, but Governor Blanco requested time to think it over and the president acquiesced. While the governor considered her options, the city became more and more dysfunctional. Blanco ultimately rejected the president’s plan, and political considerations eventually pushed the idea aside.
So again, FEMA could have evacuated the Ninth Ward but didn't because The Decider passed the buck. So it's really Bush's fault. Or Kathleen Blanco's fault. But there's more!
Prior to Katrina making landfall, I asked then-National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield to forcefully explain on a secure video conference call with Blanco and Nagin the catastrophe they were potentially facing if they failed to evacuate at least two or three days prior to landfall. When that didn’t work, I called President Bush at the ranch and implored him to call Mayor Nagin and encourage him to evacuate his city. The president called; the mayor dallied.
Nagin finally asked people to evacuate on Sunday morning for a storm that hit his city sometime after midnight that night. By that point, Amtrak had left the city with rail cars sans passengers. Airlines had evacuated Louis Armstrong International Airport with planes sans travelers. And school buses sat in their lots, soon to be flooded and ruined. The mayor’s incompetence cost lives.
So now it's Max Mayfield's fault for not convincing Ray Nagin to evacuate when FEMA could have done it but chose not to. Two more people to add to the blameless Brownie's list.
The press was now on the hunt. Who is Michael Brown? Why does he have a nickname? Why is the president so uninformed about what’s really going on in Louisiana?
As the media scrutiny increased, I faced another problem—chain of command. FEMA was part of the alphabet soup of agencies folded into the new Department of Homeland Security under Secretary Tom Ridge. But under the Stafford Act, which created FEMA and governed federal responses to disasters, FEMA’s director is to act “on behalf of the President of the United States.”
So now it's the press's fault. Or Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge's fault. Brownie goes on and on for thousands of words in his screed, not taking a single ounce of responsibility for his massive screwup. Of course, the real secret is everyone Brownie names is partially responsible for the deaths in New Orleans too: Bush, Nagin, Blanco, Mayfield, and more.
But Brown's attempt to absolve himself is comical to the point of being vulgar and repulsive. He's just the man who was so utterly incompetent, he actually ended up being the one to take the blame.