Michael DeWayne Brown: Facing Blame in a DisasterBy SCOTT SHANE
WASHINGTON, Sept. 6 - Speaking at a Florida university last year, Michael D. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, recalled his small-town Oklahoma upbringing and offered advice he said few graduation speakers would offer.
"Everything in life is not perfect," Mr. Brown said. "Expect to make those mistakes. Expect to fall down every now and then. And expect to occasionally fail at something."
Mr. Brown may be calling on those maxims himself today, in his second week as on-the-ground manager of the largest disaster response in American history. He has faced two simultaneous challenges - coordinating 14 federal agencies with state and local counterparts under grueling conditions, and fending off criticism from those who say that FEMA has failed and put the blame squarely on him.
By all accounts, it was not experience in managing disasters that brought Mr. Brown, 50, a lawyer from Oklahoma, to FEMA in 2001 as general counsel. It was his 30-year friendship with Joe M. Allbaugh, who managed President Bush's 2000 presidential campaign and became his first director of the emergency agency..
But when pressed yet again to give his qualifications at a news conference on Monday, Mr. Brown gave a practiced answer, running through his learning curve as general counsel, then deputy director and finally, since 2003, director of FEMA.
He has overseen the response to 164 presidentially declared disasters, he said, including California wildfires, a rash of tornadoes in the Midwest several years ago and the four Florida hurricanes last year. "So, yes," he said, "I've been through a few disasters in my life."
Mr. Brown's spokeswoman, Natalie Rule, added on Tuesday that he oversaw an agency with a lot of experience in disaster management. "What you need is what he is - a leader who can manage budget, personnel and policy."
Nonetheless, Mr. Brown has been a hands-on manager, trudging through each new scene of devastation dispensing aid and encouragement. Since Hurricane Katrina, he has been a constant presence on television, rattling off statistics on people rescued and meals delivered.
But he stunned several national television interviewers last week with the admission that he did not know about the 20,000 evacuees at the convention center in New Orleans until Thursday, 24 hours after it was featured in news reports.
Senator Mary L. Landrieu offered a devastating critique on Friday in Baton Rouge. "I have been telling him from the moment he arrived about the urgency of the situation," she said. "I just have to tell you that he had a difficult time understanding the enormity of the task before us."
Since then, the news for Mr. Brown has not gotten better. The Times-Picayune, Louisiana's largest newspaper, asked Mr. Bush in an open letter to clean house at FEMA, calling "especially" for the ouster of Mr. Brown. On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff placed the Coast Guard's chief of staff, Vice Admiral Thad W. Allen, in charge of the New Orleans relief effort, clearly a move to beef up management where the problems have been most severe. And on Tuesday, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, in calling for FEMA to be made a separate cabinet-level agency, said its director should have emergency management experience.
Mr. Brown's friends say they have cringed watching the criticism of a man they describe as compassionate and dedicated to difficult work.
Mary Ann Karns, who worked as city attorney in Edmond, Okla., in the 1970's when Mr. Brown was her assistant, said, "He was interested in politics not for glory and not for power, but because he wanted to make things better for people."
Michael DeWayne Brown was born on Nov. 11, 1954 in Guymon, Okla. He and his wife, Tamara, have two grown children, Jared and Amy. His friends say he is an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hiker and fly fisherman, and a collector of antique maps of the West.
In addition to his brief experience as a city official, Mr. Brown has practiced law, worked for the Oklahoma State Senate and served as counsel to an insurance company. He lost a race for Congress in 1988. But the job he did for a decade before joining FEMA is curiously omitted from his online agency résumé.
From 1991 to 2001, as commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, Mr. Brown enforced the rules administered by judges at the association's 300 annual horse shows. His decisions provoked a number of lawsuits, including one from David Boggs, a trainer whom Mr. Brown accused of having cosmetic surgery performed on horses.
Mr. Brown's critics in the horse world say he was forced to resign in January 2001 because association officers were upset that he had accepted donations to a personal legal defense fund. But Andy Lester, a friend of Mr. Brown's and his lawyer, said that his departure was "negotiated" and that there was no wrongdoing.
An ethics review panel upheld the charges against Mr. Boggs and suspended him for five years.
Mr. Lester said that Mr. Brown showed backbone in pursuing the charges despite the controversy that erupted in the horse industry.
"He did not fold under pressure," Mr. Lester said. By 2001, Mr. Brown was tired of the uproar and was ready to move on, said Tom Connelly, the president of the horse association at the time. He had often spoken of the possibility of a Washington job should Mr. Bush become president, Mr. Connelly recalled.
"What has surprised me is that he rose to the position he has now so quickly," Mr. Connelly said. "But when he started with the association, he didn't know horses. And he caught up in a hurry."